Can you give us an overview of the legal team at Sealord and how you support the work of the business?

While Sealord will be best known to readers for our frozen and canned seafood products in New Zealand, we actually export the majority of our catch and have significant operations in various countries, including aquaculture businesses in Australia. The legal team consists of two, the General Counsel (Tim) and Legal Counsel (Anna). We are also responsible for a number of other areas, including insurance and risk. The General Counsel performs the role of company secretary and is also the General Manager Corporate Affairs. Tim has been with Sealord for 10 years, while Anna joined earlier this year, not long before COVID-19 lockdown. Our work covers all aspects of Sealord’s operations, including overseas.

What have been your most recent challenges as an organisation and how did the legal team help resolve them?

Unsurprisingly, many of recent (and continuing) major challenges have been related to COVID-19. Prior to COVID-19 spreading to New Zealand, the impact was largely around sales to China and associated supply chain issues as ports closed in China for a period. Sealord, as a primary industry food producer, was in the privileged position of being able to operate during lockdown. The focus at that time was on the safety of our people and the continuity of business operations. Going forward, the main issues will be around export sales as COVID-19 restrictions continue around the world, and access to foreign workers where there are roles unable to be filled with New Zealanders. 

As a legal team we provided legal advice and business continuity support to the organisation as individual departments worked out how to safely and effectively operate in the “new normal”. For some parts of the business it was almost business-as-usual, but from home. For others, such as in our factories and on our vessels, major changes were required to ensure the safety of our employees and operations. They were often challenging times for those on the ground, and the support we gave was not limited to legal advice. Sometimes we were simply a sounding board. Another time the opportunity was taken to combine work and exercise by cycling to urgently get original documents signed by the CEO and CFO during level 3 lockdown (ensuring social distancing of course!) when logistically it would not have been possible to use a courier.

On a more positive note, Sealord acquired the other half of its Tasmanian salmon and ocean trout producing joint venture, Petuna Aquaculture, in February. Growing the salmon business forms a key part of Sealord’s strategy, so the successful integration of that business into the wider Sealord Group will be very important going forward.

What do you do to enhance the influence of the in-house legal function across the organisation?

To gain trust and build influence across the business good communication is fundamental, not only in terms of being clear about what you are going to do and by when (and keeping to your commitments), but also in terms of adapting communications to the social style of the recipient. For example, it’s crucial to know which people like more or less detail (usually less…) and who prefers phone calls or emails etc. Taking an interest in colleagues, and getting to know them and demonstrating an understanding of what they need, is also important so we are seen as a part of the team rather “someone from corporate” who stops or delays them from doing things.  Don’t forget to consider the pressures that colleagues may be under at certain times (COVID-19 being a good example) and factor this into how we interact with them.

It is probably trite, but it is vital for the legal team to really understand the business and how the different parts of it fit together.  This provides the team with a good platform to provide much more insightful and useful advice to colleagues and to assist ensuring the appropriate level of risk is being taken on by company. Legal is in a unique position in that we are exposed to lots of different parts of the business, which provides the opportunity to provide meaningful commercial or strategic input beyond simply providing technical legal advice. It also means that the legal team is well positioned to facilitate collaboration between different parts of the business.

How do you see the role of the modern in-house lawyer changing in practice?

The role and scope of legal teams appears to be expanding. For example, legal teams are getting involved more and more with other parts of the business, such as corporate affairs and risk. To what extent will of course depend on the size of the organisation, the industry in which it operates and whether it has the resources or need for specialised teams.  Irrespective of formal responsibilities, in-house teams will continue to be seen less as purely a source for legal advice, but rather a go to place for general advice and counsel. Increasingly we are asked for advice and opinions which are not legal advice. While it is great to have the opportunity to make a broader contribution, in-house counsel should of be mindful around what is legal advice (and subject to legal privilege) and what is not. 

As with other parts of businesses, especially in a post COVID-19 world, there will continue to be cost pressures on legal teams and the requirement to do more, with less. This will likely lead to more and more innovation in the in-house legal space, whether that’s new technologies or different ways of working. While it is not something that we at Sealord have actively looked at given the size of the team and how we work, we suspect that legal operations will become more common, especially for larger teams and organisations.

Are there any changes or new technologies you planning to roll out in the next 12 months?

Over the years we have introduced a number of new technologies, including Diligent for board papers and automating our legal compliance reporting and contract sign-off processes. The legal team would like to roll out a matter/contract management system in the next 12 months. However, given the competing priorities of the IT team, and the focus (which is totally understandable) on projects which support, for example, optimised operations and revenue growth, means that we will likely need to wait a bit longer for this. In the meantime, we will make the most of our existing systems.