LawTalk speaks to two lead in-house counsel – Helen Wild with a team of 58 (Auckland Council) and Charlotte Moll (Warren and Mahoney) with a single legal team member – and asks them to describe their day’s work. Helen adds her tips for building solid in-house legal teams.
Take two lead in-house legal counsel roles – one with a large team, and one almost sole – and compare them. LawTalk did just that…
They couldn’t be two more different roles: yet they share similarities. In the one position is Helen Wild, Auckland Council’s General Counsel and head of Ngā Ratonga Ture – the Council’s 58-strong in-house legal team. In the other post is Senior Legal Counsel at Warren and Mahoney, Charlotte Moll, leading a team of two.
Helen is advanced in her legal career, arguably at the top rung of the in-house ladder, plenty of wisdom on board. Charlotte is beginning the journey of legal lead, excited by what it’s teaching her, actively pursuing the wide variety of experience it delivers.
Common to both: they’re legal leaders in-house, sought after, looked to; and they absolutely love their jobs.
“I love the variety of work,” Charlotte effuses. “Working alongside colleagues who are also clients takes away some of the formality of legal advice. It suits my personality. I find it really rewarding. I’m a natural extrovert and I really enjoy the relationship building.”
“It’s a big job and I love it. The organisation’s values and purpose align strongly with my own,” says Helen, and she points to the high calibre of the legal team and diverse range of work at Auckland Council. “I’ve never worked in an organisation with more hard-working, dedicated and passionate people.”
Charlotte started her legal career in the resource management team at a large law firm. Two in-house secondments gave her a bird’s eye view of in-house – one at Progressive Enterprises, the other at Kiwirail.
“I decided: that’s what I want do, that’s where I want to head,” she says.
Following two permanent jobs in in-house legal teams, she took up the (then) sole in-house legal position at Warren and Mahoney, reporting to a Chief Operating Officer who is a senior lawyer in his own right. She has recruited a team member since.
Warren and Mahoney are esteemed architects, with 400 staff on board and seven ‘studios’ of designers, architects, consulting services, and information management services. Two of those studios are in Australia, so Charlotte’s role has oversight of that, meaning her day begins early and ends late.
“I prioritise New Zealand work before the Australians wake up,” she says.
Helen Wild’s background was as a senior litigator in a large law firm who became enamoured with media law and media freedoms. She opted to go in-house, initially as Senior Counsel at TVNZ for ten years.
“It was exciting to work in the beating heart of the newsroom and make a difference from the inside,” she reflects.
Helen joined Auckland Council in 2016 and is responsible for leading delivery of legal support inside the whole organisation. That extends across the governing body, council committees, local boards, the Mayoral Office, the Chief Executive and the executive leadership team – and all business units.
“We also provide legal support to two Council Controlled Organisations – Auckland Unlimited and Eke Panuku.”
If that doesn’t leave you gasping, the range of legal advice provided by the team is divided into four practice areas, each led by a specialist lawyer. It covers off projects and transactions (property and commercial work) including some of the largest construction and development projects in the country; regulatory and enforcement (such as building consents and RMA matters, dog control cases and other regulatory prosecutions); public law (to ensure Council decisions are lawful and consistent with legislation etc); and litigation and disputes (a diverse portfolio of cases including weathertightness proceedings).
“To lead a large team like ours, you need to be not only an excellent lawyer, critical thinker, and communicator, but in my view you also need to be a thoughtful leader. That means being considered in your approach, and considerate of your people,” says Helen. “It’s vital to care about the team. That’s a big part of the job, and comes naturally to me.”
Yes, but what do they do?
Both in-house practitioners admit to being daunted at times by their respective roles. They reveal they’re constantly challenged, and that keeps them energised and focused.
“There’s a lot going on at any one time, and quite a bit of competition for my attention,” says Helen. “Every day is different. Having said that, there’s a rhythm of regular meetings across the business, the team, my direct reports. My calendar can get very crammed and colourful!
“It’s easy to get sucked into the daily churn of work. So, I’m very intentional about putting aside time to focus on the bigger picture, advancing our objectives; improving how we do things.”
She also sets time aside to be available for queries and to make space for the team individually and as a group.
Over 80% of Auckland Council’s files are managed in-house. Matters are referred to external legal providers if they are very large, and require extra resource, where specific expertise is needed, or the risk profile or complexity is such that independent advice is appropriate.
The legal team’s purpose is to “empower Auckland Council to do the right thing, the right way, for an Auckland we can all be proud of.”
“We work hard to understand and help the Council deliver on its priorities in the best and most effective way, and to identify and pro-actively manage risk,” she says.
Charlotte’s role is a study in contrasts, as is to be expected. She provides hands-on advice.
Warren and Mahoney has one parent company and six subsidiaries. There are quarterly board meetings for which Charlotte provides governance support. She spends most of the time reviewing contracts and providing advice direct to staff.
The organisation also responds to three or more RFPs a week.
“Every project we do has an associated contract,” she says. “My team member and I review and negotiate all of them. And we do everything in between – every weird, wild and wonderful legal question anyone may think up on any given day.”
“I’m never sure exactly where the day will take me, which is definitely disruptive to non-urgent work. All the in-house teams I’ve worked in have had that same problem.”
There’s a considerable educative element to the work.
“Part of my job is teaching architects about legal risk and what it means, and different scenarios in contracts. How things could play out if they were to go awry,” she says. “To create efficiencies, I have to communicate clearly to different teams – client finance, marketing. That ensures there’s not a lot of back and forth. I have a list of what I need, when I’m asked a question. Efficiencies are gained through a bit more education on what lawyers do, and how they do it.”
Charlotte admits to a passion for negotiation. She says it can still surprise that a younger woman is the lead in very large contract negotiations.
“I’ve learnt that if you get to the real crux of the issue, what the concerns and worries are, and really delve into that and communicate clearly, what’s at stake, what’s trying to be protected by the other party not budging – you can often find a creative solution to deal exactly with the concern,” she says. “It’s not just accept or decline: it’s – find a solution.”
Despite their individual styles, and very different demands, both agree their roles have enriched them personally.
Charlotte sums up: “A lot of lawyers are influenced by their clients because they have to get to know the subject matter intimately. I think celebrating creativity has been a discovery for me. I’ve got Warren and Mahoney to thank for that. In a design company, creativity is fundamental to everything they do. I see the world differently now.”
“It’s an honour and a privilege to serve the Council family and the communities they support,” says Helen.
Helen Wild’s tips for building in-house legal teams
Capability: Build and maintain the highest levels of capability, to enable you to respond confidently to the organisation’s needs.
Continuing Development: Investing in growth engenders positivity and momentum.
Clients. Take the time to understand the needs and objectives of the client. Strong relationships and good communication are key.
Care: About your people. Listen to them and ensure they are well-supported.
Conduct: Bring to the organisation the highest standards of professionalism, integrity and fairness.
Connection: Spending time together is key to enjoying, rather than enduring, the day. We can share the load and have some fun along the way.
Creativity: Make room for it, in any way it may manifest. Flair and adaptability beat boring and rigid any day.