T-Mobile’s legal director and company secretary James Blendis has remodelled the company’s legal department to make it leaner and meaner. By Donna Sawyer
Good things come in small packages at T-Mobile – just ask legal director and company secretary James Blendis. Settling down in The Lawyer’s interview room, the young lawyer shows off his new phone, the MDA Vario featuring Web ’n’ Walk. It is one of T-Mobile’s latest products to hit the market, and this is not just any phone, Blendis insists, it is an office, complete with a computer and open internet access. The tiny invention could be seen as a reflection of the way the company has restructured, reformed and reviewed itself.
Like many of the global telecoms giants, T-Mobile has carried on the trend of slicing and dicing to get itself back into shape. And the legal department has not been immune to the business pressures. During the past year, the department has halved its legal spend and cut the number of law firms it uses. It has also driven down fees and secured discounted rates (The Lawyer, 23 January).
Blendis, who at 34 became one of the youngest heads of legal when he took up the job in October 2004, has led the legal budget overhaul.
In fact, since Blendis took over from his respected predecessor Julia Chain, he has restructured the in-house legal department into separate, more commercially-friendly units and refined the list of firms used by the company.
The selected firms have been delegated specific practice areas to advise on. Bird & Bird will advise on IP litigation, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham on general commercial matters, Kemp Little on IT, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer on planning and litigation, Eversheds on employment, Allen & Overy for corporate matters and Westminster-based Winckworth Sherwood on property.
Blendis says the selected firms were pragmatic in their approach towards providing commercial legal advice.
“In business, people don’t want to know the law inside-out and why they can’t do something – they want solutions,” he says. “That commercial awareness was something we looked for in the firms we chose.
“We used to have a list of about 15 law firms that we’d go to on an ad hoc basis, but now we’ve tightened that up and slimmed down on the number of firms we use.
“We then went through a review exercise with the firms we used regularly. We reviewed the relationship as well as costs and discount arrangements. We’ve now established our core advisers and agreed new terms and future cost arrangements.”
Blendis remains coy about the legal budget, but says a relatively slow litigation year, combined with bringing more work in-house, has halved the annual spend.
“As our in-house lawyers get more senior we’ve been able to take on more work ourselves, which has made it easier to reduce the level of outsourced work,” he says. “We’ve trained up two legal executives ourselves to take on legal work such as confidentiality agreements and customer disputes. We’re also looking to recruit a junior lawyer at the moment.”
In addition to cutting the budget and reducing the number of law firms used by T-Mobile, Blendis has also had to make four of his in-house lawyers redundant during the past 12 months.
“One of the first things I had to do was to slim down the team,” he says. “At the end of the day, some people were ready to move on, but it still wasn’t an easy thing to do and it made people nervous at the time. But things are pretty good now.”
The company is involved in a number of legal disputes annually, regarding everything from planning issues to IP.
T-Mobile is currently awaiting the outcome of its high-profile patent dispute against Inpro, which is before the High Court.
Luxembourg IP company Inpro is suing BlackBerry and T-Mobile, claiming that it owns the patent for a technology system that allows data to move from a computer to a hand-held device. It claims the technology is being used illegally by BlackBerry and T-Mobile.
The case is being watched closely by the UK telecoms industry, which could see BlackBerry owners in the UK stopped from using their devices.
“It’s a very important case and at this stage we’re hopeful,” Blendis says. “The decision could be any day now.”
Whatever the outcome of the case, the one certainty is that T-Mobile will continue to come up with bigger and better innovations packed into pocket-sized gadgets.
Likewise, Blendis has created a new and improved legal function within T-Mobile, despite downsizing his team.
It just goes to show that sometimes less really is more.
Sector: Mobile communications
Employees: 6,000 (UK)
Legal capability: 20 (UK)
Legal director: James Blendis
Reporting to: Finance director Johannes Schmidt Shultes
Main law firms: Allen & Overy, Bird & Bird, Eversheds, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham and Winckworth Sherwood