Member in the Spotlight allows us to get up-close and personal with some of our ACC Australia members. This week we are shining the spotlight on Courtenay Zajicek, Legal Counsel at Nando's Australia, and the winner of the 'Mentor of the Year' at the 2020 ACC Australia Corporate Lawyer Awards.
Tell us about your current role.
My current role as the sole in-house counsel for Nando’s (Australia and New Zealand operations) is similar to many in-house roles, ultimately to provide legal support to all business stakeholders, but it’s also so much more than that. My core role is truly a legal generalist covering areas of franchising, property, marketing, operations, human resources, IT, risk and governance, but also gives me the opportunity to be myself and get involved in initiatives and areas that are important to me like diversity and inclusion, sustainability and purpose-initiatives. Importantly, my role gives me access to so much delicious PERi-PERi chicken I just can’t go wrong!
What do you believe is the most important skill an in-house lawyer needs?
An open-mind and a willingness to listen. On reflection, early in my in-house career journey I would jump straight to the “legal answer” to a problem and essentially close the conversation now. Over time, and with the help of fantastic mentors in my own journey, I have realised the importance of really listening to the business and its stakeholders to understand what problem they are actually trying to solve for. The business isn’t always going to ask the succinct question that needs a legal position, but instead the benefit of being in-house is that you truly understand the business and most importantly understand the objective of what a team or department is trying to do, so rather than give a legal answer and move on, with an open-mind and a willingness to listen you can navigate the problem together and come up with a different solution that no-one had even thought of yet that achieves the same objective. In my view, this is how an in-house lawyer is seen as an enabler to the business and a position that truly adds value.
What led you to pursue an in-house legal role?
I actually fell into an in-house role “accidentally”. I was looking for part-time work that had a legal flavour to it while I was studying and Wendy’s Supa Sundaes were looking for a Legal Administrator, which I thought would be a perfect way to “learn on the job” while I was still studying. In that role, I had the most incredible General Counsel mentor and I was able to get really involved in the brand, so much so that my office stationary was “on-brand” pink and my unofficial title was “Yum Justice”. I enjoyed every part of that role and as my studies progressed and I became more involved in the business, the position of Solicitor opened up and I never looked back – in-house was clearly for me!
What advice would you offer to in-house counsel in building relationships with their organisations
Get involved in the business. If you don’t have strong relationships with the people in your business, it’s very easy for them to cut you out, but on the flip side, having strong relationships helps your stakeholders feel comfortable coming to you with any question or idea and having a discussion with you first. While this can create lots of up front work and fielding of ideas that might not be strictly legal, it can often save a huge amount of hassle and headache later down the track if you’ve found out something later that needs to be undone. For me, this means joining business initiatives outside of just the legal space, attending business events, getting involved in understanding the work of different departments and importantly eating lots of Nando’s (delicious)!
What is the one thing a law degree doesn’t teach you about being an in-house lawyer?
How to present a balance of legal and commercial advice in a practical and easy to implement way that balances risk for the business. A law degree teaches us how to present detailed legal advice and answer a specific legal question, but this is very rarely useful in an in-house legal environment. The business doesn’t want to know the clause of the legislation or the precedent case that you’re relying on to give an answer, but instead the practical way to deal with the question or problem they’ve posed. The advice often needs to be short, concise, a balance of the risk appetite for the business and gives a clear way forward, (or options), for the business to consider and make informed decisions.
What are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed across the legal sector since you joined the profession?
Technology! In my first in-house role I managed a huge amount of paper files which has quite quickly transitioned to almost solely online. The advancement in technology in the legal sector has been huge and has fundamentally shifted the way matters are managed and tracked and the way advice is given (only enhanced by COVID and remote/virtual working).
Finish this sentence… If I wasn’t a lawyer I’d be…
An Executive Assistant/Office Manager or Event Manager because I love being organised and having a colour-coded alphabetised list for absolutely everything
I like being a part of the ACC Australia community because…
Often, being an in-house lawyer, the connections you make are more in the industry your business is in (for example in mine the retail food industry) rather than in the legal community, but being a member of the ACC Australia community allows access to a huge range, of fantastic legal minds, focused on the challenges and requirements of practicing the law in-house, which is so valuable (especially for a sole in-house counsel like me)!
If you are a sole legal officer and interested in participating in the committee or contributing ideas, please contact email@example.com.