Litigator talks taking her career in-house

“I can help make commercial decisions with a legal hat on,” CouriersPlease’s legal counsel says

Litigator talks taking her career in-house
Clare Matthews

As a university student pursuing politics, law came naturally to Clare Matthews, and it did not take long for her to focus her career on that field and go into practice as a litigator. While she nursed a particular interest in the in-house side of the industry, making the transition was expected to be a difficult process.

Thus, Matthews leapt at the first opportunity she was given to try an in-house role, and she hasn’t looked back since. As the legal counsel at parcel delivery company CouriersPlease, she enjoys being in a position that “isn’t 100% legal,” and she has applied her unique knowledge as part of the company’s senior leadership team to help the business expand and adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this interview, Matthews discusses CouriersPlease’s recognition of her litigator skills, coordinating with different departments in her role, personal development during the pandemic and how the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines could impact workplace law.

What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?

I originally studied politics at university but took a law subject as part of my degree. I realised very quickly that law came naturally to me and I was able to understand it easily. I enjoyed everything about it, from the structure, to how you study the law and even the exams. I found myself constructing arguments using legislation and cases together as though it was second nature.

My favourite part of the job, particularly at CouriersPlease is the fact that it isn’t 100% legal. Working in-house has meant I have a broader understanding of the business and know its ins and outs. I can also help the business make commercial decisions, with a legal hat on. This has meant that every day is different for me, which can be really exciting.

What is the most memorable case you've taken on/been involved in?

In 2011, CouriersPlease made the decision to convert its business from a contractor model to a franchise business. At the time, this was the biggest franchise conversion undertaken in Australia. In addition to liaising with the regulator and having to learn franchise law very quickly, we had to roll out a new contract and business model to over 600 franchisees. This involved working very closely with the team, not only on the legal issues but commercial strategy and – most importantly – communications.

What made you decide to take your career in-house?

Working in-house is always something that I was interested in; however, it is notoriously difficult, to make that transition from private practice – especially for lawyers from a litigation background. I was approached by NZ Post, which is the company who owned CouriersPlease at the time, to be a general counsel for a wider group of companies. I jumped at the chance, knowing that in-house roles in law can be difficult to get.

I thought it would also be a great opportunity to work on the commercial side of law. I was really fortunate that the company recognised that the skills I’d built as a litigator, particularly around risk and preventing disputes, would be an asset to them.

How did the pandemic affect your industry and you in your role as in-house lawyer?

The pandemic had a significant impact on the industry. The rise in e-commerce led to significant and rapid growth for CouriersPlease. We expanded the business, hired additional staff and opened six depots. Within my role, I was already working flexible hours and remotely, so this fortunately wasn’t an area that required a lot of adjustment for me. I did support the business as it transitioned to a flexible and remote work model and continued to grow.

I also worked more closely with colleagues across HR and workplace health and safety. We undertook daily briefings to talk through all aspects of the company, including making it as safe as possible for employees. This included introducing rapid testing. We took the initiative to do this to give customers peace of mind and many customers complemented us on our forward-thinking response and approach to health and safety.

What has been your proudest accomplishment in the last year or so, and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?

I felt very accomplished being able to assist CouriersPlease as it adapted and grew during the pandemic, particularly as part of its senior leadership team. My biggest piece of advice for fellow lawyers would be to get involved in as many aspects of a business as possible, as your role as an in-house lawyer is likely to encompass more than just legal decisions. Being able to combine this with your legal knowledge, common sense and world experience will be a great benefit to you.

What should the legal profession focus more on in the current environment under COVID-19?

Being more flexible and able to react quickly to change is where people have been the most successful. I think the legal profession as a whole will certainly focus a lot more on this and ensuring they are prepared to adapt and change course quickly.

What, in your opinion, were the best ways the legal profession responded to the pandemic?

I think the way law firms looked at how they provide content and platforms throughout the pandemic was really great. They quickly adapted to offering a lot of content and webinars online, many of which were available to those in the profession for free. This was helpful extremely during this time and ensured that anyone could gain access to great, up-to-date content and continue to expand their knowledge and skills.

CouriersPlease also continued to focus on professional development, so having access to content that ensured I could continue my own development was particularly helpful.

What is your outlook for 2021?

With most of my family living overseas, I am looking forward to international travel again, although I know this may be unlikely this year. I am hoping to see travel pick up again in the near future and be able to connect with family in person. I also see myself focusing more on enjoying being in Australia and exploring the country, particularly since overseas travel isn’t an option at the moment.

I can also see a number of workplace issues emerging around the vaccine. As it continues to be rolled out, employers will likely start looking into whether they should be mandating employees to have the vaccine or not. It will be interesting to see how the vaccine will play out with workplace laws and how businesses are able to navigate this unknown.

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