Michael Ryan

Arnold & Porter’s first London telecoms partner Michael Ryan has seen the telecoms sector undergo a major makeover. Tamzin Hindmarch meets the laid-back lawyer who is still shocked by the change

For a man who left Coudert Brothers on Friday to take up a post as a partner at Arnold & Porter today, former head of telecommunications Michael Ryan looks remarkably relaxed.

It is built into Toronto-born Ryan’s nature to be calm and collected rather than get stressed out over crossed wires. For example, his one condition for taking on a gruelling four-year licence application project for previous employer Unitel was that he would be allowed to spend the following six months on holiday in Ireland “taking it easy” before the Canadian authorities reached a decision.

“It was my reward for the miserable time I’d had completing it for them,” he says. “I just wanted to relax, although there was an element of Guinness drinking involved too.”

His penchant for “the black stuff” began when studying economics in Dublin, before completing his post-graduate studies in Geneva.

After Geneva he returned home to Canada to attend law school, before joining Toronto-based transportation conglomerate Canadian Pacific’s in-house team in 1980.

At the time, the company had a very small telecommunications operation. Ryan says: “Telecommunications did not have the sex appeal it has today so as the junior dogsbody in the office, I ended up dealing with it as no one else wanted to.”

But it was a fortunate move for Ryan. When Canadian Pacific set up Unitel Communications, a joint venture with AT&T and Rogers, it was Ryan’s job to help secure the licence that would allow it to become the second biggest operator in Canada.

The change in focus for the company provided Ryan with the base on which he built his career.

He says: “By the early 1990s I saw that the European telecommunications market was developing in a way in which I had already seen it happen in the US and Canada.”

While Ryan clearly relished his role at Unitel, where he became vice president law and general counsel, he realised that after 14 years at the company it was time to move on.

“I started to think about how useful my skills and experience could be in private practice,” he says.

The impetus for change came by way of a personal contact with Colin Long, a rising star in telecommunications at Coudert Brothers, who counted Unitel as one of his clients and in 1994, Ryan uprooted from Canada once again to move to London.

Just four years later he became head of telecommunications, replacing Long, who left to become joint head of Olswang‘s telecommunications and IT unit.

Commenting on his ex-colleague, Long says: “He is very competent and what marks him out is that he has a very good understanding of economics, which is very important if you are a regulatory lawyer.”

Although he was sad to not be working with his friend anymore, Long says: “He had his own career path to carve out.”

His decision to move to US firm Arnold & Porter, where he will be the first telecommunications partner to join the London office, was based on a desire to move to a firm which he believes is more focused on his chosen field.

Long says: “I am not surprised he is leaving, it is probably for the same reasons that I left.”

Ryan says that his practice will be aimed at both US and European clients that want to establish or expand their operations in Europe.

“My role is to assist businesses in overcoming some of the obstacles of getting established in an industry that has traditionally been a monopoly and is still dominated by some very powerful large companies.”

He adds: “At present, London is a key commercial and financial centre and attracts interest from telecommunications clients as much as any others.

“Within two years I think we can expect to see a well-established telecommunications practice serving a variety of operators, service providers and governments throughout Europe.”

Despite having such an enduring relationship with the telecommunications industry, Ryan still has to pinch himself when he thinks of how rapidly it has developed in the past decade.

“I am one of the people who did not foresee just how radical the transformation of the industry would be and how competitive it would become.

“In the early 1980s, to believe that it would become as important as it has today in the world economy was beyond imagination.”

He adds that there are great opportunities for newly qualifieds who want to specialise in the area. “It is a very exciting time to be working in this sector. No sooner have you dealt with one set of issues when another comes along. The industry has grown a lot faster than the legal profession has expected.

“There is a real shortage of experienced lawyers in this field and while London is ahead in relation to other European capitals it could still offer a better selection.”

So, if he could have a one-to-one with someone, who would it be?

“Not a lawyer, that’s for sure,” he says. “Probably Galileo, because I think he would be fascinated, as someone who was constantly interested in technology, to see how far communications have come today.”
Michael Ryan
Arnold & Porter