You may not have heard of Symbian, but if you are a fan of multipurpose mobile phones, then the chances are you will have some of the company’s technology in your pocket. Symbian writes the software for the operating systems that allow your phone to also act as your address book, email system and multimedia player. As the company’s website explains, the technology spans the spectrum between voice-centric phones with information capability and information-centric devices with voice capability. In essence, the technology allows a hybrid between a mobile phone and a personal digital assistant.
The company is unusual in that it is a joint venture between mobile phone manufacturers Ericsson, Panasonic, Motorola, Nokia and Psion, formed in 1998. Prior to that it was owned solely by Psion.
Psion, which has been at the forefront of personal digital assistant technology for years, had done a lot of work on operating systems and ways to maximise the conservation of space to allow handheld computers to become smaller. Meanwhile, Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola had cooperated in areas such as the development of Global System for Mobile Telecommunications, which has become the European standard for mobile phone networks.
The idea that competitors in such a fierce marketplace can work together might come as a surprise. But as Symbian head of legal Michelle Foster explains: “Their view was that they needed an operating system that could handle more than just voice. Through provision of a common standard, they could then compete on things like design. If you have a lot of competing technology then the market can’t grow, but if you have that standard then it will grow the market and in 1998 that was their goal.”
So Symbian designs the operating system and then the mobile phone investors take it and add their own hardware and design, depending on what sector of the market they are targeting. Foster compares what Symbian creates to Microsoft’s Windows operating system, which is now ubiquitous, adding that the only difference is that Symbian is owned by the industry.
Foster joined in 1999 from Equitas, which handled run-off insurance for Lloyd’s of London. She says that she was lucky when she arrived, because Psion, as the former sole owner, already had a panel of law firms set up that she was able to adopt. The panel consisted of Slaughter and May, Baker & McKenzie and DLA.
“When I arrived, there were some hand-me-downs from Psion, and for the most part we liked them a lot so we kept them,” she says.
The fourth member of the panel came about in quite an unusual way. One unsuccessful candidate for the marketing job at Symbian kept in touch with the company, and when he finally moved to Bristows he was in an ideal position to sell his new firm’s attributes. “He was coming back from Australia and was a very interesting person, so when he went to Bristows we maintained the contact,” says Foster.
“I’m constantly impressed by how quickly our external firms add value and get their heads round something”
Michelle Foster, Symbian
Bristows now handles the company’s intellectual property issues and Foster lets it be known that she is now happy with the panel of firms. Baker & McKenzie and Slaughters both handle technology-related issues, while for non-technological issues such as human resources or employment problems (the minority of the in-house department’s work) the company uses Slaughters and DLA.
“On tiny litigation like a cleaning contract, we would outsource to DLA, but not the London office, someone out in Birmingham. We’ve got some very good service from that office as well,” explains Foster.
The in-house team, consisting of Foster and two other lawyers, handles the vast majority of the legal work thrown up by Symbian, outsourcing only about 20 per cent.
“When we outsource – which is rare, as we do a lot of work in-house because we’re really on the cutting edge – we’re either outsourcing because we’re overwhelmed, or we need someone with even more experience than we’ve got,” she says. “So we need someone who can run with it and function independently yet who keeps us in the loop. They have to be proactive and just get on with it.”
Foster admits that the company is not the easiest to dip in and out of for external lawyers. “But I’m constantly impressed by how quickly our external firms add value and get their heads round something,” she adds.
She also expects her chosen external lawyers to be able to keep up with a rapidly changing market. “You have to work harder to stay up-to-date with what’s happening,” she says. “Law firms send us work updates and do training, so we do keep fairly well up-to-date. We need someone who can be proactive and say that the contract that we were looking at three months ago will now have to be looked at again if we were going to use it.”
For the time being, Foster believes that the in-house department is the right size, having taken on one of her colleagues fairly recently. When Foster herself joined she was the only lawyer and was looking after 300 people. The company has since doubled its headcount. “I normally figure that you get one query a day for each 100 people that really needs to be dealt with,” she says.
To aid Foster and her team, a database request system has been set up. Any legal problem is sent through to the team via the database, which allows the team to keep up-to-date with who is dealing with problems and the stage they have reached in the process. The database, with the help of a patient personal assistant, also contains copies of 2,500 old contracts to provide examples or templates for future contracts. This could potentially cause problems, with the individual partners in the joint ventures being able to see what their competitors are up to, but Foster explains that the department is pretty careful about who it permits to access the database.
The idea came to her, she reveals, when the company was still working out of four different sites, and it was difficult to track where contracts were and the stage that they had reached.
Getting colleagues to use the system was a fight Foster started early, and she encourages them to get the in-house department involved in any problems as soon as possible. “We’ve done a lot of teaching in the last few years and I think we’re there now. I think the relationship’s really good now [between the legal department and the rest of the company], and we’re pretty happy with how our commercial people function.”
The longest serving member of the department, apart from Foster, has been there for a year, which, Foster explains, may not be a long time for “grown-up” companies, but is well established for “baby companies”. So she views the legal function as both settled and effective.
And this is something that has rubbed off on the commercial side of Symbian. “The commercial guys are starting to be able to put together a good, sophisticated story of what the deal is, so it’s quite easy for us to put together the contract,” says Foster.
Head of legal
|Head of Legal||Michelle Foster|
|Reporting to||Chief financial officer Thomas Chambers|
|Main location for lawyers||London|
|Main law firms||Baker & McKenzie, Bristows, DLA and Slaughter and May|