Woolworths Group senior solicitor Marea Hickie worked as an insurance litigator for 30 years before moving in-house. Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, she outlines some of the differences and issues she faced.
Ms Hickie – who recently won the Insurance Lawyer of the Year Award at the 2019 Corporate Counsel Awards – spent three decades acting on behalf of both insurers and injured and/or aggrieved plaintiffs.
For the past four years, however, she has worked as an in-house lawyer at Woolworths Group, which has involved “establishing and solely managing the Woolworths Internal Defence Team in NSW to defend and conduct insurance litigation and assorted claims”.
Reflecting on her work then and now, the “greatest challenge” has been “the lack of litigation tools, support and resources in the In-house space”, she said.
But there are particular issues, she noted, in being an insurance lawyer in-house at this point in time.
“The major issues facing in-house insurance lawyers is that unlike those in law firms, in-house insurance lawyers do not make any profit for the business and are viewed as an annoyance and large cost to doing business. As such, there is always increasing pressure on in-house insurance lawyers to reduce overall claim costs, despite there being no decrease in the overall claim numbers of the business,” Ms Hickie explained.
This is in spite of the fact, she continued, that the in-house function is so important to the insurance arm of major businesses.
“The importance of the in-house function to the insurance space is that it provides an added benefit to the business of daily support and legal advice to all arms of claims and its related stakeholder. Additionally, it significantly reduces overall legal spend and has greater incentive to reduce litigation, delays and the overall claims costs to the business.”
“[In my role at Woolworths], I [have] embraced the daily challenges, conducted liability investigations, established relationships with the key stakeholders in the business and set about drafting and compiling a precedent base of over 500 precedents to conduct high volume litigation in-house,” she said.
Challenges aside, however, Ms Hickie posited that working as an insurance lawyer in-house can be a rewarding endeavour.
“Lawyers acting in an insurance in-house capacity are able to develop closer and more meaningful relationships with key stakeholders in the business. They are also able to better grasp the daily challenges being faced by their clients, being all parts of the business,” she said.
And, speaking about her recent award win, she said it was a “great honour for both myself and my dedicated team of staff”.
“My team and I have worked tirelessly and with utmost integrity for the past four years to achieve significant financial and legal results for the business, whilst at the same time acknowledging the importance of the customer to a large retail business,” she concluded.