The New Zealand Law Awards is an annual spectacle for some, and celebration to many. Nominations for the whopping 28 categories closed this month. I can imagine it's one of the worst and most tireless times of the year for marketing and business development executives across the country.
Of course I see the benefit of what often is an entire evening of drinking chardonnay and eating small portioned dishes - and on a school night, no less. If you're more of a cheeseburger, fries and cosmopolitan sort of person, alas, no stiff drinks are ever on the menu, but perhaps this is a metaphor for increasing alcohol policies within the legal industry.
And the awards themselves are always a treat. There's a certain element of genius to those hilarious and arguably tokenistic videos that are presented before each category. And the judges - God knows how or why they're chosen (organisers failed to comment) - produce some gems. Boutique Dunedin law firm Van Aart Sycamore Lawyers took home the Corporate and Commercial Law Award over the big corporates in 2011, for example. It even made the Otago Daily Times.
Having borne witness to a number of these events over the years, I couldn't help but wonder, why are they so popular?
On the record, private law firms said the awards were a great chance to celebrate their work, and the industry as a whole. Bell Gully, Buddle Findlay, Chapman Tripp, DLA Piper, Lane Neave, and Russell McVeagh said so.
Off the record, various people outside of those firms said it's not a case of wanting to go, but rather what's said if one doesn't, that's up for debate. Why? Because their most valued clients - general counsel - go, you see.
The rise of the in-house counsel, and the impact on private practice is of increasing concern within legal circles locally and internationally. Latest NZ Law Society figures show there are 3206 in-house lawyers working in New Zealand. That accounts for 24 per cent of the total 13,530 practising lawyers. In 2010, the proportion was 19.3 per cent, and 21.2 per cent in 2015. Of the 3206 lawyers, 62 per cent are women.
There are various reasons why people are increasingly going in-house. ILANZ (the in-house section of the Law Society) vice-president Mark Wilton said in-house offers an attractive career option for lawyers. It's generally recognised as providing more flexibility and opportunities for work/life balance than has been available within law firms.
"The diversity of work, the opportunity to be involved in different parts of a business and to work with experts in a variety of disciplines all add to job satisfaction..."
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Auckland Council's in-house legal department has a team of 55 lawyers and legal executives, for example. Duties are vast, according to general counsel Dani Gardiner, where the department handles litigation and investigations, regulatory advice and litigation, prosecutions, public law issues, property, development, infrastructure, commercial and finance matters.
"There are real benefits to an organisation from having a strong in-house legal team. In-house lawyers understand their organisation, can offer more than pure legal advice, are accessible and can turn around important matters quickly. There are significant financial savings too. Typically, in-house legal staff are considerably more cost-effective than briefing work to firms".
Having said that, law firms bring specialist expertise and market knowledge, and their deep resource and capacity, he said.
It's a competitive tender process, so Gardiner and company have used tight panels with a managed Key Performance Indicators (KPI) structure focusing on outcomes, value for money, and innovation.
"These arrangements mean that the firms partner closely with the council client and legal team, and build strong trust and relationships. And we manage our spend."
The Law Awards thus offers private firms an opportunity to razzle dazzle, so to speak. Bell Gully's Ben Parsons said awards for GCs and their teams form an important part of the evening "where the industry acknowledges and celebrates the role in-house lawyers play in the success of their organisations".
The issue of tackling the flexibility and work/life balance problems in private practice, however, must be parked for another day. I need a stiff drink - sorry chardonnay - just thinking about it.
If you've got any tips, legal tidbits, or appointments that might be of interest, please email Sasha - on email@example.com