ILANZ, In-House Lawyers Association of New Zealand

A recipe for success

A recipe for success

By Kristy Rusher - Chief Legal Officer, Dunedin City Council| 26 September 2018

Kirsty RusherIt was midnight at Logan International Airport, Boston and the arrivals crowd was thinning rapidly.  Inhaling the summer breeze as I stepped into an Uber, home felt a very long way away. 

The terraced apartments lit by the Boston streetlights were a stark contrast to the state house kitchen in Lower Hutt where this journey had begun decades ago.  Whenever Nana had reached for her scone bowl, my heart had slowly sunk.  I was a reluctant audience for the familiar tale that would inevitably follow.  No amount of persuasion could convince her to change the recipe of the scones or the story.  By the time the dough was tipped onto the bench for kneading I had exhausted my attempts at distracting her from the ritual of repeating it.  "I should have made more of myself" my Nana lectured the scone dough.  "My Aunt had offered to pay for me to train as a Karitane nurse but I decided to go to Wellington instead" she'd add, pausing to emphasise her words with a vigorous fold of the dough despite her arthritis.  The depth of her regret always featured in the lean stature of the scones that emerged from the oven.    Each time I forced down her baking, I renewed my silent promise to make the most of the opportunities I found.

Each anniversary of Nana's death I've contemplated whether I was living up to my promise.  If I was honest with myself, as time had passed, excuses had been easier to find than opportunities.  Eventually, it occurred to me that living up to my promise meant creating the opportunities I wanted – not just hoping they would arrive.  

The foundation I needed to create so that I could accept a seat at Harvard Law School's Leadership in Corporate Counsel programme took a few years of consistent effort.  Firstly, to remove the self-imposed barriers and secondly to form a network of colleagues, friends and extended family for supporting my family and work commitments in my absence.

I chose the Harvard programme because LCC promises more than transmission of subject matter – instead it aims to make lawyers into leaders.  It is a seven day programme, with three days completing course work at home, followed by four days on campus at Harvard Law School in Boston. 

Participants on the programme were from a broad range of companies, and countries with representatives from family owned broadcasting companies through to global media agencies and energy companies.  As most of the course attendees were scheduled to stay at the same hotel, it was easy to meet and form friendships over stories of what life was like as corporate counsel in other places in the world. 

I'd hoped to learn more about what it means to be an effective leader in a legal role, and obtain some insight into managing the transition of technology into the legal sector in New Zealand.  I had been warned that the programme began at full speed, and went faster and became more intense from that point onward.  I'd also heard that being in a Harvard lecture was "…like standing in front of a fire hydrant on full, and trying to catch a glass of water."  The LLC programme lived up to both descriptions.

The programme was focused around case studies of sizeable organisations, with consistent themes being drawn out between each case analysis.  Spoiler alert – the programme begins with an analysis of how the job of Chief Legal Officer/General Counsel is designed to make you fail.  The tensions between being a producer and a manager mean that neither role can be fulfilled completely.  However, this is followed quickly by sessions that develop your knowledge as to what you need to succeed as far as possible given the conflicting elements of a role where you are leading lawyers.  A session on technology and the rise of legal operations was included as well as strategy and development of teams.

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Inside the classroom at Harvard

There was also a group workshop on design thinking, where each team used a structured brainstorming session to develop a new product to solve a legal service problem. Predictably for a group of lawyers, our group spent ¾ of the time allocation negotiating the intellectual property rights for the development concept before even starting the exercise.

I discovered that the experiences of corporate counsel and the key issues in our daily roles were the same regardless of which jurisdiction the legal team was practising in.  Striking the delicate balance between being a fearless legal advisor and maintaining executive relationships was an issue shared amongst every other person attending the course.  The main message on the programme was that our focus as corporate counsel needs to be the development of a strategy for the legal team which serves the organisation's wider vision and goals. 

However, we also traversed spontaneous topics.  The sad news of Anthony Bourdain's suicide lead the news on the last day of the programme and there was a detailed discussion about ensuring the well-being of ourselves and others and what various bar associations offer their members for professional support.

