Matthew Hill: Nintendo

Matthew Hill, general counsel at Nintendo of Europe, oversees what could easily be the happiest legal team in Europe.

Unlike in most companies and law firms, Hill’s lawyers are encouraged to play video games at work. Hill is determined that his legal team should be familiar with Nintendo’s new products, in particular this year with the launch of the Wii (pronounced ‘we’) console.

“We have Wiis in the office,” says Hill. “They’re in quite short supply even for Nintendo staffers, but we expect everybody to know how to play our products.”

A harsh but fair rule, most would agree.

A little bit of enjoyment during the working day is the least Hill and his team can take from the Nintendo console after all the hard hours they poured into ensuring a successful launch.

The legal support for the Wii’s European launch last December started in earnest last May and encompassed a wide range of different practice areas.

Nintendo handled all the patent work centrally in Japan, and led its anti-piracy effort from its US base in Seattle, leaving Hill and his team to deal with everything else. This included working through all the data protection, e-commerce and privacy issues to make sure Wii’s online gaming system was ready in time for the Christmas shopping rush.

“Wii allows you to download a back catalogue of video games, which threw up large numbers of issues that we had to solve in all the countries where we have customers. It was a massive undertaking for such a small team. And it was quite challenging for all the law firms we used,” says Hill.

Hill used Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in Germany and Osborne Clarke and Lovells in the UK.

From its vantage point near Frankfurt, the Nintendo team also coordinated advice from around two to three law firms in every other EU jurisdiction.

Each lawyer in the five-strong team speaks a major European language to mother tongue level to overcome the language barriers.

Nintendo of Europe commands a substantial legal budget of around e2m (£1.35m) in a console launch year, making the company a valuable but demanding client.

“The first thing we look for in a firm is relevant experience. The second is commerciality, with the third being speed of response. The last thing we look at is the price,” says Hill. “We often have deadlines that come up very fast, which give you a matter of hours or days to solve the problem.”

In the periods between big product launches, Hill is most concerned with keeping Nintendo on good terms with the European Commission.

A little more than four years ago Brussels hit Nintendo with a e149m (£100.26m) fine for price-fixing in the 1990s – Hill is determined that this will be last fine Nintendo pays in Europe.

“It’s a very high priority for me not to fall into the same elephant trap,” he says.

As well as competition, Nintendo is concerned with complying with laws on product packaging and materials, which have been changed considerably in the past few years.

A recycling directive, the Restriction of Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive and the Phthalates Directive have limited the use of restrictive plastics. It is Hill’s job to make sure Nintendo is not caught out using any banned materials.

This concern presents an opportunity for firms to strengthen their relationships with Nintendo, by keeping the company up to date with all the regulatory changes.

Hill says: “We’re extremely profitable and staff fairly leanly. It’s much easier for an outside law firm to keep up to date with all the new laws than us.”

Nintendo uses competition partners Simon Politto and Simon Barnes from Lovells, as well as Hogan & Hartson competition partner John Pheasant in Brussels.

The Nintendo legal team is given a wide-ranging mandate to advise on all aspects of the company’s products, down to design of the packaging and the name.

So why Wii? “It does seem bizarre to some people, but it was chosen because it was seen to work on a global basis,” says Hill. “For example, in French it sounds like ‘yes’.”

Matthew Hill
Nintendo of Europe

Organisation: Nintendo of Europe Industry
Industry: Entertainment
General counsel: Matthew Hill
Reporting to: President of Nintendo Europe Satoru Shibata

Company turnover: €1bn (£672.92m)
Total number of employees: 550
Total legal capability: 5
Average annual legal spend: €2m (£1.35m)

Main law firms: Ceriani e Associati, CMS Hasche Sigle, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Lovells, Osborne Clarke, SJ Berwin, Trevisan & Cuonzo
Matthew Hill’s CV

1971 – Trinity College, Cambridge University;
1975 – College of Law, London
Work History:
1976 – solicitor, Lovells, London;
1983 – partner, Lovells, London;
1987 – partner, Lovells, New York;
1990 – managing partner, Lovells, New York;
1993 – partner, Lovells, London;
1999 – managing director, operations and administration, Nintendo of Europe;
2000 – general counsel, Nintendo of Europe