Virgin Media GC: Piece work

Virgin Media’s quest to install a top-class transatlantic advisory panel is putting general counsel Scott Dresser’s problem solving credentials to the test. By Joshua Freedman

Name: Scott Dresser
Company: Virgin Media
Industry: Media and telecommunicationsPosition: General counsel
Turnover: £3.8bn (2010)
Employees: 12,400
Legal capability: 30
External law firms: Ashurst, Fried Frank, Milbank, Simmons & Simmons, Wiggin

It’s quite an interesting ­puzzle to create,” says Scott Dresser on his ­latest project as general counsel at Virgin Media.

Dresser is talking about the ­protracted procedure of drawing up the media and telecoms company’s first panel of external firms.

“About three months ago I sent out a formal proposal to just under 30 firms and we got a tremendous response to that and interviewed most of them,” Dresser relates.

“I took a group of five or six lawyers from my department from all sections and we met most of them once. Many of them we met twice.”

“We also went through an ­exhaustive internal process, ­thinking through the type of work we handle as a legal department and how the different firms with their varying expertise might fit together.”

The company has had strong ­relationships with the corporate teams at Ashurst and Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson, but the new ­corporate, finance, M&A and competition panel has given additional work to Latham & Watkins, Linklaters and Sullivan & Cromwell (The Lawyer, 7 November), none of which previously undertook more than piecemeal work for the client.

Virgin Media has also devised a ­roster for commercial, industry, employment and regulatory work that is set to produce instructions for Baker & McKenzie, Mayer Brown, Osborne Clarke and Reed Smith in addition to the company’s current adviser in this area Simmons & ­Simmons.
Virgin Media has decided to stick to its media law relationship with ­specialist Wiggin and will continue to send its capital markets and financing work to Milbank.

Despite the number of US-based firms on the panel, US-born Dresser is insistent that it is not about filling the roster with firms from his home country.

“When you look at a firm such as Reed Smith for example, they merged with Richards Butler, so I don’t really look at Reed Smith as a US firm,” he surmises. “It’s got a US name, but it’s Richards Butler. Baker & McKenzie, similarly, is a global firm. Sullivan & Cromwell also – although they’re a well-known Wall Street firm they’ve got a really impressive UK presence.”

Nevertheless, firms with US ­expertise are handy for a company that is listed in the both the UK and the US.

“We’re a US public company and, having a primary listing on Nasdaq, one of the significant roles of our ­corporate department is to make sure we comply with SEC [US Securities and Exchange Commission] ­requirements,” Dresser says. “We’ve had quite a few filings in that place and as a result you need the US expertise.

“So when you look at our broad corporate work, we’d principally look to Fried Frank, Sullivan & Cromwell, Ashurst and Linklaters.
I think that’s a good blend to cover the sophisticated corporate work.”

Dresser joined Virgin Media as assistant general counsel in 2006 from US reinsurer White Mountains Re. His private practice background is at Morgan Lewis & Bockius in New York, which he left to join White Mountains.

He was promoted to deputy ­general counsel in 2008 and again to general counsel at the start of this year following the retirement of Bryan Hall, who had held the role since 2004.

Since coming in Dresser has guided the legal team through the £339m sale of UKTV, the broadcaster behind Gold and Dave, to US buyer Scripps Networks Interactive. Virgin Media hired Fried Frank on corporate and Wiggin (both examples what Dresser calls his “legacy firms”) on media law for the transaction.

Now he has to decide whether the same firms will be at the table the next time a big deal comes around.

“Over the course of 2012 we’ll be continuing to work with some of our legacy firms and also giving some work to the new firms,” Dresser ­confirms. “At the end of 2012 we’ll take a look at the panel again.

“This is an opportunity for us to take a fresh look at different firms [and] see what they have.

We may very well end up continuing to give the bulk of our work to our legacy firms or we may shift – it all depends on how 2012 plays out.”
In other words, Dressler’s puzzle is not yet solved.