Katie Rusbatch talks what it’s like to be CEO, and what she considered the NZLS' biggest challenge
2023 Elite Woman Katie Rusbatch stepped up to lead the New Zealand Law Society at a challenging time. Nonetheless, having also served as General Manager of Professional Standards prior to her elevation to the leadership, Rusbatch applied her experiences to her new role and has since been a true star as the organisation’s CEO.
In this interview, Rusbatch shares her vision for the Law Society, what she considered the organisation’s greatest achievement and challenge for 2023, and what she gets up to outside of work.
You officially stepped into the role of CEO last year – how would you describe the experience of leading the Law Society over that period?
It’s been challenging – but luckily, I’d already been at the Law Society for around eighteen months, so I felt like I had a good sense of where the organisation’s modernisation and transformation journey was headed. Previously, I was the General Manager of Professional Standards, so this meant that I also had a good grasp of the consumer protection side of the Law Society’s role.
I’ve also been fortunate to work with an excellent Board, and I appreciate their insights and challenges to make sure we’re on the right track. I’m grateful to the Law Society staff as well – they choose to work for the Law Society because they believe in serving both the public and the profession through regulating and representing lawyers in Aotearoa New Zealand.
From your perspective as CEO, what in your opinion was the Law Society’s biggest achievement in 2023?
Getting the Independent Review delivered was probably our biggest achievement. After consultation with our Council members and the profession, the Law Society has accepted in principle most of the recommendations, including recommendations to establish a new independent regulator and an overhaul of the system for handling complaints about lawyers. The Law Society provided its response to the Minister of Justice, so that it can be considered for the Government’s legislative agenda.
What did you consider to be the organisation’s biggest challenge for 2023?
Progressing our journey to deliver membership services that are financially sustainable. Many lawyers are not aware that by law, their practising certificate fee only pays for the regulatory functions of the Law Society and cannot be used for representative services. Currently, most Law Society member services are provided at no cost to members and there is a limited amount of revenue through continuing legal education, events and section fees.
As a membership body, the Law Society provides strong national representative services and is the trusted voice for lawyers across Aotearoa. We provide extensive representation and wide geographical support of the profession. The Law Society currently represents 98% of the profession, with 13 branches nationally.
These services are currently being funded by the Law Society’s representative arm for free. To support this important work, the Law Society is looking to introduce a modest membership subscription for its more than 16,000 members in 2024.
In the regulation space, in particular professional standards, the challenge to be responsive and innovative in the face of change is constant. One of our priorities continues to be reducing the timeframes for considering complaints, and how that can be achieved within our current highly prescriptive legislative framework.
We will also have a focus on providing better and accessible information to consumers as part of our consumer protection role. It is important that consumers understand their rights when engaging with the profession and can trust the profession and the regulatory process.
What is your vision for the Law Society this year?
I see our organisation making huge strides this year towards ensuring that long-term financial sustainability of member services. That means top class advocacy, being the voice of our profession, enabling high-quality education and professional connection, and continuing to support our branches and sections.
This year, the Law Society President Frazer Barton and I will be heading out across the motu on a roadshow for the legal profession. We’ll be talking to lawyers about our new membership offer, getting into the nuts and bolts of explaining and expanding on the value of being a member of the Law Society.
As part of our travels around New Zealand, we’ll also be engaging on issues such as mental wellbeing in the legal profession, shortages in the regions, support for duty lawyers and the legal aid system and finding out what other areas lawyers need our advocacy in the most.
This will also be a big year for the regulatory part of our organisation. As noted above, in 2023 the Law Society accepted in principle most of the recommendations delivered in the final report by the Independent Review Panel into the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006. This included recommendations to establish a new independent regulator and an overhaul of the system for handling complaints about lawyers.
The Law Society is looking to the Government to indicate whether reform will be a legislative priority. It is, however, anticipated that reform of the Act could take time. In 2022 we consulted the profession on some more immediate changes to the Act which will enable the Law Society to operate in a more transparent and efficient manner for both consumers and the legal profession, until broader legislative change can be considered. We hope that these amendments can be made to reduce delay in the consideration of complaints.
What initiatives are in the pipeline this year, and which one are you most excited about?
We are really determined to put more resources and focus into the legal profession’s people this year. The culture of every lawyer’s office and the wellbeing of those who work there is at the forefront of our minds.
The 2023 Workplace Environment Survey showed that the profession has made some progress, but ongoing work is needed to address bullying, harassment and discrimination. The survey showed that we need to better equip those working in the legal profession to report conduct.
Access to justice will also be a key feature in 2024. We will be advocating that the Government considers a full review of the legal aid system, to identify how best to ensure this critical service continues to exist.
To help with this we’ll be publishing our cost of legal practice survey results which will inform our advocacy for sustainable remuneration of both legal aid and duty lawyer work. This initiative in conjunction with KPMG, it is expected, will help us advocate strongly for continued investment in the legal aid system, including increased remuneration.
We will also be following closely developments in AI technology and the impact that AI is having on the legal profession and the delivery of legal services. We will be issuing guidelines shortly to assist lawyers with understanding more about AI technology.
On a personal note, what are you most looking forward to this year?
Apart from progressing our strategic priorities and cementing our representative strategy, I’m really looking forward to engaging with and creating closer ties with our membership base in 2024.
Away from work, I always enjoy getting out of the office and heading somewhere outdoors. So, I am looking forward to that continuing this year.