High drama: Maria da Cunha, British Airways
30 November 2009 | By Matt Byrne
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British Airways GC Maria da Cunha may be a high-flying lawyer, but with her company’s merger plans cleared for take-off she needs her feet firmly on the ground. By Matt Byrne
It would be hardly overstating it to say British Airways’ (BA) number one in-house lawyer Maria da Cunha has been extremely busy recently.
In April, da Cunha took over the top legal job at the airline from Robert Webb QC, who later joined Brick Court Chambers as a door tenant. Since then, there’s barely been a day when the national carrier has not been making the headlines.
“It’s par for the course of being in the aviation industry,” admits da Cunha. “It’s never boring.”
Last week the company was at it again. On Monday (23 November) BA’s chief executive Willie Walsh made the lead story in the Financial Times after warning cabin crew that he was not prepared to compromise over cost-cutting measures.
The previous week’s headlines, which focused on BA’s $7bn (£4.2bn) merger with Spanish carrier Iberia getting the go-ahead, looks to have made this action more likely.
These developments are unlikely to have decreased da Cunha’s already heavy workload, although speaking last Tuesday (24 November) the lawyer was reluctant to go into
too much detail about what was populating her in-tray.
“The merger is going to be one of our biggest pieces of work,” she says, “but it’s a year away from completing. We’ve signed the MOU [memorandum of understanding] and the merger agreement is set to be signed in February, but the negotiations are continuing and there’s nothing really decided yet in terms of structure.”
What is certain is that since taking over from Webb, da Cunha has been one of the busiest in-house lawyers in the market. “But, in fact, since I joined BA in 2000 there’s never been a time when it wasn’t busy or there weren’t a number of challenging issues,” she adds.
For da Cunha, days such as these simply make her thankful she has a very able team supporting her. Recently labour issues have gone neck and neck with corporate work to be at the top of the agenda.
Earlier this month BA was in the High Court battling trade union Unite, which claimed that the new employment contracts for the airline’s 14,000 cabin crew constituted a breach of contract.
Devereux Chambers’ Timothy Brennan QC acted for BA having been instructed by Baker & McKenzie partner John Evason. In-house, BA has its own employment team headed by Julia Harrison which is taking the lead on this work.
“We’re not keen to have this turn into a legal issue and very keen to get around the table with the unions and talk,” claims da Cunha.
For competition issues - also a hot topic at BA - the Irish lawyer and EU specialist recruited by da Cunha in 2003 from the bar, Neve McArthy, tends to lead. Where necessary, as in the case of this month’s High Court employment case, the in-house team is supplemented by external lawyers.
“We can always call for back up,” says da Cunha. “We handle employment, corporate and commercial, including IT outsourcing, marketing, aviation-specific matters, plus we have a competition capability. We don’t handle pensions or financing or specialist stuff like that, such as M&A; that needs lots of bodies.”
There has been no change to BA’s legal panel since da Cunha took over as general counsel, although as she points out: “I was already head of legal so it’s effectively my panel.”
The date of the next review is yet to be decided, and da Cunha adds that it partly depends on the company’s structure. “The change to BA [post-merger] could be a catalyst,” she says.
That said, da Cunha constantly monitors the legal market for new developments that could save BA a few quid. Commodity providers or virtual law firms that have recently entered the market may be beginning to look more attractive to some in-house counsel but, for the moment, da Cunha is not biting.
“Very little of our work is commodity,” she says. “When I’ve looked at using one of these types of firms or providers with a view to making savings, I’ve found there’s not much in it. So there’s not much point changing what ain’t broke. Our firms have been very responsive to working in partnership to find ways of reducing costs. There are examples of where we’ve asked firms to work together on different aspects of a transaction and they’ve been happy to do so.”
While BA has hit the headlines more often for negative reasons of late, it also made the news recently when it launched a new service to New York from City Airport.
“We’re keen to continue our track record of innovation,” says da Cunha. “This is the first transatlantic destination from London City Airport, with a 15-minute check-in - 20 if you’ve got bags.”
If only all BA’s issues could be solved so quickly.
Name: Maria da Cunha
Organisation: British Airways (BA)
Job title: General counsel
Reporting to: Chief executive Willie Walsh
Number of employees: 38,700
Legal capability: 15
Main external law firms: Addleshaw Goddard, Baker & McKenzie, Bristows, Gates and Partners, Linklaters, Slaughter and May, Taylor Wessing, Wragge & Co
Maria da Cunha’s CV
1981-85: Law degree, London School of Economics
1985-86: Postgraduate degree in European law, College of Europe
1986-87: Lecturer in EU law
1988: Called to the bar
1990-96: Assistant solicitor, Lovells
1996-2000: Solicitor, Lloyd’s of London
2000-02: Competition lawyer, BA
2002-06: Head of legal, BA
2006-09: Head of legal and government affairs, BA
April 2009-present: General counsel, BA