New Zealand Law Society - Extraordinary, challenging and rewarding

Extraordinary, challenging and rewarding

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Later this month Chris Moore will stand down after spending three years as the 29th elected President of the New Zealand Law Society. Chris answered some questions about his time in the role.

You are coming to the end of a three year term as President. Was the role what you imagined?

Pretty much. I had been on the Council of the Law Society through my chairmanship of the Property Law Section for 10 years, and also had gained a reasonably good insight of the role through being the Auckland branch President and a national Vice-President. Having said that, the volume of work was probably greater than I had anticipated. However, it is mostly challenging and enjoyable.

You have been Law Society President but you also have a busy commercial practice. How have you found balancing your practice with the presidency?

I have been extremely fortunate to have had wonderfully supportive partners; they relieved me of any administrative tasks (which was probably in the best interests of the firm anyway), and allowed me to concentrate on the President’s role. Clearly I could not continue to run my practice as I had previously, so the back-up from partners and staff was essential. Without that support, I simply would not have been able to take on the role in the first place. Trying to keep my commercial practice running, albeit on a reduced basis, and the presidency has involved extremely long hours during the working week and most weekends. However, when working in such a supportive partnership and doing work that you genuinely enjoy, the hours were not a hardship. I will, though, enjoy getting my weekends back.

The Law Society has been regulating legal professionals since August 2008. Coming up to eight years on, how well do you think it has done?

In the frontline we have introduced some overdue and effective changes around the handling of complaints. I hear from the Standards Committee conveners that in their view the standard of processing and quality and consistency of decision making has increased as the Lawyers Complaints Service has matured. The most visible change is the introduction of the Early Resolution Service (ERS) which now deals with over 40% of the complaints. It incorporates alternative dispute resolution techniques and has led to a significant decrease in the time taken to deal with complaints and an overall increase in the satisfaction of all participants in the process. The ERS has been the subject of case studies in modern complaints processing. The overall time to deal with complaints matters through to review remains a key area of focus and will be a priority for my successor as well.

I also oversaw the first year of reporting on compulsory Continuing Professional Development. Apart from anything it has raised a greater awareness of the need for all practitioners to keep up to date with a rapidly changing legal environment. It will always have its critics but it is impossible to design a scheme which suits everyone. The reaction, while initially apprehensive, has since been overwhelmingly supportive. The reflective practitioner model which is at the heart of our CPD is a model which was at the time of its introduction regarded as the model for the future. We can take some pride that the New Zealand Law Society was the innovator in this area. I hope we will continue in that vein.

How do you think the Law Society has done as a membership and representative organisation?

Clearly I have a biased view. I believe that the Law Society is very conscious of its role as a professional organisation. In all it does it is very aware of focusing on its core services. The Law Society’s Board has had to grapple with some hard issues about what not to do. Not all decisions are popular but that is the job of leadership. A key plank of the strategy is that the subscription is kept at zero. This requires a disciplined approach to service and ensuring that there is careful management of the various services and the channels in which they are delivered. We concentrate on providing services which support the practising lawyer and the profession’s reputation. The feedback we constantly receive is that members want us to focus on education and the collegial connections that are important to a properly functioning profession.

Successful strategy is often about what you don’t do. Pursuits such as product promotion, Law Society ties, cufflinks, pens and provision of back office functions are not effective services for the Society to provide. It is for this reason that we don’t go there. While bulk buying might have had a place in earlier times, these days with the internet making everything so accessible, the cost/benefit justification is not there. The Law Society works hard to provide information needed by the profession as well as opportunities for practitioners to get together, to express views and connect. One of our most important functions is the provision of legal education. The branches and sections focus on these connections and on more casual collegial learning opportunities in the main. NZLS CLE Ltd is the core provider of good quality legal education and training. Without that the profession would not have the range, depth and quality of legal education, training and booklets that lawyers can access at a reasonable cost.

Practising Well is another service which has attracted a lot of support from the profession. This is an area that we have been looking at recently and hope to improve the range of options available in this area in the near future.

What would you say have been the major issues faced by the Law Society while you have been President?

One of the most challenging aspects has been keeping some focus on the important things such as business as usual and continuous improvement of how we do things. This has been a primary consideration. The profession is going through a time of profound change. It is therefore crucial that the Law Society keeps its focus on what is important.

Otherwise, at the forefront of the issues before the Law Society Board would be access to justice and the advancement of women in the profession. On the first issue, there is a huge justice gap between those who can afford legal representation through legal aid and those who have sufficient funds to instruct a lawyer in litigation. The New Zealand justice system is highly regarded internationally. If, as a society, we cannot provide a level playing field or, at least, something close to that, we run the risk that the public will lose confidence in the rule of law.

The other aspect is the advancement of women in the profession. As most will be aware, we now pretty much have parity between the number of men and women practising law in New Zealand. However a relatively small percentage of women occupy the many senior positions in law across New Zealand. For the future of the profession, we simply cannot allow so many talented women to go unrecognised and, through frustration, to leave the profession. We need to be more innovative and flexible to ensure that such a vital and important part of the profession is retained for the benefit of those individuals and the greater profession.

Looking forward over the next five years, what do you think the major issues facing lawyers will be?

The two major issues identified in the previous question are likely to continue to be key issues for the medium and long term. Neither is an easy fix, nor can it be achieved quickly. However, I do believe that with some focus significant improvements in both areas can be made.

What are some of your most pleasing achievements over the last three years?

I don’t really believe that any President can talk about their own achievements during their term. Former staff and presidents over the years have worked on initiatives which, through luck of timing, may come to fruition during your own term but so much of the work would have been undertaken by those who came before you – I felt the weight of that stewardship. I hope the skills I had in business and management contributed to the improvements which were ushered in during my time. I am confident that President-Elect Kathryn Beck will pick up the baton and run with it.

When I took on the role in April 2013 I very quickly discovered how lucky I was to be part of an organisation that was driven by the public interest and maintenance of a strong legal profession. The legal profession has a privileged and important role in New Zealand’s justice system. This is balanced with obligations – and that includes our role in law reform and scrutinising government reforms or behaviour. This has been a learning curve for me but has provided some of the most challenging and rewarding moments for me in the last three years.

Another key area for me was ensuring I was an approachable and accessible face of the New Zealand profession. This included media interviews and commentary, writing and speechmaking. I enjoyed this but it was demanding and time consuming. I certainly can now boast a much better degree of legal knowledge on a wider range of topics than I would ever have thought possible – an unforeseen consequence of my presidency.

I am proud to have led the profession over the past three years and it has been an experience that I would not have missed for anything. It is a truly extraordinary, challenging and rewarding position. Nevertheless a President is only as good as his or her Board, Council and executive. I have had extraordinary support in that regard.

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