WINNER: Herbert Smith Freehills

Both Herbert Smith Freehills and Olswang (this year's third-place firm in this category) appeared on a major infrastructure sharing deal that is set to radically change the telecoms industry in the UK. Herbert Smith Freehills was sole adviser to Telefónica UK on its network-sharing deal with Vodafone, a deal that has been described as the largest and most complex project of its kind in the mobile industry.

TMT partners Nick Elverston and Amanda Hale led the project, which involved the two network operators sharing equipment across the UK. The lawyers helped structure a deal which demonstrated a highly innovative approach to sharing the business-critical active radio access network (RAN) and saw thousands of sites and passive assets such as towers transferred into a new joint venture company. This structure allowed the two operators to deliver a nationwide 4G service faster than could have been achieved independently while also saving around 25 per cent of their network costs, estimated at around £1bn of savings by 2015. On top of that, commercial pressures meant that the deal had to be completed to a tight deadline of just five months and was negotiated against a backdrop of significant change in the telecoms market. “Complex deals with healthy time frames are manageable, but the pressure under time duress is what sorts out the wheat from the chaff,” commented one of the judges in this category. “Doing this deal certainly sorts out the who’s who of telco lawyers in the London market and Herbert Smith is one of those”.

2ND: Bird & Bird

For Bird & Bird, which over the past year has advised more than half of the 96 TMT companies ranked in the current FT Global 500, the sector is in its DNA. Equally, key client Nokia has been a stalwart for a decade, making the firm a safe pair of hands to turn to when the telecoms company needed a strategy to combat patent trolls. Patent litigation by non-practising entities (NPEs, aka patent trolls) has become a thorn in the side of the industry in the US. The establishment of the NPE IPCom in Germany raised the spectre of similar effects in Europe. The company needed to fight a claim, potentially worth billions, that it required a licence to patents owned by IPCom. Since 2008 Bird & Bird has advised Nokia on more than 70 separate patent troll-related actions involving 49 patent families, the largest and longest-running patent litigation in the electronics sector. Litigation is ongoing but the bulk of the issue has been resolved, overwhelmingly successfully for Nokia. One category judge described this as, “a brilliant result”, adding, “the multiple cases and multitude of issues makes it a unique offering”.

3RD: Olswang

Olswang took the lead on corporate, commercial and tax advice for key client Vodafone on its infrastructure-sharing deal with Telefónica UK which, as described above, set a new standard for innovation in the global telecoms industry. With no contractual precedents to refer to the firm's team worked closely with the Vodafone in-house legal team to shape, structure and guide every step of the deal. Key aspects of the deal on which Olswang advised included the complex RAN share arrangements, passive sharing services, contribution of assets to the joint venture company, a shareholders' agreement and the financing arrangements. “This was a major deal and I liked the fact that the lawyers would have to use their brains to deal with it rather than roll out the precedents,” commented one of the judging panel.