British Telecom has one of the FTSE100’s largest and most dynamic in-house legal functions. The team comprises around 100 lawyers with diverse specialisms tailored towards serving a fiercely competitive international market.
The team’s legal function has some unusual elements, not normally found in-house, but which are necessary for handling the diverse range of interests and activities throughout more than 50 countries.
It is an environment where lawyers, often recruited from top City firms, can take responsibility for major projects. They can be working on deals to launch communications satellites, setting up international joint ventures, or find themselves in the thick of major mergers and acquisitions.
Equally they can be handling criminal prosecutions, negotiating with corporate clients on major contracts, or helping defend high-tech patents. Many nationalities rub shoulders in the brightly-lit, open plan offices at the London HQ opposite St Paul’s Cathedral.
BT’s lawyers are highly involved in the daily business process. Head of legal, Alan Whitfield, says: “We’re not just advisers. I like to tell people they are BT executives first. What we bring to the party is our legal qualification.”
The emphasis is on team-working and taking hands-on responsibility. “I don’t operate an open door policy – there is no door. People here like the teamwork approach, and the vast majority of our customers in BT want us to be proactive.”
Change is rapid, keeping pace with the extraordinary progress of BT from being purely a phone company, to being an international, communications, IT and media business.
Whitfield joined BT from Linklaters15 years ago to help the monolith become more commercially oriented in the face of imminent privatisation. The legal function, derived from the Government Legal Service, was then still part of the Post Office. Whitfield spent his early weeks dealing with siting telegraph poles, local bylaws, and litigious homeowners who objected to neighbours’ telephone cabling. “It was utterly tedious,” he says. Now that work is handled by the engineering department.
Only during privatisation in 1984 did the department begin to use outside law firms. Now Linklaters is used for heavy corporate work, and Bird & Bird, with its IP/technology focus, is used on certain commercial projects. Other firms are occasionally instructed, but much of the work remains in-house. It has attracted lawyers from strong City firms. For example, Whitfield’s deputy, Anne Fletcher, is from Freshfields and Tim Cowan, head of European law, is ex-Lovell White Durrant. Property work is devolved to private practice, handled by Ashurst Morris Crisp and Lawrence Graham.
BT is one of the few companies to run its own litigation, with some 8-10,000 cases under way at any one time. Work for the 50-odd litigation staff ranges from employers’ liability and customer-related matters, through to heavy commercial cases, such as a £235m dispute with the government of New South Wales currently under way.
Unusually, BT also has its own criminal department, dealing with work including high-tech fraud, such as cell phone cloning.
Specialist teams of lawyers focus on BT’s geographic and technological expansion. An intellectual property department of 25 patent attornies “have a better overview of our technology than our scientists”, says Whitfield. There is also a team specialising in advertising and marketing law, and one dealing with big customer contracts for specialist network business.
Head of legal
|FTSE 100 ranking||Britain’s third biggest company|
|Legal function||circa 200 staff- 100 lawyers, 25 patent attornies|
|Head of legal||Alan Whitfield|
|Reporting to||Colin Green, chief legal advisor and company secretary|
|Main location for lawyers||UK (circa 70 lawyers), US, Brussels, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong|
|Main law firms||Linklaters, Bird & Bird (Ashurst Morris Crisp and Lawrence Graham for property work)|