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Report looks at Government in-house legal services model

30 August 2017

The New Zealand government legal service model is essentially departmentalism. However, with the changes occurring overseas, a rethink is timely, says a new report on the Government legal in-house model.

The report, Government legal in-house model: International case studies - responding to change, has been prepared by in-house lawyer Tania Warburton. Ms Warburton was awarded the ILANZ Scholarship at the end of 2014 and used  this support and her 2015 Leadership Development Centre fellowship to carry out research.

This included attending Harvard Law School's Leadership in Corporate Counsel Programme, meetings with in-house lawyers in the United Kingdom, and interviews with a number of New Zealand government lawyers.

In her report, Ms Warburton looks at the current New Zealand Government in-house legal services model and compares it with two international organisations which have undergone significant changes in recent years - the UK Government Legal Department and the legal department at British Telecom.

UK Shared services model

She says both UK organisations adopted a shared services model, centralising core legal services (such as employment and commercial law) while recognising that specialisation was still required within the various business units.

"Doing this avoided duplication of work across the teams and better collaboration. Both organisations also looked carefully at the type of work their lawyers were undertaking in order to reduce cost. The Government Legal Department devolved work to paralegals and invested in technology. BT Legal concentrated its outsourcing at the low rather than high end of its business."

Both entities, Ms Warburton says, designed a solution to meet the particular challenges they faced. Neither relied on either wholesale centralisation or departmentalism. Instead, they recognised the value of specialisation and "insider knowledge" while also seeking to avoid the duplication of sub-scale teams across agencies and divisions.

"For New Zealand government in-house legal teams, the innovations undertaken in the UK give us more options to consider than the usual go-to solution: briefing out the top/high end work to cope with increased demand. We need to look at building our in-house legal capacity to aid job satisfaction and rethink the ways we outsource and manage our external legal spend."

Forensic analysis of legal work

Ms Warburton says the Government Legal Network has the opportunity to undertake a forensic analysis of the legal work currently performed within departments.

"Are we appropriately focusing on the matters that present the most risk to the Crown or do we provide the same bespoke legal work regardless of how small or large the risk? Is there scope for greater standardisation of some of our work across government? Do we need to assess what we are currently doing that non-lawyers within our organisations or across government could provide more efficiently?"

Depending on the outcome of any forensic analysis, the shared service model in areas such as litigation, commercial and employment would allow the Government Legal Network to build capability with a governmental lens, she says.

"Shared services do not need to be housed in a centralised legal department, but rather could be based within the most appropriate department. For example, employment legal services could be located within a department which currently houses a large employment practice. Recent changes to the rules regarding shared services have opened up opportunities in this space."

Small scale trial

Another option is to consider the shared services model on an initial small scale. Ms Warburton notes that the legal teams of the Ministry of Social Development and the new Ministry for Vulnerable Children, Oranga Tamariki, are designing a shared legal service across the two agencies. Each agency will also continue to have lawyers embedded within their agencies.

"Sharing legal services initially between two agencies enables the model to be trialled on a small scale and grow organically. However, as it expands, quality assurance management will become a critical factor to ensure success."

In the next five to ten years, the Government Legal Network has the opportunity to develop in a way that allows lawyers to think and act more strategically across departments to make sure legal resource are being used and developed in a way that helps to provide the best and most efficient legal services to the Crown, Ms Warburton says.

Last updated on the 30th August 2017