Team Overview: Victoria University of Wellington

Team Overview: Victoria University of Wellington

Simon Johnson, General Counsel of Victoria University of Wellington, tells his team's story of managing legal risk in the "small town" that is a university.

Can you give us an overview of the legal team at Victoria University of Wellington and how you support the work of the university?

The Legal Services team consists of three lawyers, an OIA coordinator and a policy coordinator. We’re fairly lean and mean for an organisation the size and complexity of the University. You have to remember that a University is like a small town. It has approximately 22,000 students and 3,500 staff members, three main campuses, annual revenues of almost $500m and assets worth over $1billion. That’s big on any definition. With that comes the full spectrum of legal issues. On any given day, the team can advise on a wider range of matters including corporate governance, IP development, protection and commercialisation, student discipline, joint ventures and collaborations, property acquisition and disposal, building construction and development, fundraising (including wills and bequests), high-value procurement, commercial contracting, and dispute resolution.

Aside from the high profile matters, my most memorable instructions have included requests for advice regarding incoming students from central Africa during the Ebola outbreak and how to dispose of human skeletons found quite literally in the closet. It’s fair to say that no two days are ever the same and it’s certainly not boring!

I see the role of the Legal Services team is to make life easier for our internal clients. Dealing with the legal team should be straightforward and simple (as should the advice that we provide).  Our internal clients are busy people with their own pressures, demands and deliverables and we have to recognise that and support them as best we can. I’m a firm believer in keeping things as simple as possible – no one ever complains if something is simple and easy to understand! Beyond the individual client level, our role is to support and enable the University to achieve its strategic direction while also ensuring that legal risks are managed according to the University’s risk profile. 

In eight years, the university has gone from having no in-house legal function to having a legal team. What impact do you feel this has had in the organisation?

When I first started in my role, the University had recently established an in-house legal role. As that role grew and developed, the need for a larger team became apparent in order to keep up with internal client expectations. It would be fair to say that the availability of an in-house legal function meant that more and more people sought to access the service as word of it grew.  Today, the University has a far more mature approach to the identification and management of legal risk. Legal advice is seen as an essential component of the projects undertaken around the University and the legal team is now involved as a matter of course before things get too far down the track. 

What have been your most recent challenges as General Counsel and how did you address these?

A couple of resignations at the beginning of last year meant that I needed to rebuild the team in a fairly short time period.  Rather than jumping straight into recruitment, I took the opportunity to reassess what the team needed in terms of structure and skill set. I recognised that the former structure placed a heavy burden on me to receive and allocate matters among the team – the time I spent doing this was time I wasn’t able to spend performing my role. I therefore passed more responsibility onto the Senior Legal Counsel role to enable that role to develop and grow while also freeing up more of my time.

While I went through this, I was grateful for the support provided by Juno Legal – both to cover absences but also assist me with my thinking and strategic planning. I’m pleased to say that I’ve now got a fantastic team and we’re looking forward to the future!

My other most recent challenge has been leading the legal aspects of the proposal to change the University’s name to the University of Wellington. While this proposal has drawn its fair share of controversy, it has been incredibly interesting and rewarding to be part of. 

Are you rolling out or planning to roll out any innovations to support the work of the legal team?

We are in the early stages of rolling out a contract automation tool across the University. We’re starting small with an initial pilot of our contract for teaching services. This is a contract which is used hundreds of times a year. Moving to an automated process is expected to significantly free up the time of staff who currently need to fill in boxes and select optional clauses from a template. Even finding the template and ensuring it’s the most up-to-date version is not straightforward! From my perspective, automation ensures that our clients always use the correct template and we can easily see (and control) the changes that are made.

The University has also just finished rolling out a self-service portal for many of the University’s central services. This is designed to be a one-stop-shop for staff and, over time, will considerably reduce the amount of paperwork generated by the various internal processes that we run. At this stage, our clients can request legal advice through the portal but it will soon host our contract automation tool and a variety of other options for our clients. 

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

I have seen a considerable shift away from being a provider of legal advice and towards being a ‘lawyer-statesman’ – someone who can partner effectively with the business, understand it and its challenges, become a trusted advisor and ultimately deliver commercial advice that goes beyond just legal risk. As in-house lawyers, we need to understand the pressures and needs of our internal clients and do whatever we can to deliver what they’re asking for and make their job easier.

One of the most important things a General Counsel can do is understand their organisation’s risk appetite. Once that is understood, and accepted, advice should then be tailored to that risk appetite. That’s not to say that we downplay the legal implications of a particular course of action – it’s important to give good objective advice after all. But we also need to understand that our advice is often just part of the puzzle that our client is trying to put together before making a decision.