Departmental Legal Services Unit
Natural Resources Canada
The NRCan LSU’s organizational objectives and priorities are well understood by its lawyers, staff, and client department.
Successful organizations set and document organizational objectives and priorities so that professional and support staff, as well as the client, clearly understand expectations.
The NRCan LSU has documented its long-term objectives on the NRCan Intranet site. These are to provide timely, accurate, consistent, and unified legal advice on NRCan activities and issues of interdepartmental interest on matters arising out of NRCan program activities and policy initiatives. In providing these services, the LSU contributes to the Department of Justice’s strategic outcome,
“a federal government that is supported by effective and responsive legal services”.
The LSU’s short-term priorities are driven by the client department’s priorities. The LSU’s General Counsel and Executive Director learns of NRCan’s priorities principally through her membership in the NRCan Departmental Management Committee and the NRCan Policy and Science Management Committee—the committees that establish departmental objectives and priorities. Serving on these committees provides the LSU’s General Counsel and Executive Director with an understanding of NRCan’s management and business priorities. Priorities are also identified through other interactions with the client department. The client’s priorities are communicated orally to lawyers by the General Counsel and Executive Director and the team leaders, and through regular biweekly team meetings. Parts of NRCan also use wikis to communicate their objectives and priorities.
The priorities are reflected in the LSU’s input to the Portfolio Human Resources Plan. The service plan for 2009-10 included in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Department of Justice and NRCan for the period April 1, 2009 to March 31, 2012 indicates that additional funding is being sought by NRCan to support aboriginal consultation activities. Several areas where services will be provided are identified (e.g. MacKenzie Gas Pipeline Project Footnote 3, Major Project Management Office, Centre of Expertise on Grants and Contributions). It further indicates that the General Counsel will meet on a regular basis (i.e. semi-annually) with NRCan officials who are responsible for significant demand on legal services to determine upcoming issues and file priorities. Senior NRCan managers reported that they are regularly consulted to ensure that their priorities are understood. They also indicated that they are very satisfied with the services they receive from the LSU.
The audit team is of the opinion that the LSU’s organizational objectives and priorities are well understood by its lawyers, staff, and client department.
The NRCan LSU has identified and assessed the significant risks it faces in achieving its objectives, and has taken action to mitigate these risks.
Risks to the achievement of objectives and priorities should be identified and assessed, with explicit mitigation strategies for each significant risk.
The NRCan LSU’s General Counsel and Executive Director told the audit team that the two most significant risks to the LSU were insufficiently experienced legal staff in areas of law related to pipeline, energy, and mining projects, and the potential loss of corporate memory if a knowledgeable and experienced lawyer leaves the LSU.
The NRCan LSU has recruited an additional senior lawyer with the required expertise. Overlapping practice areas have also been created to increase the needed knowledge and familiarity with the issues, thereby reducing the risk associated with the potential loss of corporate memory. The audit team is of the opinion that these measures are appropriate for the risks that the General Counsel and Executive Director identified.
It is our view that the LSU’s current risk management is satisfactory.
Responsibilities and accountabilities in the NRCan LSU are clearly defined.
The NRCan LSU consists of 18 staff, including 14 counsel and four support staff. Legal staff are organized into two teams: the Corporate, Commercial, and Intellectual Property Team; and the Energy and Regulatory Law Team. Team leaders are responsible for supervising the work of the lawyers in their team and changing lawyers’ work assignments when required. They do not have responsibilities in relation to budgets or staffing. These responsibilities are consistent with those set out in their position descriptions.
It is our conclusion that the LSU is appropriately organized.
The processes in place within the LSU facilitate the efficient processing of client requests for legal services while maintaining service quality.
Workload should be managed so that client requests for legal services can be processed efficiently while maintaining service quality.
Team leaders are responsible for assigning work, monitoring the workload of their team, and tracking the availability of lawyers to work on new files. Lawyers manage their own workload and priorities. Competing priorities that cannot be easily resolved are escalated to the Team Leader level and/or the General Counsel and Executive Director. The system in place works well and no issues were identified.
All of the lawyers commented on their heavy workload but also noted that it was manageable for the most part. They noted that the client understands that the demand for legal services is high and that an immediate response on the part of the LSU is not always possible. Client contacts informed the audit team that they were satisfied with the legal services they received.
It is the audit team’s opinion that the processes in place within the LSU facilitate the efficient processing of client requests for legal services while maintaining service quality.
The NRCan LSU appropriately monitors performance.
