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How to be a thriving in-house legal team

Airways in-house legal team won the title of NZ In-House Team of The Year at the Australasian Law Awards 2021, with judges commenting on the way they “played a crucial role in the unprecedented challenges of 2020” whilst looking after their team and dealing with complex litigation and divestments.  

Katie Bhreatnach holds the positions of General Counsel and General Manager of Customer and Regulatory Partnerships at Airways. She is also a Director of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, Atua Matua, and St Mary’s College Ponsonby. Since joining the Airways in-house legal team in 2019, Bhreatnach has overhauled the legal team’s ways of working to create better performance through tech adoption, the tracking of KPIs and metrics, bringing on new talent, and building a cohesive team of leaders. It is notable that this happened whilst leading the legal function and customer and program management teams through the troubled times of the Covid-19 pandemic, which for Airways included a 98 percent drop in revenue. 

Does leading a thriving legal team take constant work? What steps does your team take to maintain its drive?

There's a saying that leadership is a journey, not a destination; that's fundamental for me. As a people leader, you're never fully formed. All good leaders are constantly reflecting on what they need to do to be more effective and what they need to bring to any moment of personal interaction or transaction. 

In terms of our team, I think that's true for all people whether people leaders or otherwise. We’re about building out safe spaces where people can bring their full selves to work. It's about developing frameworks for how people can engage and check-in. We use two check-in tools at our team meeting, one is a wellbeing check-in tool and the other is a tool for sharing if you’re in a comfort zone, learning zone, or stretch-panic zone. Everyone in the team uses the tools to share with others where they're at, which creates an opportunity to explore in broader conversation. 

Can you elaborate on the comfort, learning, panic-stretch zone tool? 

You can use it to say, “This week, I'm 20 percent in comfort, I'm at 50 percent in learning, and 30 percent in panic.” Too much in panic is a useful message to the team that you need support. On the flip side, if someone says they're mostly in comfort mode, they probably need an opportunity to be challenged or extended. When you're managing lots of busy people who operate quite independently, it's a useful way to give one another a sense of where each of us is at. Not just as the leader of the team, but for everyone. There’s an element of personal accountability and in my observation and experience, it builds a team where everyone pitches in to help one another when needed. 

It also allows you to genuinely connect with people, by meeting them where they're at. It’s an easy way for someone to let me know if they aren’t doing so well because they’ve been in lockdown for 43 days, or they have personal challenges going on or they are finding something at work challenging.. It also creates a space where people can grow and develop at the pace they need to, led by the level of their ambition and interest in their own development. 

Why do you think Airways won the New Zealand In-House Team of the Year award? 

There are always so many deserving teams, many of whom I know of - doing great mahi and who are good people. In terms of celebrating Airways legal team achievements, the first thing I’d point to is that the team had a hugely disruptive year. On top of that, there have been transformations and accelerations required - for instance, our international business took its entire training program digital in a matter of weeks. The nature of the work and having to do that in an incredibly challenging context, with significant litigation, meant that the breadth and depth of the work were impressive. 

Secondly, I’d point to the culture the team has built. When I started, the team was reactive and struggling to get through the day-to-day. They knew they wanted to change but they couldn't find the time to make it happen. The organization has had to shift. Some of this adjustment was about taking individual responsibility, by having autonomy over oneself and one’s work. For the team to get to where they wanted to be they got tools, systems - such as LawVu - and processes in place to help. They also strategized around how to be a better team and what behaviors they needed to leave behind or do differently. They are rightly proud of the work they have done on this journey, and continue to support each other and grow.  

In the most recent level four lockdown, we realized we had to change our expectations rather than run on adrenalin like we did the first time around.  All of us have found it challenging, and half of our team have young kids, a few people on their own which is a whole different sort of challenge. We set expectations early that the priority was wellbeing and that we and the business’s expectations would need to adjust. 

What role does communication play in achieving and sustaining a thriving legal team?

All good teams are built on mutual trust, and to have trust you need to build openness. If you want people to be open with you, you need to create a context in which they feel comfortable doing it. If you want a deep connection, you need to connect outside of the working context; get to know people for who they are. What drives them? What's important to them? And of course, to be open yourself. 

I create tools and frameworks that allow frequent habits of checking in and being open. 

People won’t talk if they don’t feel safe, so you need to demonstrate to people that they can be open and create safe spaces to do so by role modeling. I took a couple of days off recently and said, “I'm not going to be a great leader this week. I'm going to take some time off and recalibrate.” A lot of the team took some time off themselves both beforehand and in response. 

What role does legal operations play in achieving and sustaining a thriving legal team?

Legal operations or technology is the enabler, not the endpoint. Legal ops offer the ability to achieve something you want and is a huge enabler of proactive, high-performance legal teams. A Harvard academic, Lawrence Lessig, wrote a book entitled ‘Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace’ in which he suggests that law and technology are very similar. His thesis is that you're constrained or enabled in life by four things: laws, norms, your budget, and architecture (architecture being technology). I recommend the book - it’s a fascinating read.  But i happen to agree with his perspective also - Technology is either a constraint or an enabler. It will stop you from doing something or it will enable you - as will the law. They are very similar in that way, and I think that’s why they are such a natural fit for one another. 

