Solicitor- General Una Jagose – “Embracing the role and being a part of New Zealand’s story”

In August this year, Anthony Harper hosted an evening with the Solicitor-General, Una Jagose QC, at its new Auckland premises.

Una Jagose

Ms Jagose QC spoke to a group of 100 solicitors, barristers and legal educators about her work as Solicitor-General and what is involved in leading the Crown Law Office, being the professional head of 800 government lawyers and providing constructive guidance and opinion to her clients – challenges she finds in equal measures both demanding and rewarding.

In an era of super computers, her message also had a modern angle – the need for lawyers to shift from a more traditional view of lawyering – to be able to go beyond the mere delivery of finely-honed legal opinions about how a particular law is to be interpreted and give legal advice that adds real business value. By being innovative about the “product” lawyers have to offer and looking beyond the boundaries of the problem as posed, a great lawyer is able to help his or her client avoid risk, take advantage of opportunity and offer discernible value to their clients.

ADLS Professional Services Manager Jodi Libbey was invited to attend the evening and was fortunate to interview the Solicitor-General before she addressed the wider gathering, with Ms Jagose QC giving insight into the challenges and rewards of her role, her desire to get the best out of people, and her interests outside of the office.

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Do you ever encounter a lack of understanding about the role of Solicitor-General?

“The Solicitor-General is a really critical part of our democratic system of government according to law, but yes, in the past I’ve been referred to as ‘some government dude’ and ‘the Attorney- General’s dog’s body’. In Wellington, however, and in the public service, most know what the role is, even though they might not know all the ins and outs.”

How did you come to be in the civil service?

“I’ve been a public servant since I finished law school – I’ve never worked in the private sector. I’ve always had a ‘public service calling’ – I wanted to go into something ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ (although what that might be was ill-formed early on) and I did not want to be the ‘LA Law’-type of lawyer that I thought lawyers were (as was the prevailing image when I was young). I started out advising on consumer rights then moved into consumer law reform and policy, and that is when I realised my law degree could be used for good and that public service suited me and my values.”

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What does your typical day look like?

“There is no such thing! I never know when I start the day what I will be doing. I am frequently knocked off course. Just listening to the radio in the morning can cause me to change tack – are we, or should we be involved in this?

“The jump to Solicitor-General from acting GCSB Director has been really exciting, but Solicitor- General can be a more rapid fire role across a wider range of matters. In the 18 months I have been in the job, I can honestly say that no two days have been the same and no day has been dull. It is a huge privilege to be a part of New Zealand’s story.”

What gets you excited about your job?

“Leadership. It took me a long time to realise that I had another set of skills and how much I enjoyed dealing with people. I get energised by the interactions with others who have a lot to bring to the table. Showing people the way, what is possible for us to achieve and how they can be an indispensable, critical part of helping government achieve its goals is a really fun and rewarding part of the job.

“Leadership also involves showing values and behaviours you want the organisation to embody. These need to be a real and ‘lived’ part of the organisation, not just something that we pay lip service to. Our clients are other departments, organisations, ministers, and we need to cultivate and maintain strong personal relationships so that we can constructively deal with the complex and at times heated issues we face.

My leadership challenge is a system-wide one – how can we, collectively, increase the capability of lawyers that the government employs so that successive governments get the best legal service, at the right time, to allow them to pursue their policy choices, according to law. Deployed in the right way, lawyers can be influential and helpful in finding solutions to issues – but we need to be involved earlier and not just when things reach crisis point.”

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What is the greatest challenge of your role?

“To get the right balance of all things encompassed in the role. I am both the government’s principal advisor – the Solicitor-General determines the right view of the law when there are legal disputes involving the Crown – and the senior advocate for the government. I really enjoy litigation, and the courts want to see the Solicitor-General in court. It is also important to maintain the government’s credibility regarding the rule of law as its legitimacy is derived from that.

“I am also the chief executive of the Crown Law office and the professional head of all lawyers in government. Each of those roles requires an intellectual and time commitment – and I want to do my best in all spheres of the role.

“Personally, I need to maintain balance in my life. I work hard not to give up my life to my job, and I have always done so, no matter what role I’ve been in. It gets harder as I have gotten more senior. But I still work at that balance. However, not every day, nor even most days, are beautifully balanced!”

Your brother, the Hon Justice Pheroze Jagose, was recently appointed a High Court Judge in Auckland. What was your parents’ recipe for raising successful children?

“We had a very happy and secure upbringing, and we were encouraged that we could do anything we wanted. There are five of us – we are all confident, competent people and we have all chosen roles which serve other people. There is also a university professor, a teacher, a doctor and a judge among our lot.”

Do you have any favourite legal or political-themed movies/books/TV series?

“‘The Wire’, a police show set in Baltimore, is one of my favourites. However, and I cannot believe that I am even mentioning this, I loved ‘Night Court’ as a kid.

“There is no such thing as a favourite book for me. But I do have favourite authors – Margaret Atwood is one, and I have just finished reading Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, which is both beautiful and awful at the same time. And over about 30 years, I have read and re-read the Armistead Maupin series, ‘Tales of the City’ – a series of novels about gay life in San Francisco in the 1970s.”

What is on your bucket list?

“I object to the concept of a bucket list because I don’t like the idea that there is a list of things that if you don’t do them all before you die you have failed. I don’t want to have – and do not have – regrets.”

What skill would you like to learn?

“I have been learning the piano since 1991 and have received a lesson about every fortnight since then with the same long suffering and patient teacher (shout out to David Beattie!). I admit that I don’t practise anywhere near as much as I should, so my progress has been slower than those years of lessons might otherwise suggest. But I have improved over the years. At the moment, I am working through pieces by New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn.” 

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