New Zealand Law Society - What's in a story?

What's in a story?

What's in a story?

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In-house legal teams strive to add value. The in-house lawyer’s role is to manage risk with a balance of reaching the outcome that the business needs.

In-house legal teams want to be involved in high-risk, high-value work. From an organisational perspective this is because the majority of legal risk lies here, and so it benefits from the biggest value-add by having a legal mind reviewing it.

From a development angle, it meets the need that lawyers working in-house often crave. This is the opportunity to utilise the numerous skills they have acquired during their career. Undertaking high-risk, highly complex work with various stakeholders across the entire business or institution enables the team to develop its skill set each time a project is worked on.

However, there may be a barrier to getting enough of this kind of work into the legal team’s pipeline.

Does your business actually know about your team’s skill set?

If you are aiming to encourage the business to use your team’s services, the single most important thing you need to be able to do is to showcase your team’s service offering.

Your team may include a lawyer who excels at legal project management or due diligence. They can be called on for an asset sale, transfer or acquisition.

Another lawyer may be a great communicator. That person may be able to navigate between stakeholder groups to manage risk on a project by getting everyone to talk and discuss the outcomes needed.

You may have team members who excel in legal process. These lawyers can analyse several different tasks performed across the business and create an efficient legal process as a result.

Your colleagues need to understand what you do, why you do it and how it adds value to the business.

If the business has no idea that an in-house lawyer does something more than certify copy documents, ‘check’ contracts or manage unspecified and vaguely understood ‘legal work’, it may not gain the best value from your team. This can result in frustration among your team members that their abilities are not being fully utilised because no-one seems to know much about them.

Telling your team’s story can help you to achieve this

In November, I attended the national conference of the Association of Corporate Counsel Australia in Brisbane. A half day of masterclasses was offered to help us improve our skills in a specific area related to in-house practice. I took part in a session led by communications expert Gretel Hunnerup.

Gretel explained a little of the science of story-telling. She told us that brain studies show that humans are primed to feel connected to those we meet in person as well as those online – provided they have a compelling tale to tell.

Story-telling is a powerful tool for everyone in every discipline, she said. It has been used for thousands of years to communicate, preserve history and to explain life events across almost every culture.

Does your team have a story?

You may not initially think your team has a ‘story’. Yet all legal functions started somewhere. The in-house legal function is still an emerging and growing area. There are still entities who are establishing their in-house legal team or sole counsel from scratch every year.

In-house lawyers in New Zealand make up over 23% of the total legal profession. This is a big proportion of lawyers who need to get the stakeholders in their business, company or government department on side to use them to their full potential.

What story do you want to tell and for whom should you craft it?

Stories have a purpose. Gretel noted that there are numerous types of purpose. It is helpful to be clear on what your story is aiming to achieve.

Stories for change

You may first tell a strategy story to encourage the team or the business to head off in a new direction.

A current example is contract automation change. Legal teams are moving to launch self-service contract tools for the wider business to use without the need to refer everything ‘to legal’.

Gretel Hunnerup
Gretel Hunnerup

Gretel suggests you use a moment to explain how a business unit benefitted from the change you have implemented.

The problem: Imagine you need to justify the time a business colleague will need to invest in training on a new self-service contract system. They need to allocate at least two hours for an online learning module.

Your change story could be about a real business colleague who is an early champion of the new tool. This adds credibility to the story and personalises it to your own institution or business. This could be told as follows:

“James, a telecommunications project manager in our Hamilton team, needed to get a new telecommunications licence in place with a local landowner.

“The landowner was due to go on an extended trip overseas in a few weeks. James needed the land right to be secured before she left as the project needed to commence as soon as possible.

“So, James opened his Favourites tab on the intranet and launched the contract tool. He opened a licence template which was pre-approved by legal.

“He completed the information when prompted. He then issued an auto-generated email with a PDF of the licence attached to the landowner that day for signing. The landowner signed it digitally and submitted it back two days later.

“James realised that the two hours of contract user-training to use the self-service contract tool was well worth the effort. His licence took a couple of days to obtain instead of the usual 3-4 weeks in the past when legal had to be involved for every step.”

The organisational narrative

Hayley Evans
Hayley Evans

The organisational narrative is powerful. It offers the business the chance to reflect on an evolution of change and how this has added value overall.