Mark Roellig, a visiting alumnus also prompted an important insight that can't be found in a text book or case study.  His advice was that it was essential to write a personal charter before starting each job.  A personal charter is a recipe for how you will carry out your role as a professional adviser and specifies your bottom lines, principles which you are not prepared to compromise on under any circumstances.  He openly acknowledged that this was in effect setting the terms of resignation from that role before you'd even sat in the chair.  However he cautioned that inevitably a request to compromise your standards would arrive.  His advice was that it was better to make that decision ahead of time, as judgement could otherwise be clouded by difficult circumstances.  His experience as a leader in the American Bar Association had shown him that the lawyers that sleep the best are those that adhere to their personal charter.  In contrast, those that don't have one, or who transgress their bottom lines are not easy to live with, and find it hard to live with themselves. Click here to read Mark's personal charter.

The allure of measuring our professional success against a yardstick of whether we are popular with our clients, the strength of our executive relationships, or the metrics of our organisations can be irresistible.  However, corporate strategies come and go, as do people within organisations – these measures of success are fleeting and capricious.  Measuring our performance against a personal charter is a more meaningful approach to judging if our career is successful.

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Exterior of the Law Library

While considering the ingredients to include in my personal charter, I recalled Nana's unwavering adherence to her scone recipe.  I'd forgotten that despite their leaden texture her scones had a full, rich, buttery flavour.  Her commitment to her recipe, was not blind as I had assumed – it was a considered choice to select flavour instead of an alluring appearance. 

The LLC programme showed me that as a Chief Legal Officer I had to make choices too.  A choice between performing as a leading advisor or as a leader of advisors.  A choice between working to live or living to work.  A choice between being measured by how I meet client expectations, or being measured by the professional standards I set for myself.

It took a trip half way around the world to discover that choosing a recipe and sticking to it is important in whatever we do – a truth Nana had already shared by making countless batches of scones.  This insight was the most rewarding aspect of completing the LCC programme.  Consequently, my charter recipe acknowledges and emphasises the contributions of the people who are part of my life.

The author would like to acknowledge the financial assistance of Dunedin City Council in providing study leave and making a contribution to the cost of flights.  Special thanks for making this trip possible also go to: Michelle McCormack, Nikki Hall and James Hall,Tony Gray of Ravensdown’s Dunedin Branch, Kate Wilson and to the Taylor family of Alexandra as well as Karilyn Canton and Eleanor Bunt of the Dunedin City Council legal team. 

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Law Library Foyer

Places not to miss when visiting Boston:

  • Peabody Museum of Ethnology and Archaeology - a collection of the botanical specimens made from hand blown glass.  The museum also has a range of online exhibitions which can be viewed here: https://www.peabody.harvard.edu/all-exhibitions.
  • Art work viewings from most of the Harvard campus galleries can also be ordered online and it will be made available to you in a private gallery viewing.
  • Science museum
  • Fenway park – even as a sports hater, the 7th innings stretch is an experience not to be missed.

Tips for getting the most out of the programme:

  • Arrive a few days in advance of the start date to fully recover from jetlag, and travel business class if possible to shorten your recovery time at your destination.
  • Complete the course work before getting on the plane – engaging in the lectures requires precise factual recall.  Dimmed cabin lighting, chatty neighbours, and juggling refreshments and a laptop on a tray table are not conducive to subject matter retention or detailed case analysis.
  • Print course materials and take them with you as a back-up.  Although you are provided with a device for the course duration, the impact of glitches with wifi are minimised if you travel with a hardcopy.
  • Take a compatible power adapter and multipin plug with you, as being prevented from connecting with home due to flat batteries is a big distraction that is easily avoided.
  • Before you leave home and the office, tell everyone when you are available to take calls and respond to emails - Harvard's lecture theatres are phone free areas and responding to emails during lectures is seriously frowned upon no matter what crisis you are managing or time zone constraints that apply.
  • Take a notebook to record reflections and insights at the beginning and end of each day to capture the valuable learning outside the classroom.  Although sleeping will seem vastly more appealing than writing up learning points, you are there to learn, not sleep.
  • Make the most of connecting to others in the class – many of them will be able to offer suggestions as well as a range of perspectives in solving similar issues.
  • Before you leave the course, pick three things to implement on your return and make a plan on how you will do this.

Other resources:

Australian Bar Association: http://austbar.asn.au/

Edx: https://www.edx.org/

 

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Inside the Law Library