Can you give us an overview of the legal function operating model at the New Zealand Transport Agency and how it supports the work of the organisation?

We think of our business colleagues as partners. Our philosophy is that we can add the most value when we engage early on issues/projects and when we understand the outcomes that the organisation is trying to achieve. We want to be the people who help our colleagues find options that work upfront, not the people who point out all the problems at the end once they’ve got their heart set on a preferred way forward. But for this to work, we need our colleagues to want to engage us early. So we relentlessly focus on providing advice that gives solutions, is practical, is easy to read and shows we understand the business. They need to know that we’ll only pull out the “red flag” card as a last resort.     

We’re deliberately resourced as a senior team so that we can focus on the work that’s strategically important to the business. The team of 26 is organised into specialist areas, each headed by a General Counsel, but the specialist teams work collaboratively as there’s a lot of cross-over with the work we do. We generally outsource for overflow, when specialist expertise is needed or when it’s work that can be commoditised (lower level, repeatable work). 

What do you see as your key challenges and how do you plan to address these?

The breadth of what the Transport Agency does is pretty crazy – from building state highways, to funding regional transport, to being a regulator, to processing your driver licence application – and everything in between. And being a Crown Entity, it’s a pretty dynamic place – you need to be able to pivot constantly. So we need to be constantly anticipating what’s coming down the line, and working out how best to resource ourselves to support that. 

Until last year, people across the business could engage law firms directly.  Now all requests for legal work come through the Legal Team. We’re still learning about the full scope of the legal work (including what’s not legal work!), working out how we can be innovative in the way work is done, what we focus on and what we outsource. It’s a steep learning curve. While there was initially some resistance to everything coming through the in-house team, the challenge now is that they want us to help with more! 

There’s barely a day that goes by when we’re not mentioned in the news (good and bad), and we don’t shy from this. There’s high interest in what we’re doing because the decisions we make literally affect the lives of the whole country. We get it, it matters.

We manage by being really clear about what we can control and being realistic about the public interest and scrutiny in a crown entity. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about our foundations and who we are as a team, so no matter what is going on around us we’ve got a solid foundation to come back to – we’re very clear on what we’re here to do and how we do it.

What led you to establish a new legal operations role in the legal team?

Like a lot of legal teams we want to embrace innovative legal technology. We want our lawyers to be able to work smarter. We took on a legal operations manager to look at ways we can better manage some of our processes such as matter and knowledge management, and how we analyse our data to improve our performance. We also wanted to ensure that we had a really good handle on our external legal spend, always striving to be efficient and effective, as well as ensuring that we’re getting value for money.

We looked beyond having legal experience as we wanted someone who could help us develop a great culture as well. We ended up recruiting someone with an internal communications and marketing background who had all the necessary technical capability but also had the right personality to help us with the soft stuff. Someone who thrives on systems, processes and stakeholder management but can also convince a bunch of lawyers to sing a Christmas carol out loud in the office!

The role is a work in progress, so we’d love to hear from any other legal operations people out there as we have a curious growth mindset and we’re keen to find out what works for other companies, particularly within the government.

Editor’s Note – the title of this role is worth noting as Kaiwhakahaere Rauemi Ture (Legal Operations Manager)

What are the skills and attributes you look for when recruiting new lawyers for NZTA?

We work in an organisation that has been dealing with a number of crises as well as undergoing a large transformation, and that can impact people’s morale and ability to get the job done quickly. So, we look for people know it might be messy as hell but love every minute of it.

It’s not just about the technical skills because that’s a given in the sense that it can be learned. We look for high EQ, people who communicate clearly and simply, have a real thirst for learning and an ability to connect with people easily. The ability to listen – often beyond what’s being said – is critical. As is being able to remain objective.

We’ve currently got real diversity of working styles and skills which has worked well as we got the team in place without being able to think and plan what was coming.

With many new recruits we’ve had to spend a bit of time getting to know each other - which is a challenge when we’re spread across 5 different locations.  We have regular full team meetings using video and we’ve embraced Office 365, in particular Teams which we use to stay connected. We like a good laugh no matter where we are located - we’re big on oversharing and animated gifs!     

I’m chuffed at how the team has come together. The real joy for me is hearing the constant banter, laughter and collaboration – all of which is so important when there’s some really big stuff going on around us.