Melissa Soh-Newstead weathered a difficult background with support and wisdom she got from home
Melissa Soh-Newstead grew up in poverty and had little hope for more in life. However, her brother’s shining example got her on the path to rising above her difficult background through a career in law.
Soh-Newstead’s brother helped support her law studies in England, and she also learned the importance of a good work ethic, integrity and resilience from her mother. Today, Soh-Newstead has risen up the ranks of the in-house legal market in New Zealand as the current GC and company secretary at Silver Ferns Farms Ltd.
In this interview, Soh-Newstead discusses helping her organisation to garner the NZ Privacy Trust Mark certification, the importance of soft skills for a lawyer, learning from failure and the need for more innovation in the legal profession.
What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?
My brother, who was a successful lawyer himself, inspired me to choose law as a career. We grew up poor in an environment with no social welfare system and very limited prospects or hope for a better life. Our only hope was having enough food on the table to feed a family of nine kids and not being bullied, harassed or made fun of. My brother, who was a smart and brilliant scholar, saw a career in law as a way out of poverty.
Through grit and determination, he obtained a scholarship to read law and went on to become a highly successful and respected lawyer who, to date, remains humble despite his status. He and my family all worked and saved extremely hard to send me to England to read law. I would not have come this far and achieved so much without their support and encouragement.
I love to be not just a problem solver but a strategic thinker and trusted adviser/partner to the business. I enjoy collaborating with colleagues/stakeholders to execute new/exciting/innovative/ground-breaking projects. Seeing how stakeholders/colleagues value and appreciate my skills and guidance is very gratifying and fulfilling.
What is going on at the organisation? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?
Like all businesses, we are facing multiple challenges in these unprecedented times. But with challenges, come opportunities. COVID-19 has been a silver lining for our organisation to accelerate some of our strategic and sustainability initiatives/programmes, such as e-commerce and working remotely. We are looking at ways to transform our legal function to make it fit for the future and to become a rewarding place for valued people to work.
We are particularly interested in exploring innovative legaltech solutions to increase efficiency and enhance stakeholders’ experience and engagement with the team.
What tech-related initiatives adopted by the organisation, if any, are you most excited about?
The HR Oracle solution has recently been successfully launched within our organisation. It is a great tool for a big NZ employer such as Silver Fern Farms (over 7000 employees) to manage leaves, performance appraisals, KPIs, personal development, etc. The tool is intuitive for both employees and their managers. From a privacy perspective, it is also a great tool to manage and ensure that employees’ personal information is held securely and confidentially.
Another tool that I am excited about is our highly regarded privacy reporting tool that has recently received the NZ Privacy Trust Mark certification. It is simple, user friendly and widely used by our employees.
What has been your proudest accomplishment in the last year or so?
My team and I have achieved a lot in a short space of time including:
- developing and implementing a best-in-class global privacy framework in compliance with various jurisdictions and embedding a strong culture of privacy compliance. Our hard work has been rewarded and we are proud to have been named a finalist in the 2021 ILANZ Innovation Award. Our privacy reporting tool has recently been awarded the NZ Privacy Trust Mark certification which is the NZ Privacy Commissioner’s formal recognition for excellence in privacy
- collaborating with internal stakeholders in the delivery of Silver Fern Farms’ sustainability strategy to achieve the company’s vision to be “the world’s most successful and sustainable grass-fed red meat company”. The legal team has played a pivotal role in various sustainability initiatives such as the ground-breaking Net Carbon Zero Angus Beef Project (now successfully launched in the US) and emission reduction projects
- COVID-19 response around strategy, health and safety obligations, human rights obligations, testing, etc.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?
The biggest lesson that I have learned in the past year is that no matter how good you are as a lawyer, other skills (particularly soft skills) are just as important and valuable as your legal skills. My advice is to work on bringing value-added skills to the table as a point of differentiation, if you don’t already have them.
Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself to think outside the box. If you fail at doing something or trying something new, fail fast. You will learn and be better from it. As JK Rowling once put it, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”
What should the profession focus more on?
To be honest, the legal profession as a whole needs to focus their attention on innovation and doing things differently. They need to be adaptable to compete with the proliferation of “business advisers,” especially the “Big 4” accounting firms that are ramping up their capabilities to compete with law firms in several areas of client service (trust, privacy, M&A, etc). In my view – and this is no disrespect to “traditionalists” out there – lawyers should challenge themselves to move away from the traditional client-service business model and change the way they bill and engage/work with clients.
Clients such as our organisation are increasingly looking for lawyers with a wide range of skills other than legal. So my advice to lawyers out there is to move away from the mindset of being “just a legal adviser.”
What are the challenges you expect in your practice, and in the business of law in general, going forward? What challenges are particularly pressing in the country’s legal industry?
Our organisation is involved in processing, marketing, and exporting FMCG. We export to circa 60 countries and operate in a dynamic business environment with constant disruption to every part of our business including operations, supply chain, procurement, employment, etc. We have a relatively small legal team, and one of the biggest challenges for my team this year is increased burden on the team and having to do more with less at a time of rising regulatory and financial risks. Team fatigue/burnt out is a key risk. This is an opportunity for me as a leader to look at transforming the way we work to further improve efficiency, add value to the business and mitigate the risk of employee burn out.
COVID-19 is here to stay for a while. It and other disrupters such as geo-political issues will continue to create unprecedented uncertainty and risk. As well as rising operation costs (labour, compliance, etc.) and labour availability, the legal community is facing issues with burn out and lawyers’ mental health. Some firms are finding it tough to work from home/remotely for a variety of reasons (technological and motivational challenges, isolation, space and privacy constraints in many people’s homes, etc.)
What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?
Back to normalcy in a COVID-19 free environment. I think we can all agree we are so over COVID-19!
If you were given an opportunity to spend a day with anyone (living or dead), who would it be and why?
My mother, who has been an inspiration to me. She has taught me the meaning and value of strong work ethics, integrity and resilience, and I haven’t been able to visit her since the onset of COVID-19.