Alan Whitfield, the departing head of legal at British Telecommunications (BT), loves telephones. He looks slightly aghast when I admit that my mobile spends most of its life at the bottom of my bag with its battery dead, much to the frustration of friends and family. I dare not tell him that I have to think hard just to remember its number. In contrast, his home has a landline and a mobile for each of the three people living there, and he can remember the make of the first mobile he ever owned. Whitfield is a telecoms man through and through. He is certainly one of the UK’s most well-known heads of legal, so why has he decided to leave BT to join KLegal’s telecoms team?
A lot of people in their mid-40s ask: do you want to carry on doing this until you retire?” explains Whitfield. “I considered a move into BT general management, but there are more general managers than there are jobs.”
There are two kinds of mid-life crisis: the one where you change your job and the other where you change your wife. But if this is a mid-life crisis, then his move to KLegal has shocked the market in the same way that Mr Sophia Loren leaving his wife for Pauline Fowler would.
KLegal is still working on its image within a marketplace where accountancy-linked firms are seen as also-rans, plodding through mediocre deals. If he had moved to one of the niche telecoms practices or a magic circle firm, then one feels that the market’s faith in the eternal pecking order would not have been so rocked.
But Whitfield is very clear that he is not leaving BT to do something or anything else; he is leaving to join KLegal. What attracts him is the multidisciplinary approach of the firm. After all, he points out that he only spent about 30 per cent of his time doing legal work at BT and would find it “stultifyingly boring” doing nothing other than law.
KLegal sold him an idea, Whitfield says, of how things could be meshed with what he believes clients should be offered. So what is this “vision” that he will be working on?
“I don’t know how you’re going to write this down, because it involves lots of arm-waving,” says Whitfield, smiling. He then goes on to explain, making only very small circles with his left hand by way of illustration. But then, if you are used to phones, any such non-verbal communication must seem a completely extravagant waste of energy.
Slightly hesitantly, Whitfield starts: “I’d like to think that we can meet the KPMG group’s clients’ future needs as well as present needs.” He then stops himself. “This is like a Dilbert buzzword generator, isn’t it?” he laughs, slightly abashed at making such an extravagant claim. Whitfield is not the type for US-style rah-rah-rah marketing speak.
Arms duly folded in his lap and Dilbert tendencies back under control, he tries again: “If a client has a big project on, then they’ll hire some lawyers, some external management consultants, accountants and external tax advisers, and the client might have to replicate that in several jurisdictions. The natural thing for lawyers is to seek to do things themselves, so the lawyers and accountants will both act on tax issues, the accountants and the merchant bankers will both work on the figures, the accountants and consultants will work on the business case, but everyone is claiming for the work. Some will be claiming to get more time on their timesheets and the client doesn’t know whether they’re getting value for money. We’ll do all of that for the client. We’ll say: ‘We will deliver this transaction for you, whatever that transaction might be.'”
Whitfield admits that there will be some circumstances where the obvious solution is for the client to hire a magic circle firm, but he believes that there will be many areas where KLegal will be able to compete with the big boys.
Unsurprisingly, this way of working – where the lawyers’ egos do not gain priority over getting the work done – is used by BT.
Sometimes it worked, says Whitfield, and sometimes it didn’t, but the essence was all about trying to work out what the primary field of the problem was and selecting your project leader accordingly. Sometimes BT even brought in professional project managers – a thought which, in itself, would no doubt make many legal rainmakers break into a cold sweat.
What might also make the market slightly uncomfortable is that Whitfield openly admits that he got his new post through legal recruiters ZMB. While reporters usually know who was behind a lateral move, most lawyers are slightly squeamish about admitting that they have signed up with a dating agency, as it were, preferring the euphemism that they were introduced by a mutual contact – or just simply headhunted.
But not Whitfield. “I have regular contact with all the recruitment consultants, and this came up in the course of a conversation with one of them,” he says. “There are very few clued-up recruitment consultants, and I wasn’t going to take an ordinary 2,000-hours-a-year telecoms partner job. But Yvonne Smyth [of ZMB] recognised that the KLegal job was a bit different to that.”
Whitfield has been in telecoms since 1984, the year that BT floated and back in the days when you had to join a waiting list to get a new telephone number. He moved from Linklaters, where he was working on early computer law, and says that when he joined BT neither he nor anyone else in the field predicted that the field of telecoms would become as important as it has.
“At that time they were just inventing mobile phones, and the earliest ones were like a couple of boxes – Robert Maxwell used to have a man to carry his around for him,” says Whitfield. “People were trying to make predictions as to how many hundreds of thousands of people would eventually own a mobile phone.” Whitfield himself did not get his first mobile until around 1993, after a conference in Switzerland in which he was the only delegate ringing the office with a chargecard.
Now it seems that the industry may have overpredicted how much interest the consumer would have in the services offered by third-generation mobiles, leading to a situation in which telecoms companies were possibly bidding too high in last year’s auctions.
But Whitfield is not so sure. “Are houses in Westminster and Chelsea too expensive? No, because people are prepared to pay those prices,” he says. “Third-generation licences are not something that can be produced and reproduced to demand. Like land in Chelsea, radio spectrum is limited.”
His proviso for making 3G work, however, is that because the Government let the market decide the price for the licences, it now has to allow the market to set its own prices for services. He also points to Japan, where WAP has taken off in a big way.
He says: “We [in the industry] are too old to work out how people will use the technology. For example, it was teenagers who made SMS [short message system] into something. If you’d left it to middle-aged men, then it would never have taken off; just as if you’d left the internet to them, you wouldn’t have things like Napster. It’s going to be students and sub-students who will invent what 3G is eventually going to be.”
After all, points out Whitfield, he can remember when BT was involved in the country’s first email system, which consisted of a keyboard that you attached to your phone with two rubber cups. It was not a runaway success.
For someone so obviously doolally about new gadgets, will Whitfield miss being in the thick of new developments?
“There may be some frustration,” he says, “but the sort of relationship with clients that I’ll have will enable me to see what’s going on.”
Never have I been so tempted to ask to see someone’s mobile. I just knew that his would be about a quarter of the size of mine.