Leeanne Whaley

Gain valuable insights into our legal team structures and our broad spectrum of opportunities. Discover how Legal Director, Leeanne delved into the corporate space to transform her career.

What differences can you identify between being an in-house commercial lawyer to working in a private law firm?

There are so many differences. When you work in private practice you give legal advice to lots of different clients, when you work in-house you have one client. That means you are so closer to the business and your stakeholders; you are truly part of the team driving towards achievement of the strategic objectives and the right outcome for the business. You have a depth of understanding of the business and the industry that you are in - that you just don’t get in private practice.

What I love about BT Group is that it is a purpose led organisation and such an important and integral part of the fabric of the UK, you get to be part of that purpose when you work in-house. Quite often the value-add in-house lawyers bring is about a style of thinking and questioning, along with a focus on execution and unlocking outcomes/value and mitigating risk rather than saying “no you can’t do that” or “there’s a problem with that.”

Did your location ever influence your decision to join the organisation?

There are very few organisations in Northern Ireland (NI) like BT Group, it’s a FTSE100 company with a big legal team and what interested me about that was that I knew there would be lots of variety, interesting work and scope to grow my career, so yes, when an opportunity came up to work for BT Group I jumped at it and I have never looked back.

I’ve never felt that being located in NI has held me back career-wise, you do have to work a bit harder to grow your network and the early morning starts for red-eye flights to England haven’t always been fun but those are the compromises I chose when I decided to locate in NI. BT Group has always been ahead of other organisations when it comes to location – it has several strategic locations throughout the UK, Belfast being one of them, so you don’t have to be working in the London HQ to progress your career.

The ongoing structural changes in the business are aimed at continuous improvement but how have these changes impacted your progression?

I am a firm believer that change always brings opportunity and I have lived that experience in BT Group. I’ve changed my job five times over the last nine years within the business and those changes have mostly been created by broader transformation across the business. For example, when I joined, I was supporting BT Ireland (NI and ROI) which was an end-to-end business unit, so I had a great couple of years getting to work on all sorts of deals and projects and get to know how BT Group operates. After two years there was a reorganisation and as a result there was a new legal team formed specifically to support a new GB-focused business customer unit, I was ready for a change and excited to do something different.

I would say that being up for something new and not being afraid to push yourself out of your comfort zone is so important when change happens. 

As an in-house lawyer working for our digital business unit what roles and responsibilities do you have?

As a legal director I am responsible for a team of amazing lawyers who support both our digital and procurement units in BT Group. My team work on contracts with third parties who are selling to us, but this can be anything from a trial agreement with a new start-up business to multi-million-pound agreements with the likes of Amazon, Google, Microsoft etc. As it’s a leadership role I am less hands on than I used to be, although I do still get to exercise some of my drafting skills the odd time. I act as an escalation point for my team, getting involved when things get tricky and helping them navigate any issues. I am a  coach, mentor, sympathetic ear and sounding board, it's my job to spot and invest in talent in the team, helping them to achieve their full potential.

I sit on the Procurement Leadership team as the legal business partner to our Chief Procurement Officer and on the leadership team of the Chief Operating Officer for our Digital unit. Being on those leadership teams requires a much more strategic focus, hearing first-hand about goals, objectives, issues, and barriers and ensuring any legal impacts are considered and worked through. As a leader in BT Group my role isn’t just constrained to my subject matter expertise as a lawyer, I also bring my experience to help challenge and solve business problems. 

Where have you seen in-house lawyers make a difference in our digital business unit?

It’s all about AI at the minute, you can’t listen to a podcast, read a newspaper or a blog without hearing about the potential for AI to change our lives. At BT Group we recognise the opportunity that AI will bring and the lawyers in our digital team (and across some of the more specialist areas like the Data Privacy team) are at the forefront of this. We are helping our stakeholders explore and understand the opportunities and the risks, we are giving them feedback about the possible use cases for legal and contracting, we are talking to third party AI providers and negotiating contracts with them to accelerate the use of AI in BT Group.

We are also mindful of Responsible Tech and our lawyers are ensuring that the right policies and procedures are in place so that we use AI ethically and responsibly.

What advice would you give to someone looking to make the leap between working in a private law firm to working in-house in the corporate space?

Go for it. You will never regret it and even if you decide it’s not for you, what you’ll learn in an in-house role will make you a much better commercial lawyer as you’ll understand what clients want / need from you. Whilst remuneration isn’t comparable to some private practice firms, the breadth of experience you’ll get the autonomy to make decisions and own the outcomes and the other advantages (like not selling your soul to billable hours and time-recording) make it very worthwhile. You will still work hard, and the pace is a different kind of demand to private practice as you are so close to your stakeholders but that is part of the attraction of in-house for me.

Every in-house legal role is different, my advice is take the time to understand the organisation and its culture, how the legal team is structured and the type of work you will be doing. An in-house role in a FTSE100 company with a large legal team is very different to being the single in-house lawyer in a tech start-up or an in-house lawyer in the public sector. There are so many options, the world is your oyster.

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