Hayley Evans of Wellington City Council grew her team from her sole counsel role to a team of eight in just two years. She used data to tell her story to management for specialist lawyers to be brought into the team. She religiously recorded what team members (including herself) were doing, when, for how long and on what category of work.

She says that if you explain that you have grown, why you have grown and how that growth has added value by managing risk better, providing transactional services and encouraging the business to think up front about organisational risk, it can justify your request for more resource.

The success story

Gretel recommends that you can now tell a series of success stories to reflect how well the change has worked or how teams who have not adopted the change are still struggling.

Once you have implemented a change, there will still be an ongoing need to sell the idea to others. There may be colleagues who have not needed the legal team until now and so have not yet heard of your great new way of working. There may be detractors who have held off adopting the change for as long as possible.

Theo Kapodistrias
Theo Kapodistrias

Telling a success story works well for Theo Kapodistrias, who also spoke at the Brisbane conference. His story was about the shift the legal team of the University of Tasmania made to a hybrid of the Agile model of working collaboratively.

For internal stakeholders who are cautious of a new project-based approach to working, he tells the story of the department which got on board with the change.

He talks about how the legal team was involved in a relatively innovative project a couple of years ago. They had to ask each different department the same questions over multiple meetings. They got differing views and direction from each. They had to manage this and it was time-consuming and inefficient.

The legal team decided to conduct a team-wide debriefing session to gather some lessons learned. Theo then researched project management techniques, including the Agile methodology. As a team they all agreed that the legal team now acts as co-ordinator for project teams of stakeholders in the university.

Theo explains to internal colleagues through a case study example what software the legal team will use (Microsoft Team). He notes that all the stakeholders from across the organisation agreed roles and responsibilities for actions in a combined meeting at the beginning of the project. He is enthusiastic about how the regular update meetings with the Microsoft Team status dashboard helped keep everyone up to date and on track. He uses an anecdote that senior management comment that the collaborative and unified approach gives them confidence that all stakeholders are aligned and endorse the decision that management are expected to approve. Finally, he provides statistics to demonstrate the value. The case study he uses is of an AU$8 million contract achieved in five days compared to 2-5 months using the older approach of contacting each team separately and in a silo.

Every team has a story

The key message is that every team has a story. You just need to tell it to show how much value you truly add and how much more you can add.

As a team building exercise, creating your team’s stories can be a bonding and empowering experience. It is a great way to look back on the achievements you have made individually and as a team. You could do this off site at a team planning day with someone outside the team acting as note-taker (another great way to showcase what you do).

The resulting stories are recorded for any number of uses. They can be material for your development plan. Perhaps they are content for your team intranet page. They could even be a winning team submission for an award.

Sian Wingate is President of ILANZ, the in-house section of the Law Society. In this voluntary role, she uses her spare time and energy to be an advocate for the advancement of in-house lawyers in New Zealand, to ensure they can continue to develop fulfilling and healthy careers both inside and outside the law. Sian is always keen to chat with other in-house counsel or private practitioners on aspects of legal life that can be shared to offer practical and helpful insights on day-to-day life as a lawyer. Contact her at This article includes contributions from Gretel Hunnerup, Theo Kapodistrias and Hayley Evans.

Hayley Evans is head of Legal and Risk (General Counsel) at Wellington City Council. Hayley joined the council in 2016 to establish a legal services unit, moving the council from a decentralised and outsourced model to building strong in-house capability. The team is now well established with seven lawyers, and Hayley has added risk, business continuity and emergency management and project governance to her portfolio, moving her away from transactional legal work into a leadership role.

Theo Kapodistrias is an in-house lawyer at The University of Tasmania where he works alongside a team of seven in-house counsel to help the university achieve its educational goals. He is the president of the Tasmanian Division of the Association of Corporate Counsel of Australia. He is an active supporter of young lawyers and legal education. He is organises all CPD and networking events in and across Tasmania for in-house lawyers.

Gretel Hunnerup helps Australian business leaders to build their influence and impact by telling great stories. With 15 years of journalism and communications experience gained in Australia and abroad, Gretel delivers in-house workshops and talks on storytelling for innovation, brand, team-building, business development and transformation.

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