Star laws

Stefan Seyfarth has every legally-minded school boy’s dream job – and no, he is not Pamela Anderson’s lawyer. Assuming that law and space are high up on your list of interests, you could not be better placed than Seyfarth, general counsel at Astrium, one of Europe’s two key players in the space industry.

His company is 75 per cent owned by the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), with the remaining 25 per cent held by British Aerospace (BAe). It designs and builds spacecraft, satellites and all manner of additional technological gizmos that might need to be sent up into orbit.

Seyfarth’s legal team reflects the European spread of Astrium. It comprises three locations – France, Germany and the UK – and is on-site at each of Astrium’s operating companies. Despite the wide geographical dispersal of his team, it consists of only five lawyers and an additional five support staff. “We’re very few, which means we have to work a lot,” notes Seyfarth, although he adds: “What we do is quite comparable to what other companies do. There’s no real space law that we need to know about.” Seyfarth and his team find themselves handling the sort of legal problems endemic to any major international corporation rather than the more esoteric points of space law.

Corporate governance issues are high up on Seyfarth’s agenda. Astrium comprises a number of companies in many jurisdictions and problems requiring the in-house team’s attention come thick and fast. More general corporate matters such as mergers and acquisitions are also frequent visitors to his in-tray. Litigation, intellectual property (IP) and contracts make up the rest of the team’s workload.

Given the spread of his team, it is difficult for Seyfarth to ensure that it works as a coherent unit. A small mercy is that they are all in the same time zone, as much of their communication has to take place electronically or via conferencing facilities. As Astrium is at the forefront of technological developments, Seyfarth has an advantage in that his team is equipped with the latest telecommunications gadgetry.

“We do teleconferences every two weeks for a couple of hours, where we talk about our projects,” he explains. “We have to do it because it’s physically impossible to be with our colleagues every day.” In addition to the regular conferences, Seyfarth says that his day will be dominated by one-on-one conference calls in which he and members of his team will discuss specific projects or problems.

The issue presently dominating his time is litigation in the US. He has instructed Kaye Scholer to pursue a claim for $133m (£92.5m) against a number of suppliers. The case has been broadened from a negligence claim to one in which Astrium alleges fraudulent behaviour on the part of the defendants.

Astrium is asking the US District Court for the Central District of California for damages from TRW Space & Electronics and two other companies – Optical Filter Corporation and Pilkington Optronics – which were working for TRW on Astrium satellites. The claim hinges on the accusation that TRW supplied faulty solar panels, the means by which satellites are powered, for the telecommunications satellites built and sold by Astrium.

Astrium claims that it suffered delivery delays, in-orbit defects and other negative consequences as a result of the problems with the solar cells. It lost $97m (£67.5m) when one customer, New Skies Satellites, cancelled an order due to the delays. Seyfarth says that one of his main challenges as the company’s general counsel is to use litigation to recover money that the company has lost.

His other responsibilities are more generic. He has to ensure that coordination and communication within his team remains in hand and he has to act as legal guard dog for his company, minimising risk through his team’s proactive handling of contract and IP matters and taking aggressive steps when things become contentious.

Should a legal problem require more resources than his team can muster, Astrium has relationships with specific firms in each of its main jurisdictions. In Seyfarth’s home country, he calls upon the German arm of Andersen Legal; in the Netherlands, the chief external adviser is Stibbe; Norton Rose acts for the company in the UK; French corporate specialist Bredin Prat is used in France; Clifford Chance is also used in France and the UK; and US advice is provided by Pierson & Burnett.

When choosing firms, Seyfarth has one general rule. “What’s always most important is that they have some experience, at least in the aerospace industry,” he observes. “It’s very much a question of expertise and who has it in specific fields.”

In addition to a clear understanding of his industry, Seyfarth has to pay close attention to what firms are billing. “Of course, we’re always interested in fees. I always ask for some sort of budget at the beginning of a project,” he says.

Seyfarth says that in his business individual relationships are key. The greater part of his legal career has been spent in companies in the space industry. Having qualified and spent time working in a German government department, he moved in-house. Following a number of consolidations, which is typical of his industry, he ended up at Astrium, having been at the forefront of setting up the company while in-house at DaimlerChrysler Aerospace. He knows which lawyers have the experience he needs and keeps abreast of any up-and-coming practitioners.

“If a lawyer changes firm, very often you’ll stick with that person rather than the firm, although sometimes you stick with the firm if the lawyer is moving to a smaller firm. For big M&A it’s a question of logistics,” explains Seyfarth.

Astrium is a player in a dynamic industry where joint ventures and acquisitions are a way of life. On corporate transactions, much of the legal work is outsourced simply because Seyfarth’s team is not big enough to focus on a single transaction and maintain its daily function.

“You never know what will happen the next day,” muses Seyfarth. “There’s such a variety of legal work that you learn a lot.” Astrium keeps Seyfarth and his team, including the sole UK lawyer Kristian Grimes, on their toes. The nature of the company is that it pushes forward, seeking technological developments to enhance its products.

In 1999, Astrium won a contract for the construction of Mars Express, the first European space probe designed to land on Mars. The Mars exploration is due to take place next year and will investigate whether there was once water on the Red Planet. The space industry is not one that can afford to stand still, nor would it even think of doing so. For Seyfarth, this is the appeal of being involved.

“I found it more challenging to be in such a big corporation rather than outside it,” he says. “But I’d never exclude a move to private practice. I’m in a good job now and you should never change a winning team.” He adds that he likes being in the thick of things. “Working in a European environment is my top priority,” he says. “We’ve managed to create a European spirit in our team and, since we’re a small group, it works very well.”

Whether his commitment to a European base rules out the possibility of Seyfarth becoming the first lawyer to operate an in-house team from space remains to be seen.
Stefan Seyfarth
Head of legal

Organisation Astrium
Sector Outer Space
Turnover Approx Euro2bn (£1.23bn)
Employees 8000
Legal Capability Five (two in Germany, two in France and one in the UK)
Head of legal Stefan Seyfarth
Reporting to Chief financial officer Agnes Michel
Main location for lawyers Germany
Main law firms Burness and Maclay Murray & Spens