Based on that, what is your response to lawyers who say they are lawyers and not technologists or businesspeople?

I would say technology is a more important part of our lives than it ever has been, and less important now than it will be in the future. It’s an unstoppable trend, and so we need to get on the bandwagon or risk obsolescence.  Lawyers didn’t use to use email, they used faxes, and when I started law school, you hand-wrote assignments. Now lawyers use email as their primary form of communication rather than faxing. The question really is, does technology better enable you to do your job as a lawyer? If the answer is yes, then what are you waiting for. 

How does your legal team maintain transparency with the ELT and the wider business?

We do monthly KPI reports which go to the ELT. These have data analytics metrics that we report regularly as well as discursive stuff regarding highlights on things that have been delivered. The metrics are taken from LawVu but are anecdotal as well. They tell the story about the value that the legal team is adding. We have a business plan we deliver to over the year and report against that as well. For instance, one of the strategic objectives the legal team is delivering to this year is about lifting commercial capability outside of the legal team.

We report on what was actually done in that month, whether it's a sharing session - to basically share knowledge and expertise with other people - to help them be more effective. I’ve found that people at Airways are very engaged with training programs, they are keen to learn about particular areas of the law they have exposure to, and this, in turn, leads to greater appreciation and understanding of what legal does and how to work with it.

What motivates you to do more than business as usual?

As a leader, I'm driven by the fact that leadership is a journey, not a destination. As a motivator, I like solving problems. When something's not working, I like to find a way to do it better or differently. I came into the role with a change mandate, and after getting to know the business and the team it was clear to me that there were things we could change to improve the situation for everyone. We built our culture and our values together as an enabler to affect change. And have had a lot of fun and laughs along the way.  Our team has five different generations in it - we are a template for the future of work that all businesses will need to lean into going forward, and we make space for each other and work together well.  Diversity is such a great thing. 

What was the underlying strategy that drove you and made Airways an award-winning team?

We diagnosed ourselves and then challenged ourselves to be the Best Legal Team Ever (BLT). When our goal was to be the BLT it was the natural progression. If you're motivated to achieve what you need to do to be the BLT, then you believe you are. If you aim for the best, and you build a plan to get there and do those things, you will be the BLT. Our WhatsApp group is even called BLT. well before we believed we were too!

Have you made mistakes, either personally or as part of the team, you’ve had to correct?

I constantly make mistakes. My youngest daughter came home from school recently and said, “Mum, I had a great day. I made a mistake so my brain grew.” It’s trite, but I agree with the sentiment that the best learning comes from failing. Our team constantly makes mistakes and shares the learnings. We give each other the freedom to fail.  

When I started at Airways we made a mistake regarding our insurance. I remember ringing my CEO in Singapore and telling him the problem and what I was going to do about it, and his response was that “the first good thing about that is you're telling me.” That is the right response any good leader will give you. The next thing you should do is declare that you will do everything you can to try and fix it, and then do that.  And third, take the learning. 

What are mistakes lawyers typically make?

There is a large degree of subjectivity when it comes to legal outcomes against which I would caution. For instance, if I'm negotiating a deal on the other side of you, who is someone else to come along and say I could have done better? At the time, it might have been the best I could have done there. Sometimes people can make a technical mistake. The nature of being an in-house lawyer is being a generalist. You don't know everything, you know a lot about some things and a little bit about a lot of things. It’s important to learn when you don't know enough and you either need to get someone else to help or an expert on board.  

People do a marketing campaign and it’s not overly effective, but they don't necessarily beat themselves up as much as lawyers do if they make an error. So, when you make a mistake ask yourself, “is it really that bad, and is there something I could do to learn from it?”

One of the biggest mistakes people make, in my experience, is not getting help when they've made a mistake. If you’ve messed something up, tell someone and get some help to fix it. Don't try to hide it and drive yourself crazy worrying about it.

What are your thoughts on the legal profession in its current state? 

I'm endlessly impressed by the disruption that's happening in the market. People used to fight to be able to work flexibly. When I had children, people told me my career was going to go down the toilet. None of those things are rules anymore and the same is going to continue to be true. There are a bunch of lawyers in our team that have families or other interests on the side. I just co-founded a start-up with someone, one of the lawyers in Christchurch has their own business on the side. There aren't any rules around this stuff. It's an exciting time to be a lawyer, the profession is more diverse than it’s ever been, the in-house community is larger than it's ever been, and no business will question the value of having lawyers within the organization. 

Lawyers need to stop seeing themselves as determining legal risk and move into a place where they help the business navigate risk more broadly, where legal risk is one component.

One of the dilemmas people face in organizational design is where they want hybrid roles with a legal component. A lawyer can bring their understanding of ESG, sustainability risk, or political risk into a broader role. This helps an organization to establish what it needs to know about risk, to drive innovation, and to grow. In-house lawyers need to turn up the dial and realize that the skill set they bring combined with other things is a powerful force for good that will be increasingly sought after by business. 

Any final words of advice for your fellow in-house legal professionals? 

Don’t forget that your job won't keep you warm at night or on weekends. It’s important to have a life outside of your job. 

Way back when you used to have a job for life. Now, your network is your job for life. Have a good reputation, be a good person, help people out when they ask; that is your insurance policy. 

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