Alan Whitfield

One of a new breed of business-minded in-house lawyers, Alan Whitfield has responsibility for all of BT’s legal affairs. Sean Farrell checks up on his progress.

Alan Whitfield has not got his new business stationery yet. Having been appointed general counsel at BT two weeks ago, his card still bears his old title – not head of legal, as he was generally known, but “The Solicitor”.

This peculiar title has its origins in the days of Charles II, when his long-dead predecessor was known as Solicitor to the Post Office.

It is not surprising that Whitfield is relieved to be shedding this archaic title. For he is a zealous member of the new breed of business-minded in-house lawyers, and he is keen to spread the word.

Whitfield, who is 44, joined BT in 1981 from Linklaters & Paines, where he did his articles after studying law at Oxford.

He has played a central role in BT’s transformation from lumbering state utility to global communications giant – from being one of the four lawyers who worked on the company’s privatisation in 1984 to head of legal from 1994.

His new role gives him ultimate responsibility for all legal matters at BT, both national and international, where before he was responsible “on a matrix level” for the international side.

Whitfield’s tendency to slip into business jargon reflects his view of his role as a business representative of BT rather than seeing himself as just the company’s lawyer.

What he means, he says, is that he was responsible for setting standards for the whole of BT but did not have ultimate responsibility for international matters: “You get kicked if something goes wrong, but you don’t get the medals if it goes right.”

Whitfield has a useful habit of producing soundbites, dry bons mots that reduce the pressure in tense meetings, a source says. These pithy comments are expressed in measured tones that retain a hint of his Lancashire upbringing in St Helens.

Asked what will change now he has taken over as general counsel from Colin Green, Whitfield replies “not a lot”, adding that the telecommunications industry is always changing, and that “the only surprising thing about the rate of change is its rate of change”.

Certainly, BT’s panel of law firms should not have too much to worry about from the changeover – particularly as there are so few of them. Whitfield points at a copy of The Lawyer on his desk and says: “I laugh when I read in there about companies cutting their panels from 300 firms to 30 – we only use six.”

This minimalist approach to external firms reflects his belief in “relationship lawyering” – understanding the client’s business and “offering solutions rather than problems” – something he believes many City firms have yet to get the hang of.

“I could lunch out every day of the year on invitations from law firms who say they are the best lawyers in London, but we take that professional expertise for granted.

“Instead there is a whole culture about who you want sitting next to you when the going gets tough and how imaginative and flexible you want your lawyers to be,” he says.

Moving in-house was not as common in 1981 as it is today, and his decision to join the company received a mixed reception. While some encouraged him to take a job where he would learn how business works, others predicted “a lifetime of procurement contracts”.

Whitfield admits that for the first couple of years his work was tedious and intellectually unsatisfying. But he says the assistants he recruits from the big firms “invariably say that the work they get here is better quality” than they were given in private practice.

One of his first tasks will be to establish a new global legal department from scratch for BT’s recently announced joint venture with AT&T.

But the work will not stop there. “It’s like driving with your foot hard on the accelerator all the time, and my job is to stop the engine blowing up before we get to maximum speed,” he concludes in another handy soundbite.
Alan Whitfield
Head of legal