New Zealand Law Society - From 'arch enemy' to ally

From 'arch enemy' to ally

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For the first time ever in its 143-year history, Public Trust is partnering with lawyers and Bob Smith, Public Trust Chief Executive Officer is leading the charge.

"I'd say we've been in a bit of a time warp," Mr Smith says. "The rest of the world's moved on and now we have too."

He acknowledges that previously, Public Trust was classifying itself as a financial organisation and there was a confused perception in the marketplace because of that.

"Yes, we do undertake financial services for our fiduciary clients but that is a product of being a trustee company. Being a financial services company is not what we are. We're a trustee company."

He is steering Public Trust back to its roots and honouring its original reason for being.


"Some people also think that Public Trust is this dusty, archaic and slow institution" says, Liz Style, Public Trust general manager legal and risk.

She recounts a presenter at a trust law conference referring to "arch enemy Public Trust" recently when citing an old excerpt about anti-competitive behaviour dating back to the 1930s.

It highlights a lingering and perhaps unspoken misconception among some in the legal fraternity.

It's a misconception that Public Trust is working hard to overcome, judging by the pace of cultural and commercial change happening within the Crown entity.

"Back in 2012 it was clear that we needed to simplify the business and get out of a whole lot of products. We exited out of selling insurance, mortgages and doing third party conveyancing," Mr Smith says.

A "partnership culture" was adopted with the professional sector which had never been done before.

"Now we work not only with our end customers in a far more user-friendly way but we have developed the capability to partner with chartered accountants, banks and law firms," Ms Style says.

Lawyers retain control

Mr Smith is quick to explain that when Public Trust partners with lawyers the lawyers still retain control of the client and Public Trust is only a supplier of services.

"We're not trying to take over ownership of the client at all. We need to be thought of as an outsourced service – the support player who is coming in to provide expertise if and when required."

Mr Smith admits that in the past Public Trust was too difficult to do business with due to being completely vertically aligned.

"You could only buy our services the way we wanted you to buy them. To be honest, it was quite a legalistic, onerous type of approach.

"Now it's completely different. We're trying to unbundle our knowledge, our expertise and services to enable clients to easily buy off us in a way that suits their needs," he says.

Attracting a new generation of dynamic and driven executive talent to the leadership team has also been essential for the 143-year-old entity's revitalisation and, according to some, salvation.


It's led to an overhaul of the customer service delivery platform which has been scrutinised, analysed and restructured.

Efficiency bottlenecks have been eliminated by empowering front-line staff to make decisions closer to the customer.

A significant investment has been committed towards "people capability" so more formal and on-the-job training can be achieved to strengthen customer relationship skills and technical expertise around legal and accounting.

"We couldn't do that before with the old organisational structure. Now we'll have multi-skilled teams as opposed to specialist-type teams which will only benefit our client and partners."

Public Trust's information technology platform is also to be completely revolutionised towards the end of this year.

With an eye on futureproofing the business, Mr Smith, a former Chief Information Officer at Telecom and CEO of Xtra, speaks about why the customised trust software with 4,000 current users worldwide was chosen.

"It is world class and far more user friendly. Clients will have instant online access to their information when and where they want it. It'll boost our mobile capability out in the field so we can meet clients at their work or home instead of only at our office."

Partnership product

Last month Public Trust rolled out its first partnership product, Executor Assist, which targets time-poor lawyers who are advising clients or who are executors themselves.

The outsourced estate package is a tailored solution that has been specifically designed for lawyers to minimise the administrative burden while at the same time preserving their valuable client relationship.

The launch came after much research and consultation with the legal community, including constructive input from Greenwood Roche Chisnall partner Chris Moore.

He sees the advantages and believes some law firms which don't have an estates practice could find the Public Trust offering useful.

"It means a specialist third party can undertake the estate work but, of course, the instructing lawyer can remain involved to the extent that they want."

He illustrates the point with an example of when a valued client may ask for assistance with the estate of a near relative or friend.

In the past this meant the lawyer had the option of doing the work themselves, knowing they may not have the necessary expertise or they could brief the work to another firm – and that, of course might diminish the relationship they have with that important client.

"Now the Executor Assist product seems to offer another option which lawyers could consider in some situations."

Enhancing lawyers' efficiency

Jacqui Beilby, manager Executor Assist, knows the common stressors for busy solicitors in the area of estate management and says: "Public Trust spent considerable time seeking out ways to enhance their efficiency using the strengths of its existing infrastructure".

Fees for estate administration where Public Trust is executor are based on the work done, not on a percentage of the estate. Ms Beilby says that the percentage misconception is common among lawyers. Basing fees on work done "is how we charge now and it's been like that since 2001."

Executor Assist fees are calculated on a combination of fixed fees and hourly rates which are agreed and documented up front.

The service is managed by one designated specialist team and there are three offerings:

Probate Service

Public Trust helps the executor obtain probate. The executors would then attend to the administration of the estate themselves.

Administration Services

Public Trust helps the executor obtain probate, collect in simple assets (excluding property), pay the liabilities and complete a tax return to date of death. The executors would then manage the funds, complete estate accounts and estate tax returns and make distributions to the beneficiaries themselves.

Estate Service

Public Trust helps the executor obtain probate and do all that is required to administer the estate including final accounts and distributions (including dealing with property and overseas assets).

Since the launch there's been a positive reception by lawyers signing up for Executor Assist, according to Ms Beilby. "Lawyers have seen the value of outsourcing this type of work which is pretty pleasing."

Successful partnerships with the commercial sector are vital to Public Trust's vision to provide the best trustee services in New Zealand from start to finish according to Mr Smith.

"What we're trying to do here from a transformational point of view is live up to our name. We want the public to trust in Public Trust."

Sarah Sparks is a freelance writer. Her published work has appeared in publications produced by Bauer, NZME and Fairfax. This article was commissioned by Public Trust.

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