By Elliot Sim
Rupert Ablett-Hampson has returned to his role as Chief Legal Advisor at the Ministry of Social Development after completing a 15-month sweep of the ministry in team leadership roles.
Rupert resumed his position this February – having undertaken the role from 2011-13 – and he thinks he is a better chief legal advisor for having worked in different departments.
“I feel that I am able to give those insights to the legal team here at the ministry. You definitely build connections and you also are better able to understand what the business as a whole is trying to do, how to connect yourself and how to find the areas that are strategically important,” he says.
Rupert’s role requires him to focus on leadership of his legal team and providing advice on high-profile matters, litigation, and stakeholder engagement.
Rupert’s legal career began in private practice in 1997, working at Harbour Chambers in Wellington with Christopher Hodson QC to cover maternity leave. He then went for a brief time to Greg King’s chambers in Lower Hutt.
He moved to a firm in Palmerston North and did family litigation and criminal work as well as civil employment work. He then returned to the windy city and gained experience with Sonja Cooper, bringing claims against the very ministry he works for now, for historical abuse of children in care.
The next logical step was working for Child, Youth and Family (CYF), where he was a solicitor between 2003 and 2005.
“That was when the first real management of lawyers role came along in 2006,” he says.
CYF then merged with the Ministry of Social Development and an opportunity arose to act for a period of time as deputy chief legal advisor, which covered “prosecutions and advising the front lines”.
He continued in that role until 2011 and then stepped up to be Chief Legal Advisor.
“Again, I’d acted for quite a period of time before being appointed into that role. There is sort of a theme of opportunities arising, and not being particularly planned. Not that I have never planned to do those things, but they only arose because of opportunities.”
For example, for five months in 2013 he was the Acting Director of the Office of the Chief Executive for the ministry.
“So that had a lot of communication with the minister’s office. It’s a second-tier role in that it reports to the chief executive and also sits on the leadership team.
“It was an opportunity to see right across the organisation at that level. That was the first time that I wasn’t applying a legal lens to something. Or not explicitly trying to.”
That rolled into a four-month stint as the Deputy Chief Executive of Student Seniors and Integrity Services.
“That was my first operational role, where you start to see what legal services should be in order to do your job properly,” he says.
In good stead
Taking on different positions which aren’t necessarily legal, Rupert says, will hold you in good stead.
“Your legal position gets you the trust. You’re using your intellect quite a lot. You’re engaging with difficult issues and that can result in people saying ‘that’s a person who can help me’. Taking those opportunities in turn lets you be a better a lawyer. Even if you choose to not stay on these paths, you’re a better lawyer for having explored them because you can stand in the shoes of your own client.”
From October 2013 to February this year, Rupert served his final posting as Deputy Chief Executive for People Capability and Resources, which is now called Organisational Solutions.
He says this role provided the most interesting learnings, with the work focusing on traditional corporate services such as HR, finance, IT and property.
“My reflection on that is that while corporate professional groups are different and the subject matters are different, the philosophy and skills of advising clients and putting yourself in their position and working in true partnership with them, is exactly the same. With all of those corporate groups [that he worked in], it doesn’t matter if you’re a lawyer, accountant or an IT specialist – the mind-set is still the same.
His secondment also provided the opportunity to try a “multi-swap round” of chief legal advisors from the MSD, Inland Revenue, and Customs.
“We were able to do a three-month acting arrangements so that Chief Legal Advisors were able try a new area. So that meant you gave people more opportunity as part of the Government Legal Network brokered opportunity.”
The key to creating opportunities is being proactive
Rupert admits that management in organisations or companies don’t naturally think “let’s go to the lawyers” to get stuff done at the earliest opportunity. This can lead to lawyers getting the reputation of being people who say “no”.
But you can “sit and complain or be proactive and influence right from the start”, he states.
“One of the questions I had for myself at the start [of his experience in different roles at the ministry] was ‘do I want to do law or do I want to be a leader?’ I’d spent quite a bit of time discussing this with the chief executive about that concept, because he was managing me throughout this. The conclusion I came to is that it doesn’t need to be either … or. The legal skills are quite transferrable.”
Rupert believes being proactive and taking on non-legal roles will help you to have the influence you want in the long run.
“I have this idea that if people say ‘we need to get the lawyers in to look at this’, I’d quite like to get them to look to the left and find that the lawyer was actually sitting there all along,” he says.
This article was also published in LawTalk 866, 5 June 2015