British Telecommunications

Being at the helm of one of the largest in-house teams in the country is sometimes “pretty hair-raising”, according to British Telecommunications’ head of legal Alan Whitfield.

He says: “It’s not quite a deal a day, but simply the volume of work and the pace at which things have to be done means it can be difficult to keep track of what’s going on.”

The company does as much work as possible in-house. Whitfield says it is a constant challenge for the team to chart developments.

“We have a constant need to change the skills that we have got – you can’t just say ‘I’m a telecoms lawyer and what I knew 10 years ago is good enough now’.

“You don’t just reach to the shelf for a precedent and say this was how it was done five years ago. We are constantly retraining on the job.”

The only area the department does not tackle itself is property work. For this it uses Ashurst Morris Crisp and Lawrence Graham, two firms it has long-standing relationships with.

But large-scale corporate transactions are within the department’s remit. Even when it brings in external advice from top City law firms it insists on running the projects itself.

Last year, the in-house team did the bulk of the work on a deal cementing the company’s relationship with US telecoms giant AT&T. In a global joint venture called Concert, the two brought together most of their international operations.

While that was going on, other members of the department were working on buying the remaining interests in Cellnet that had been held by Securicor. Although the in-house team led the deal, the group took external advice from Linklaters on some of the tax and securities implications.

Whitfield cannot emphasise enough how unusual it is that Allen & Overy has just won a beauty parade to advise the firm on the partial sale of Yell, its Yellow Pages directories division which will become the basis for BT’s e-commerce services.

“We have a very limited number of these type of decisions to make because we do so much of our work in-house. When we do decide to get external help we would tend to go to a firm which we have an existing relationship with.

“It may be there would be more than one firm capable of doing the work, and if so we might ask them to come in and talk to us.”

Whitfield says that it is hard for him to specify what it is he is looking for in external advisers, because he so rarely calls them in.

“It all depends on the case really, because it is only the minority and the unusual cases where we go to anybody at all. Certain firms are just better at certain things,” he says.

“If an issue has a very high technical content we have got our own people, but if we do need external help and a firm does not have a very strong technical department, there will be no point in them applying.”

For most technical issues the firm uses Bird & Bird, which Whitfield says is very much tuned into BT’s way of doing things.

He has no plans to change his relationships with any of the outside legal advisers he uses, and he is happy with the amount of work being done in-house.

“We don’t really set targets for the amount done in-house but we run to a general principle that if it’s best done in-house we do it in-house, if it’s best done outside we do it there.

“If there is enough of the work for it to be worth running a specialism we will do it. In areas like tax we don’t do enough and it would be silly to say simply by doing BT’s tax law you would do enough tax law to be an expert.

“It’s about knowing the developments and being what we call ‘in the traffic’. If you need to be getting experience from other clients to be in the traffic we would do it outside.”

The department is split into five divisions – intellectual property, competition law, litigation, corporate law and corporate development.

In addition, there is a general commercial department for the UK business, and one for overseas business.

The in-house international department is managed from Hong Kong. There is a manager there who reports back to Whitfield and who is responsible for selecting and running relationships with law firms outside the UK.

Whitfield says that the increasingly international nature of the telecommunications business is one of the most pressing issues for him as the head of legal.

“The increasing globalisation is very important to us. You can’t just do a deal in the UK and say that’s enough – it will have implications around the world.

“We just did a deal in Japan that had to be cleared in Europe. There is an overall, increasingly complex, set of arrangements.”

In the last few years, he has embraced the internet and mobile communications with open arms, but he says there has been a real change in the faces he works with.

“The people tend to be young and active, and they tend to come to work in chinos and T-shirts rather than pinstripe suits. Now people here dress as though they are in Silicon Valley.

“Things are changing all the time and very fast. This is certainly an exciting place to be.”
Alan Whitfield
Head of legal
British Telecommunications

Statistics
Organisation British Telecommunications
Sector Telecommunicatins
Employees 125,000
Head of legal Alan Whitfield
Reporting to Colin Green, commercial director and company secretary
Legal function 230 people – 100 solicitors and barristers and 30 patent advisers
Main location for lawyers UK
Main law firms Bird & Bird, Linklaters & Alliance, Freshfields, Allen & Overy, Ashurst Morris Crisp and Lawrence Graham