Humphrey Tapper, associate general counsel at Meridian Energy, speaks to Adam Majeed about the challenges of his role at New Zealand’s largest renewable energy generator and the impact of the government’s mixed ownership model programme
Can you give me an outline of your career path in the energy sector?
I joined Meridian Energy in 2008. Previously I worked in private practice and was focused on environmental law. After a number of years in private practice in New Zealand, I worked in London both at London Borough Councils and private practice before returning to New Zealand. After two and a half years working in a firm in Christchurch I joined Meridian Energy, I have always specialised in the environmental field.
Why did you make the transition from private practice to in-house?
I find it is more commercially focused and results driven than private practice. It is also brings together a range of different skill sets. The work is of a higher quality too and exciting. I’m spoiled for choice at Meridian with the constant flow of high quality work across New Zealand.
What is expected of you in your role as associate general counsel?
There are a number of elements, including technical legal advice, support governance and compliance and wider leadership representation. In reality my focus is on new projects—and keeping them ticking over—and on top of that dealing with planning, wind and water related matters. Compliance is also an area where I work to ensure we meet our obligations. There is also a land component as we’re a significant landowner and we have to meet obligations there too. I also need to manage external providers and balance external costs against required outcomes.
Can you briefly outline Meridian Energy’s objectives in New Zealand?
We’re a 100% renewable energy company that seeks to ensure our developments are appropriate. If I sat back and assessed Meridian, I’d say that it’s an open and friendly company. It makes a real commitment to deliver on what it says.
How has the in-house role evolved in your experience?
The in-house role is more than providing technical solid advice. One slowly becomes more and more engrained into the business and the decision making process. You become a trusted advisor at a number of levels which is a real privilege.
What are the main challenges in your role?
Costs. The downward pressure on costs. Ongoing responsibility also creates pressure. You are also time poor due to the expectation of leadership and wider organisation representation on top of your day job. Basically you have to be involved as much as possible and this is a challenge.
Are there any legal issues you have recently identified that represent a risk to the success of your company’s projects?
Absolutely. There are constant challenges in the regulatory planning environment, whether it be related to natural resources (i.e. water) or existing developments. More recently we were successful with a High Court declaration that ongoing land use development at Manapouri Power Station does not require a planning approval. The reduction in compliance costs as a result is a huge benefit.
As part of the government’s privatisation plan, Meridian Energy sold a 49% stake through the stock exchange. Has mixed ownership made an impact on your role?
Certainly there’s a change of focus and there’s more efficiency. I think such an outcome follows all companies listed – we are sharper as a result. We have obligations in reporting requirements and in particular disclosure requirements. There is also far greater transparency now.
Of course there were other IPOs too. Will there be a broader impact on the role of general counsel in New Zealand?
Overtime yes this is probably likely, the role and expectations will likely grow.
At what point will you make the decision to outsource your legal work?
It depends on the nature of work and the skills required and the implications as to outcome. It also depends on costs. The starting point is always looking internally to see if we have the capacity to do the ork ourselves, and if not we outsource components of the work.
What proportion of work is subcontracted?
We’re quite focused, but I’d say about 30% of our work is subcontracted to external counsel.
What attributes are important of external providers?
We have a team approach and look for providers that work well with us. We will look for good communication and responsiveness. This will need to be balanced against costs.
May I ask which firms you use as external counsel?
Yes, we have a panel, Bell Gully, Russell McVeagh and Anderson Lloyd.
How do you structure your fees? Do you prefer fixed rates or hourly rates?
All of the above, it is a mixture but generally a fixed rate based on a previously agreed hourly rate plus a discount.
What do you see as the prospects for your industry in the coming year?
Focus on keeping costs down and maintaining the current level of work.
Associate general counsel RMA
Mr Tapper is currently associate general counsel RMA at Meridian Energy in New Zealand and has over 17 years of experience in environmental law. After a number of years in private practice in New Zealand, he worked in London both at London Borough Councils and private practice before returning to New Zealand. After two and a half years back working in a private firm in Christchurch, New Zealand, he joined Meridian Energy in 2008. Mr Tapper is a barrister and solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand, holds a LLB and BSc (Ecology) from Otago University, and is a member of Resource Management Law Society.