With a grounding in both telecoms and M&A, Sarah Binder is well placed to face the challenges that come with being director of legal and compliance at entrepreneurial and fast-growing PlusNet.
“When in-house teams get it right they are a conduit between other departments,” asserts PlusNet head lawyer Sarah Binder. “They sit at the centre of the business and feed and support all the different parts.”
Binder, a Clifford Chance alumni, arrived at PlusNet from parent company BT, at which she was M&A counsel. After engineering BT’s acquisition of ESPN in the UK in order to launch BT Sport, she made the move to the fast-growing provider in 2013, setting up the legal function from scratch.
Her time at Clifford Chance was mainly spent in its Abu Dhabi office, when the base was still embryonic. Working end-to-end on deals and being in a position to understand client strategy, rather than parachuting in and out on a particular facet of a deal, appealed to Binder and inspired her first to make the move in-house and then to transfer from BT to PlusNet.
“It is rare to be given the opportunity to set up a legal function from scratch,” acknowledges Binder. “And it was very challenging but I couldn’t pass the opportunity up. I had to try it.
“PlusNet is a very entrepreneurial and quick moving business – and that appealed to me because I could see how you could build a legal function around it.”
Making good use of her M&A background, Binder approached establishing the function as she had deals.
“I spent six months doing due diligence and examining all the contracts, all the terms and conditions, all the governance processes,” she explains. “It was really about pulling information in because I didn’t feel I could advise before I understood how the business operated and what it cared about.
“Our distinguishing feature in the market is our customer service and it seemed to me when I set up the function that I had to start at that point.”
That approach has continued throughout Binder’s tenure. She lists monitoring customer calls as one of the central components of her job and, while she accepts it might not be the case for most general counsel, she says she never fails to come away with ideas on how to improve the business.
“I was on a call the other day and there was an issue with a disabled customer who had somebody contacting on his behalf,” she says. “We needed to balance the necessary data protection rules and following the Ofcom provisions around accessibility with trying to do the right thing for our customer.
“Immediately after the call I sent an email to one of our compliance officers saying that we needed to look into the process around it because it could be made easier for people. Legal and compliance often have a role to play.”
This approach filters out to her whole team as she ensures that legal staff develop a specialism while maintaining a broad business focus.
“It’s not just for their own careers but because it’s good for business,” she says. “It means that you understand the business. For example, the marketing team may want something done in a particular way but that could be a problem for the security team. Because you have spent time with them and understand how our systems work, you can help.”
Binder’s legal team comprises nine members, five of whom are compliance professionals, focusing on Ofcom requirements, data protection and anti-corruption and bribery standards. Meanwhile, the four lawyers spend their time advising on advertising and marketing, commercial and employment contracts and consumer law, as well as tending to any litigation that arises.
It’s a lot of work but Binder and her small team have BT’s central legal group on call.
“BT has vast legal resources,” Binder explains, “and so our first port of call is always to discuss it with them. A panel is usually so fundamental to an in-house but it’s not for us right now, though that may change.”
While the team constantly reacts to the business’ needs, Binder draws up a plan each quarter, charting the team’s strategic aims. One current focus is reworking PlusNet’s terms and conditions into plain English.
“How can it take 25 pages to tell a customer what their broadband package is?” asks Binder, bemused. “There’s a view, it’s diminishing but it still exists, that legal can be a barrier. But actually, compliance – if you do it well – can speed things up for customers and speed up our call-handling time. It’s counterintuitive but it’s true.”
Fast pace of growth
With a view to the telecommunications sector as a whole, Binder observes that over the last few years the internet has become another utility, like gas or water. She believes that this change from optional luxury to essential utility will continue at the same trajectory as the Internet of Things takes off and home appliances become interconnected.
PlusNet is predicted to reach the one million customer mark next year, having trebled in size over the past five years to become the fifth biggest internet service provider in the country. For Binder, it’s this fast pace of growth that makes her role so interesting.
“From a legal perspective it makes it interesting when a business is growing fast,” says Binder. “You need to be flexible, fully understand where the business is trying to go and look forward and see that you’re set up for that.”