Transpower Legal team (not pictured): Chris Birkinshaw; Rochelle Furneaux; Jo Moore; Lisa Barton; Susan Allen (Auckland office), Dan Twigg, David Knight.

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

Our team has eight team members, including the General Counsel & Company Secretary. We support the Board, the senior executive team and the operational and business support teams with their daily legal needs which are appropriately handled in-house. These services range across commercial contracting, IT, HR, corporate governance, regulatory matters (we have two regulators – the Commerce Commission and the Electricity Authority), litigation (thankfully, not a large volume of that work, though we get involved in some gnarly issues), property and financial. 

Most of Transpower’s field operations – building and maintaining the national grid - are contracted to third parties, so our service contracts are substantial and complex, as you can imagine for a business of around $900 million in revenue and more than $6 billion in assets spread across the length and breadth of New Zealand (we have assets in nearly every territorial jurisdiction). Our IT services include a national SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) system which collects data about grid operations from thousands of assets and data points around the country as well as a market dispatch system with which our control centres run the New Zealand power system – organising what electricity generation needs to be running to keep lights on across the country. Unsurprisingly, this requires high value, very complex IT infrastructure, much of which is supported by third party contractors – requiring more substantial and complex service contracts. We have several team members whose focus is substantially on the support required for these contracts, including one specialist IT practitioner. Two of the team provide most of the legal and governance support for the Board and senior management team – ensuring the latest issues (like COVID legal advice) and significant internal legal matters (such as regulatory compliance) are presented satisfactorily to the Board. One of our team has specialist RMA knowledge and experience and supports our in-house environment team with a wide variety of planning applications and local authority planning matters but also has a major role in presenting Transpower’s position in the current RMA reform process. As you can imagine, that’s a big workload and must be sustained for the several years the RMA reform will run. 

Being a provider of national infrastructure and having a pivotal place in keeping New Zealand going means we have a big variety of issues going on at any one time. And because we have such a wide range of matters in play at any time, we use external counsel extensively to bring specialist skills to bare and to supplement our own in-house capabilities. In addition, we have called on Juno resources when we have an ongoing need for internal resource where we lack particular experience. We find the mix of in-house skills supplemented by using external firms and secondees (such as from Juno) to be the best way to manage our complex but also varying workload.

And it helps that our team is always flexible in assisting each other to smooth demand.

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

This is quite simple. Provide what people need, efficiently and when required. That doesn’t mean responding to unreasonable demands – that rarely happens. But it does mean giving realistic estimates of the time and effort required to deliver a job, understanding business timelines, getting involved early (something we have quite a lot of success at) and engaging external lawyers promptly if needed. 

What do you see as the key challenges facing the team and how do you plan to address these?

A big challenge is the fluctuating workload on our regulatory matters, such as our upcoming proposal to the Commerce Commission for our next regulatory control period (due at the end of 2023); this proposal when set by the Commission in late 2024 sets out Transpower’s revenue, expenditure and investment allowances and performance requirements for the five years beginning in 2026. As you can imagine, this proposal is complex, substantial and critical and requires a mammoth effort for many people in the business, including the legal team, and much guidance is required to get the proposal through the Board governance process. We have a new transmission pricing methodology (TPM, as it’s known in the industry) coming into effect in the next year; this will specify how Transpower’s revenue (as set by the Commerce Commission) is actually paid by the various parties who directly pay for our transmission services. The TPM is very complex and also requires a huge amount of input across the business, including from our lawyers. I could go on... and on… Regulatory matters are ones which we have little timetable control over as they are set by regulators rather than by us; this means we must fit daily business matters around the big regulatory matters we have to deal with. Having access to law firms and secondees helps us satisfactorily achieve what we need to get done.

Can you tell us what skills and attributes you look for when recruiting new lawyers?

Understanding customers’ needs. We take it as given that applicants we are considering will have the desired level of technical skills, knowledge and experience. What distinguishes the people we prefer is the desire to deliver valued and valuable work to our Board, management and business colleagues. Getting along with our people and gaining their respect and being seen as someone who can deliver and resolve problems is a key attribute; this style of operating is fundamental to our team. Our goal is to be wanted as a desired part of a work effort rather than a part of the business to be avoided. In fact, people across our business are generally very willing to bring us into their business and willingly accept our advice. We make a point of ensuring external advice is tailored to our business needs, especially where it might otherwise be dense and difficult for operational people to understand – something reasonably common when dealing with the complex regulatory environment we operate in.

One of Transpower’s accepted behaviours is to be ‘nimble and considered’. In-house lawyers have to be both; we don’t always know what’s coming at us and we also can’t rush to judgement or give off-the-cuff advice except where sensible. So, we balance what’s required with what’s possible so far as delivering legal advice is concerned, but with a careful eye on what our operational colleagues require. We seem to mostly get the balance right as the team is highly regarded within Transpower.