Perspectives: Dan Fitz, BT

I love my career. I haven’t loved it at all times. Over the years it was tough. But over time I became more confident, the anxiety passed and I got into the interesting aspects of what I was doing. I got to enjoy it very much.

When I started in New York there was a banking partner who looked like Daddy Warbucks. Everyone was afraid to work for him because he was very demanding but would bring a few people into his sphere and develop them. His chief focus was on how to draft a contract. He would likely give you a poem to read to learn to be economical with words. He was tough. He would say: ‘I can’t follow it. The client won’t be able to either.’ That someone intimidating and good believed you were worth developing meant a lot. It made you work harder.

I went to work after law school with a New York law firm and after three years they asked if I wanted to move to their London office. I went to grad school here and had friends so it wasn’t completely alien – it was fantastic to practise cross-border law.

I’d been working as an investment banker for two years. I was not the best banker. There were things about the law I missed. I was four years’ PQE when I went into the bank and learned an incredible amount. Getting into the detail, understanding a transaction from beginning to end… I missed that. Cable & Wireless was looking for a New York-qualified lawyer in London. It seemed natural but I was very lucky to get that job.

People didn’t know what to do with an in-house lawyer when I started. I was one of six lawyers hired at Cable & Wireless so that gave great scope to carve out the role. The canvas was blank as to what you would do differently to an external lawyer. The thinking we have around being closer to the business was there but not like now.

My very worst day at the office was in Jakarta in very tense negotiations. The other side pulled a gun… that’s not a euphemism.

Elizabeth Wall, the general counsel at Cable & Wireless, hired me and she’s been a mentor all my career. She puts her people first. She has a very mature approach to management which you didn’t have back then. She’d say: ‘My job, Dan, is to give you a really interesting career here. If I’m not able to do that my job is to help you find a job elsewhere.’ That was a very grown up conversation you didn’t often hear in the industry.

I’ve had a lot of bad days but my very worst ever at the office was in Jakarta. I was involved in very tense negotiations for Cable & Wireless. The other side pulled a gun… that’s not a euphemism. Their lead negotiator comes into our meeting room, pulls back his coat and there is a gun… that was wild. We went straight to the embassy and back to our hotel. We lost the deal… but it was a good deal to lose.

My favourite part of the job now is the people – I benefited from someone showing genuine interest in me and how I should develop.

I like daily uncertainty. I never know what any day is going to bring. Rather than something to be avoided it should be embraced. It keeps the job fresh.

I didn’t expect our growth at BT to accelerate the way it did. Before I arrived BT was blessed with a lot of very good lawyers but their light was under a bushel. BT six years ago was very challenged with a huge amount of debt and uncertainty. [Since then] BT itself has been increasingly successful and we have benefited from a better reputation. It’s also been through a lot of hard work by a lot of people thinking: what is it we want to do as lawyers inside BT? How are we going to expand into new areas around the world? The team embraced that challenge.

We have to earn our place and we do that by listening and understanding what the business needs. It comes from a mindset – now we know where you want to go, we find a solution to get you there. When you have the opportunity to be around the table, and not blow it, it’s because you have people with that ability. I call it ‘board ready’. One of the developmental paths in addition to technical skills is how to be an influential person in the company. Sometimes you say what people don’t want to hear but you’re valued.

I admire a lot of people. Rosemary Martin at Vodafone works across one of the most complex organisations in the world, takes on a lot of external activities as well for the profession… and is seemingly the most impeccable person. There’s never a ruffled feather and I just admire her intellect and ability to stay above the fray but not remote from it. That’s a real skill. Philip Bramwell is another… he has got to be in one of the toughest jobs in the industry. He’s been through a couple of changes in leadership as well, he’s still doing a great job. The people I tend to like are great at their jobs and remain real human beings with it.

Every crisis is a learning opportunity. My last two years at Cable it was in crisis. Being in that crucible – there were weeks on end where people were working seven days a week with little sleep. You learn a lot about yourself and other people. At the time there were few senior people willing to make a decision because they were worried about personal liability or that they might be judged. Those who did make a decision, I admire to this day. They weren’t afraid even though the risks were high. That’s the way it ought to be.

A big part of my job, wearing my company secretary hat, is convincing my non-executive directors that they’re not insane to be on the BT board.

I went through shock, anger and denial when regulations got tougher. But we’ve dealt with it in a rational way. If you overreact you spend infinite amounts of money and still do not feel you’re covered. I see a big part of my job, wearing my company secretary hat, as convincing my non-executive directors that they’re not insane to be a director of the BT board. They have dedicated their entire lives to develop their reputations, their personal wealth and it asks a lot of people to put both at risk.

The EE bid was very intense. BT was in the autumn of 2014 presented two opportunities, like buses, to acquire a large UK business. Because EE had Deutsche Telekom and Orange as equal partners it was double the negotiations. And then there was TelefÓnica’s O2. There were lots of balls in the air all the time before we decided which way we wanted to go. It was an intensive amount of work to get a contract and working over Christmas 2014, and we signed the agreements in February 2015. We had to have it reviewed by competition regulators – in 11 months it was done. Great for BT. It’s been a challenging year.

Telecoms will see a continuation of current trends. Consumers are buying more bundles of services – telephone line, broadband. There will be more consolidation in the sector in the UK and content will become more important. Whether you’re watching on your mobile or your TV – connectivity is key – whatever device they use. Most people have multiple devices. That pressure will continue.

We will always continue to want the services of traditional law firms. The UK produces really good lawyers who have a unique expertise in high-risk areas such as major transactions. That is such a benefit to companies like ours.

In the UK and the US you are seeing new market entrants who want to do volume transactions – alternative providers. I love them, they’re fantastic. In the old days you’d hire someone internally or go external and both options are expensive. Having the alternative service providers gives us flexibility.

I have my work/life balance but I’m not sure anyone else would want it. I married my partner of 14 years and he and I live in central London. We have a black Labrador so we spend a lot of time walking her. I like to play bridge and go to the gym. We love our food – dinner and entertaining… my life has become much quieter.

When I moved in-house, I no longer had to practise in a paranoid fashion. A lot of work was ‘What if the client asks for this?’. They hadn’t asked for it but you would still spend the weekend doing the work just in case they wanted it for Monday. In-house lawyers manage that better.

I got more control over my life but the pressures are still incessant. I expect to be online all week – that’s what executives do and I choose to do it. If you take this job you embrace it. I like it.

The role of the GC will change dramatically with technology and de-regulation. Places like BT will see increasingly fewer in-house lawyers doing crank-the-handle work. We’ll be focused on higher value-add work where knowledge of the company will be married with legal expertise. The advisory role will become relatively more important than the transactional role. If there ever was a dividing line between legal and regulatory / compliance, that is disappearing. It is one of the chief sources of additional work for my lawyers.

Long term I want to do other things. I would love to teach about the management of legal services. We had to learn how to do it the hard way. There are insights I could share. I would love a non-executive directorship. I want to spend more time with family and friends. One of the best things about getting older is being able to capture moments in your life.

You should only have a vague plan of where to go and be very opportunistic about what you’ll seize.

Dan Fitz is group general counsel and company secretary for BT