Performance monitoring is the ongoing, systematic process of collecting, analyzing, communicating, and using performance information. Monitoring is essential in assessing an organization’s progress toward meeting expected results and making adjustments, if necessary, to ensure that these results are achieved. Monitoring supports decision making, accountability, and transparency.
The NRCan LSU’s service standards are included as an Annex to the 2009-12 MOU with NRCan for the provision of legal services. These standards were developed by the Department of Justice’s Law Practice Management Directorate for use between an LSU and its client department. The standardized questionnaire used by the Office of Strategic Planning and Performance Measurement (SPPM) in its triennial client feedback survey is also well aligned with these service standards.
Formal feedback on key elements of the quality of the LSU’s services was last reported by SPPM in 2007. SPPM provided the LSU with a summary of results, comparing it to other DLSUs in the Business and Regulatory Law Portfolio and all other DLSUs within the Department of Justice. NRCan respondents to the survey rated the NRCan LSU’s responsiveness as excellent, its timeliness as very positive, and the usefulness of its services as excellent or very positive.
The General Counsel and Executive Director also told us that she receives direct feedback from NRCan’s assistant deputy ministers concerning the work of the LSU’s lawyers. Client representatives interviewed by the audit team uniformly rated the LSU’s services positively.
It is the audit team’s opinion that the NRCan LSU’s monitoring of performance is appropriate.
The NRCan LSU has not developed an administrative procedures manual.
Administrative procedures need to be appropriately documented in an organizational unit because they help provide staff with the required information to conduct activities in a consistent, efficient, and economical manner.
The NRCan LSU does not have an administrative procedures manual. In its absence, the LSU’s employees rely on the Office Manager’s knowledge of NRCan’s administrative policies and procedures. This reliance poses little operational risk as long as the current Office Manager, who has extensive experience, remains with the LSU. However, it is the audit team’s opinion that without the guidance provided by an up-to-date administrative procedures manual, there is a risk that anyone acting in her place would have difficulty carrying out required tasks, to the detriment of the LSU’s productivity. We are of the view that LSU staff should have formal, documented guidance on how to proceed with such administrative matters as managing information and records, bulk photocopying, timekeeping, building security passes, making travel arrangements, and arranging taxi chits.
The NRCan LSU’s communications practices provide staff with the information they need to do their jobs.
Effective and appropriate communications are essential in any workplace. Information needs to be shared on a timely basis so that actions can be taken based on current and correct information.
The primary means used to communicate information to LSU staff include:
- biweekly team meetings that are used to discuss current legal issues and files;
- monthly all-staff meetings where administrative matters and items of a more general nature are reviewed;
- ad hoc meetings to convey important client, Department of Justice, or government information;
- periodic retreats.
Lawyers and support staff interviewed by the audit team generally agreed that these mechanisms ensure that all members of the LSU have the information they require to carry out their responsibilities. Many lawyers informed us that lack of direction from the client department on priorities or lack of understanding on the client’s part on the type of information they need to provide to legal staff is a source of frustration. Some lawyers indicated that they would like closer physical proximity to other Department of Justice lawyers so that they could build an informal network. NRCan is located several kilometres from Justice headquarters.
It is our opinion that communications practices within the LSU are appropriate.
The NRCan LSU uses satisfactory practices to ensure it provides consistent legal advice.
The LSU employs a number of practices to ensure consistency in the legal advice it provides to client sectors in NRCan:
- junior lawyers are mentored as they gain experience with the legal issues facing NRCan;
- the team leaders convene bi-weekly team meetings to discuss substantive legal issues;
- the lawyers consult with their team leaders when working on files with novel or challenging issues;
- the relevant Team Leader and the General Counsel and Executive Director review work done by lawyers on complex files or on files that provide advice and opinions to NRCan’s Minister or senior management, before the work is sent to the client;
- previous opinions stored primarily in Docs Open (NRCan Legal Services’ information management system) and, to a lesser extent, LOPORS (Legal Opinions and Precedents On-Line Retrieval System, a Department of Justice system) are reviewed by the lawyer working on the file;
- specialized sectors that provide expert legal advice and opinions within the Department of Justice are consulted as needed.
The General Counsel and Executive Director and LSU lawyers told the audit team that they are satisfied with the measures in place to ensure consistent legal advice. The results of the 2007 SPPM client feedback survey demonstrated that the LSU’s clients in NRCan are highly satisfied with service quality.
It is the audit team’s opinion that the practices the LSU uses to ensure consistency in its legal advice are satisfactory.
Recommendation and Management Response
1. It is recommended that the General Counsel and Executive Director ensure that an administrative procedures manual is developed.
I agree. Action to prepare an up-to-date administrative procedures manual is underway. Completion date: December 31, 2010.
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