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From Firefighters to Visionary Business Partners

By Jennifer J. Salopek

One of the largest private sector employers in the United Kingdom, and with a global presence in over 170 countries, BT Group employs over 89,000 people. In the UK, the workforce is heavily unionized and legal constraints restrict available employment practices to achieve cost reductions. In that context, BT’s in-house legal department have been a de facto firefighting squad occupied with reactive labor dispute litigation support. Three years ago, however, the 15-person department hung up their firehoses in favor of a more preventive approach, providing a full range of proactive legal solutions.

BT Group London Office Photo




London Office: David Rushmere,

Helen Umpelby, Wendy Sommerville,

Robyn Curd and James Brockbank

The effect this has had on the department’s relationship with its internal customers cannot be overstated, increasing engagement, confidence, mutual understanding and respect. Further, upskilling by members of the department combined with a strategic, service-oriented outlook has increased their own satisfaction and engagement. The end result is a department capable of such high-value work that it handled the largest corporate acquisition in UK history totally internally.

BT Group Bletchley Office Photo




Bletchley Office: Joanna Hodgson,

Rebecca Townsend, Laura Webb,

John Keith, Tina McTavish,

Shirley Matthews, Geoff Cavender

and James Percival

Employment Law Chief Counsel John Keith describes the company as experiencing “seismic changes to strip out costs.” In 2013, when the employment law department began to design its reinvention, it was outsourcing up to 100 major labor claims at any one time, to the tune of more than a million dollars in external fees annually. There was also enormous volatility in the number of claims.

“We had to decide as a team what we wanted to concentrate on, how to use our abilities as in-house attorneys to devise a broader offer,” says Keith. Anticipating the needs of internal clients was absolutely vital. “Intense stakeholder engagement drove the development of priorities; we did not presuppose what clients wanted.”

The initiative comprised three major parts:

Standardization and consistency. After a detailed analysis of processes for litigation, transactional support, project management, settlement agreements, and business visas, members of the department redesigned those processes for greater efficiency and created IT tools for increased self-service. Using off-the-shelf software, Keith and his team created a virtual “front door” that allows self-service for many workflows. It systematizes work requests, and provides access to self-help guides and training podcasts for more basic transactions. The site receives an average of 21 visits per day and has reduced the number of requests for specialist assistance from the legal department to 10 per month.

The employment law team’s involvement in the human resources IT system now allows it to track and predict pre-claim and claim trends. They can leverage the system’s analytics to view the full life cycle of labor issues through mediation, litigation, and outcomes and gain valuable insight into labor issues that may lead to recommendations for policy changes. Once effected, “We can track the impact of a policy change as it ripples along the lifecycle,” says Keith.

“IT has transformed us from waiting to having a seat at the strategic table,” he continues. “I guess it is a paradox of smart working: We can do more with less if we harness the power of IT, but simultaneously the number of claims has been declining.”

Training and knowledge building. The employment law department has focused on building confidence in its HR and business colleagues to utilize the front door and self-service opportunities through training sessions, webinars, and podcasts. The material is designed to be accessible and is presented in layman’s language.

Once processes were simplified and consistent, technology was in place for self-service, and users had been trained in its use, the legal department was poised to complete the most critical part of its transformation: focusing on high-value work by bringing support for large-scale strategic business initiatives in-house. “We have in-depth knowledge of the business and its risk/reward choices that external legal service providers simply cannot offer,” says Keith. “There was a breakthrough moment when we broke down the barrier between ‘defense attorney’ and ‘advisor.’”

This new capability and bandwidth has allowed the department to go from handling virtually no in-house transactions to handling 267 in 2014. The average transaction value has increased from $17 million to $30 million. In 2015-16, they provided support for BT’s $18 billion acquisition of EE, a mobile carrier. Simultaneously, the department has reduced outside legal spend by $1million per year, for a total reduction of 73 percent between 2013 and 2015. 

Keith refers to all of this as “achieving closeness.”

“Our clients have welcomed that closeness with open arms”, he says.  ”This is central to what we see as the corporate counsel’s raison d’etre.”

Benefits of the project have been more than financial. Engagement and job satisfaction among members of the legal team have soared, as they have learned new skills and taken on new responsibilities. “This has been transformational for their careers," Keith says. “The team is enjoying the rich variety of the work. It’s incredibly exciting and rewarding to be able to contribute meaningfully."

From the Judges

"Great Story. The submission demonstrated sustainable results since inception in 2013. Despite a reduction in internal force, the program still managed to reduce external spend significantly. Standardization and training were the keystones of the project."