New Zealand Law Society - People at the centre

People at the centre

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After 12 months directing the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), newly appointed Solicitor-General Una Jagose is "energised" to utilise her tried, tested and found-to-be true leadership skills at the head of Crown law.

Ms Jagose took office on 15 February, replacing outgoing Solicitor-General, and her former "profs" classmate, Michael Heron QC.

An "interested" but not particularly "stellar" undergraduate student, she says it was her first job out of law school, with the then Ministry of Consumer Affairs, which "lit [her] fire" for public service.

Photo of Una Jagose.
Una Jagose

Though at that stage unsure of what lawyers really did, Ms Jagose says she knew that her perception of life working for a big firm did not appeal to her core values, which place people at the centre of her thinking.

"I thought: 'I don't want to be chasing the money', that doesn't interest me.

"At Consumer Affairs, I worked with people who had entered into unfair credit contracts, who had bought unsafe cars on painfully, incredibly expensive credit deals. They were often poor people, who didn't have very good English, and they needed a hand. I loved that.

"That is what got me excited," she says.

"The idea that you don't chase the money, you're chasing something else. You're actually working for a community outcome, or a New Zealand outcome, as determined by the Crown in our democratic process of government."

Litigation inspiration

Ms Jagose worked for the Ministry of Fisheries for seven years, becoming its Chief Legal Advisor.

"This is where I got my inspiration for litigation – because there was so much of it.

"I was instructing Crown Law on all this litigation, sitting at the back of the courtroom thinking: 'I could do this. That looks like fun'."

Where others might be frightened of publicly speaking in such a formal setting, she suggests it was her mother's encouragement – to do drama and speech performances – from age four onwards that taught her to enjoy standing on her feet to present ideas and arguments.

It wasn't until her first role with Crown Law, however, that Ms Jagose was able to put her passion for courtroom advocacy into practice.

"I loved it. I still love it," she says, especially noting that she's not been on her feet in court since starting with the GCSB – although she compared that role to advocacy work, too, saying a significant part of her role was public engagement to help with wider understanding of the bureau, it's functions and the controls in place – all of which should counter any fear that the bureau was doing something wrong, or able to run amok.

Undoubtedly, heading the GCSB has been a challenging experience, but one which Ms Jagose credits for her latest appointment.

"I still sometimes think to myself: 'what was I thinking?'" she says, about taking on the role, "because it was certainly a bigger leadership role than I had undertaken before, in an area that I was not very familiar with.

"But what I've learned about myself is that I am a really good leader of people, and that has been energising and exciting.

"I've also learned that I am very resilient."

Valuing people

To Ms Jagose, leadership is about valuing people. It also involves "creativity and collaboration and showing others the way, inspiring and engaging people, and taking them with you".

The government employs more than 800 lawyers across its departments. In-house government lawyers know their department's business and policy context. They know the goals, and they work flexibly and innovatively to achieve them, Ms Jagose says.

One of her own notable goals as Solicitor-General is to ensure the Crown gets "full value" out of its lawyers, whichever department they happen to be employed by.

The Government Lawyers Network has already been established which will assist in achieving this goal by encouraging and making it easier for lawyers to assist other departments with their legal issues. The Crown Solicitors network and the Public Prosecutions Unit are also key enablers of her vision.

It shouldn't be surprising that Ms Jagose is keen to "harness the full value" of the government's lawyers, regardless of the work that needs doing and who would usually be responsible for it.

"It's about asking 'what is the house that we are in-house to?'"

To Ms Jagose, still proudly inspired by a fire that burns for public service, the answer is obviously broader than this or that government department. To use government-speak, it's about "better serving the customer" – the public.

To her, it's all about serving the Crown and helping New Zealanders.

First generation Kiwi

Ms Jagose holds an LLB from Otago University and an LLM (First Class Honours) from Victoria University. She was admitted in July 1990.

She is the first woman ever appointed Solicitor-General, and while she's proud of that fact, it doesn't mean the fight for professional gender equality is won, she says. In fact, it's kind of irrelevant.

"I don't know if I can really distinguish between the two [being appointed Solicitor-General, and being the first woman appointed to the role].

"I am really proud of myself.

"So I don't want to say it's not important, because it's very important. But it's not why I was appointed."

That said, Ms Jagose acknowledges the trailblazing Kiwi women who came before her and held senior leadership roles in government, and says she is proud to join her role models in forging and showing a path for professionally ambitious women.

One of five children, she was raised in Cambridge where her parents ran a local General Practice – dad the doctor and mum the nurse.

Both parents were immigrants to New Zealand, a fact reflected by her name. "Una" is a traditional Gaelic name, from her mother's homeland Ireland. "Jagose" is Parsi, reflecting her father's Parsi Indian heritage.

Interestingly, Ms Jagose and her siblings all share the same middle-eastern middle name – Rustom – a family tradition adapted from the Parsi practice of handing down a father's first name to the sons of the family, "but dad gave us four girls the name too".

Now calling herself a Wellingtonian, she has lived with her partner Jenny for 25 happy years, another part of her life she is proud of.

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