Chris Fowler

Chris Fowler

General Counsel Technology at BT

There aren’t too many lawyers that can say their work is “important for the UK as a whole”, but Chris can say it and he is right! The majority of Chris’s career has been with BT where he has held titles such as Head of Major Deals and Projects and now GC Technology. 23 years with one of the UK’s largest employers certainly gives some great insights to being an in-house lawyer, especially when working in a global role.

In this series, BCL Legal Co-Founder and In-house Managing Director, Mark Levine, finds out a bit more about how lawyers who work in-house have got to where they are, what they do, what they feel are important character traits to have... and what lawyers considering a move in-house should think about!

What / Who made you consider law as a career?

To be  honest Mark I wanted to travel around the world and thought if I did a law degree it would convince my Dad I had an idea that I was going to do something responsible when I finished travelling.

As I started to study law I was really interested in the commercial side as  fundamentally it’s about how commerce is  regulated and also at that time European law was starting to have a bigger impact which I found interesting. I qualified as a Barrister but quickly realised that working in a company dealing with business problems is what grabbed me because if your part of a business you have to give a view and make a contribution. I guess fundamentally I was driven more by a desire to get involved as opposed to just giving “advice”.

What do you enjoy most about working as an in-house lawyer?

First and foremost it’s about being part of a business which you find interesting and helping solve problems and making a contribution and seeing what the impact is.

You are part of a multi-disciplinary team and will get involved in things right from the start through to completion which can be incredibly rewarding and mean you get a real in depth knowledge into how your company works, which customers and suppliers are key to its business, its risk appetite and how it meets its regulatory obligations.

If the business is international you will probably also get involved in international issues where you might have to consider a whole host of other issues such as export rules, tax, and local regulation to name but a few. I find all of these things incredibly interesting as you learn by doing, inevitably venture out of your comfort zone and acquire new skills which will help you develop and your career to progress.

What attracted you to work for your current company?

The variety of the work we do and how important it is not just for BT but for the UK as a whole.

The BT Legal, Regulatory and Co sec team comprises approximately 300 people based across the world dealing with a huge variety of issues.  For instance  the last few years have been dominated by the roll out of 5G mobile networks, the US restrictions on Huawei, the building of a new emergency network, putting in mobile connectivity into the London underground and securing mobile sites in some of the most remote locations in the UK. Our mobile network comprises over 19,000 sites across the UK and  a variety of legal skills are crucial to make that happen whether its property lawyers to secure the rights to install and maintain our equipment, commercial lawyers to negotiate complex network sharing agreements,  Intellectual Property lawyers to ensure the appropriate IP is protected, cyber lawyers to ensure the networks are protected  - all of them are key to ensuring these huge nationwide engineering projects are delivered. Access to 5G  enabled services will have a major impact on the competitiveness of the UK economy and its really exciting and rewarding to be a part of that.

I knew when I joined the breadth and scope of the work I could be doing was extremely varied and I have never stopped learning in my time here.

I was also impressed with the culture its genuinely a very friendly place where people are incredibly supportive so if you want to try something new that’s positively encouraged. I also think its incredibly motivating to work for a company that has such a high public profile as everyone has a view on.

What are the main deliverables of your role?

It’s about making sure the team is focused on those issues that are the most important for the success of the business or mitigating the risks that might impact that.

Secondly it’s about making sure that the team are performing to the best of their abilities, understand how their work fits in to what the company needs to do and that they are sufficiently motivated and engaged with their work. Yes there will always be projects which I work on but it will make more of an impact if the team is led and  focused on the right things and feel they have the support and opportunity to have fulfilling and rewarding careers.

What do you feel are the most important character traits of an in-house lawyer?

I think it’s a given you will understand the law and regulation relating to your business, but what will stand you apart is the broader inter personal skills...

- How curious are you about the business and your stakeholders needs?

- How good are you at stakeholder management?

- Is your communication as effective and crisp as it needs to be to ensure a message really lands with an executive who might have a million other things on their plate?

- How solution orientated are you?

..I always remember one BT exec saying to me:

Chris anyone can admire a problem our job is to fix it.

Above all it's about being open to new challenges and realising that you will have to acquire new skills as you progress – as one of my former bosses memorably said to me “you wont get the next job doing what you did to get this job” - so being open to acquiring new skills is fundamental.

When / If you look for new team members - what is most important to you and why? Ability or Character?

I always look for people who are curious, self-motivated and will bring something different to the team.

It’s really important to me we have a diverse team so we have diversity of thinking  and people feel they can be themselves and thrive. Yes they have to have a certain skill level but I try to think about what motivates them, why they want to work for BT, how curious they are and how much they are genuinely interested in the business - there is no set formula to it so we try and make sure any candidate gets to meet as many people in the team as possible, so they feel it’s also right for them and a place in which they will get great work and a chance to develop and be supported.

What would you say to any lawyer considering a move in-house?

I think in-house roles and departments are so varied that it’s important to ascertain if a specific company or sector is right for you... It is not like a law firm, the role in a big company legal department will be very different from that of a small company where there might only be a small number of people in the legal team. Similarly it will be very different working in a start-up, in an unregulated business, to one operating in a highly regulated environment that’s a big plc – all of these things play a big part in the work you will be doing and how you will interface with the business. It's also important to understand what the General Counsels vision is – how do they want to support the business and what is the extent of their role for instance are they also the company secretary or do they have other responsibilities like risk, compliance or  insurance? ...Do they report into the CEO or the CFO? It might not sound much, but my experience is the expectations on the legal team can be different depending on the reporting line and whether the Group GC is a member of the Executive Committee or reports into someone on the Executive Committee.

I would encourage anyone looking at an in house role to read the company’s Annual Report as that will give you a great view of the risks they are managing (which the legal department will be focused on) as well as how the company is performing and its future plans.