New Zealand Law Society - Career by design

Career by design

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It may seem unusual to some that rugby players like Dan Carter and Richie McCaw have invested in retirement homes, but Summerset Group Legal Counsel Nikki Fisher isn’t surprised in the slightest.

“It’s a huge growth sector. It’s definitely one of the things that makes this job really fun. It’s just growing at such a rapid rate. Everyone is busy across the business and there are some really interesting challenges that come with this growth.

“The best part of it, though, is knowing that I’m working to create vibrant communities in which New Zealanders can make the most of their retirement and I really enjoy seeing these communities in action while out visiting the villages,” she says.

The Summerset Group currently owns and operates 20 retirement villages throughout New Zealand, which are home to over 3,000 New Zealanders and is the second largest developer of retirement villages in the country.

Nikki has only been in her role for nine months and is solidifying her position and the legal team’s direction. She believes her in-house career came about by design rather than chance.

After starting her degrees at Canterbury University (with a year at the University of California, Berkeley) she was awarded a BCom/LLB with honours in 2000.

Nikki first worked for Gilbert & Tobin in Sydney for two years, doing mostly mergers and acquisitions as well as some competition and regulatory work.

As is the case for many lawyers, London beckoned where Nikki initially worked in-house for a global construction and infrastructure company. She then moved into aircraft leasing for four years with Field Fisher Waterhouse.

Return home

From there it was back to New Zealand and 18 months with Russell McVeagh in its corporate advisory team.

“The move back was just the desire to lay some roots and I thought it was probably time to have kids and do the family thing,” Nikki says.

Two children followed and in 2008 Nikki returned briefly to part-time work at Russell McVeagh. At this point there was a brief period based overseas for a diplomatic posting in Iran, before Nikki returned to New Zealand and a part-time role in Duncan Cotterill’s commercial team. She held this position until 2014 before moving into the Legal Counsel role at Summerset Group.

“Looking back at where my career has taken me before this position, it has prepped me quite well for an in-house role,” Nikki says upon reflection. She says key skills she has picked up along the way are good negotiation and drafting skills as well as “having the ability to identify commercial and legal risk”.

“I’m kind of a jack-of-all-trades and an expert of nothing, really. It’s not such a good thing in many roles, but in this one, it is. It means you’ve got a sense of something not being quite right even if you don’t initially know why. It equips you with an ability to spot issues and identify where you need to dig a little deeper.”

Utterly different

“A lot of people have said to me in the past that it was quite evident that I wasn’t interested in being a partner in a law firm or having a career in private practice … A lot of friends had suggested previously that I move in-house, thinking that was a better fit for me. But I guess I thought ‘surely it’s the same sort of thing in a different environment’.

“Now, having experienced what in-house is like at a senior level, I see that the whole nature of the job is utterly different and a much better fit for my skill set and personality,” Nikki says.

The main difference between private and in-house practice, she says, is the broader range of problem solving skills drawn upon; rather than relying mainly on technical legal ones.

“The other is really getting to know your client’s business in depth, something which you don’t have the ability to do in private practice … In private practice you think you know your client’s business pretty well but when you really get to know one inside-out, you realise what you didn’t know before. Having a deeper understanding of the business means that your advice can be much better tailored to what is actually going on.”

Daily role

Summerset is one of the biggest retirement village operators in New Zealand, and this means Nikki’s role is incredibly varied.

A large part of her day-to-day work is general problem solving for those within different parts of the business as well as facilitating resolutions for various issues – legal and otherwise. Nikki’s also responsible for ensuring that Summerset’s village companies comply with their corporate, regulatory and compliance obligations and works closely with Public Trust (Summerset’s statutory supervisor).

She manages three legal executives who deal with the group’s legal settlement work, process terminations and facilitate resident transfers between dwellings.

“I work on improving current processes for the legal executives and look for ways to do things better and more efficiently. I work closely with our sales team in effecting business improvements and would estimate that’s probably 20% of my role. I also do a bit of contract review for different parts of the business – whether it’s for IT, marketing, operations or procurement,” she says.

Nikki says “bigger picture projects” and issues where specialist advice is needed sometimes require working with external law firms.

Nikki is working with Chapman Tripp to put in place new occupation right agreements and disclosure statements for all of the group’s villages. These documents are aimed at creating more user-friendly documentation for residents and their families.

Greater satisfaction

“I feel there is much more of a connection between what I suggest and what I actually see happening on the ground. In private practice, you’re a little bit removed from that and don’t always get to see where your advice ends up or how it adds value to your client’s business,” Nikki says.

It’s the ability to use skills and judgement in a way that isn’t strictly legal which Nikki enjoys, as well as plenty of opportunity to work with different people throughout the business.

“It comes back to what motivated me a long time ago – to do a BCom/LLB – thinking that ‘I want to work within an exciting business and be able to approach issues with a legal lens’.”

Nikki says, however, that there are challenges in her role. When she took the legal counsel position there had not been anyone in the role before her. She says she has had to sometimes demonstrate to the business what she can do and where she can add value.

“There are certainly parts of the business that don’t need that explanation at all and can see that and others require a bit more convincing.

“Now, having experienced what in-house is like at a senior level, I see that the whole nature of the job is utterly different and a much better fit for my skill set and personality.”

Nikki sees the rest of this year as an opportunity to get better processes in place and have some of the group’s core documentation improved. She is also bedding-in the legal team, having recently had a new team member join.

“So next year I want to come back with a clean slate, with some good processes and documentation in place and have a think about next year’s goals,” she says.

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