|Asian-Counsel sits down with Evangelos Apostolou, the Vice President and Chief Counsel for APAC with BT Global Services, to discuss his path to the top – from London to Cyprus and New Delhi to Singapore – and the realities of the in-house role in today’s climate.
Unlike many of his legal counterparts, Evangelos Apostolou did not enter the law fresh from school, and it was through accountants, not lawyers, that the Vice President and Chief Counsel for APAC with BT Global Services first found success. “My first job out of school was in recruitment sales,” he says. It was a move that paid off… literally. “It was a good time to be recruiting accountants in those days, and I think it took me four to five years practising as a lawyer to recover the levels of income I enjoyed before leaving recruitment to head back into further education.”
Despite this early success, and after completing a degree in history and ancient languages, Apostolou could not deny a growing attraction to the law. The attraction, he confides, had begun years earlier with the UK courtroom drama Crown Court. “As a kid growing up in North London I thought that wearing a wig and gown meant that you were clearly important and that everyone had to listen to you” he says with a smile. He did not immediately relinquish his recruitment work however, which he saw as a means to help fund law school.
Upon completion of his legal studies, Apostolou was called to the Bar by Lincoln’s Inn. He subsequently relocated to Limassol, the second largest city in Cyprus, to practise as an advocate. “Looking back, it was a case of less sense and more faith” he says. “I was required to take the local bar exam in Modern Greek, and it turned out that examining witnesses in court required a different set of language skills than making conversation over dinner,” he says, recalling his first two years as a hazy combination of language, study, work and sleep. It was worth the effort, and he went on to receive a broad grounding in the law. “Like any small jurisdiction, Cyprus offered a real mix of work and I took on anything from shipping and corporate work to private property disputes and matrimonial matters,” he recalls fondly.
But the corporate world beckoned and from life as an advocate in Limassol, Apostolou found himself launched into a role as legal counsel with Fujitsu Services, a London-based position he then held for five years. On the whole, Apostolou says that his experience in Cyprus had prepared him for the shift in-house. “My work as an advocate had become more corporate towards the end of my time in Cyprus, which made the transition easier, but I think an important part of it is that I didn’t have the mindset of a specialist. For one thing, I didn’t expect to have any consistency in my work,” he says. Of course, there were differences to contend with also. “I soon came to realise that life in-house is as much about building consensus as it is anything else. It certainly wasn’t about winning or losing quite in the sense that taking a case to court meant.”
Apostolou joined Fujitsu Services at a time when the company was evolving from a product-focused company to a services company, and the role provided exposure to various countries and business units. Whilst with the company he was admitted as a Solicitor. “At Fujitsu, I also had the great fortune to work for a particularly gifted lawyer, who continues to sit as a part-time judge, and who managed, much against both of our expectations, to whip me into in-house shape. He never allowed me to forget that being an effective in-house lawyer means managing risk and not trying to eliminate it. He also showed me that sometimes making a decision not to do anything is more difficult, and routinely requires more work, than making a decision to do something. I spent a lot of time learning with a varied diet and constant flow of non-contentious work, a fairly consistent run of M&A deals, and some especially exotic work in places like Iran and Brazil.”Apostolou soon settled on a formula for how best to deal with an array of different work, which he still uses daily and which he readily admits isn’t everyone’s idea of how it should be done. “The key is to identify the important issues without sacrificing more than you have to of the detail. What are the issues that are likely to have the biggest impact on the things you care about most? Decide what they are as quickly and clearly as you can, recognise that there’s never enough time to consider everything you’d ideally like to, and get on with it.” He adds, “Working in an ever-changing and complex environment like APAC, with the inevitable overlay of challenging personalities and tight timeframes, all makes for a certain amount of spice.”After five years as legal counsel focusing mainly on Fujitsu’s European operations, Apostolou joined BT Global Services, the international arm of the BT Group, and has not looked back since. He initially accepted a senior counsel role with the organisation’s Major Transactions team, working on BT’s largest deals ranging in value up to £1 billion. “The first two years were great but pretty tiring,” he recalls. “At one point I was literally only getting sleep on flights between London, Amsterdam, New York, Dallas and Washington and using hotel rooms as places to leave my bags.”
And so he jumped at the opportunity to relocate to India to set-up BT’s offshore legal captive. “I recruited around 30 locally qualified lawyers and support staff to provide support to BT lawyers on matters arising globally. The captive doesn’t deliver legal advice but supports those lawyers qualified in their jurisdiction to advise. We found that in addition to reducing costs the captive was ideally positioned to drive common messages and know-how across the legal community. Living in Delhi, recruiting a bunch of tremendous people, training and developing them… it was a fantastic experience.”
|In his current Singapore-based role, as Vice President and Chief Counsel APAC, Apostolou is responsible for 19 jurisdictions in the region with main trading hubs in Sydney, Hong Kong, India, Singapore and China. At a company as big as the BT Group, which has annual revenues approaching US$31 billion worldwide, he acknowledges that different geographies sometimes operate in different ways. But he describes the in-house function as an integral and accepted part of the business across the board. “Each lawyer sits on the country management team for the geographies and jurisdictions they are responsible for. Fundamentally, it’s a relationship of trust, and I hope my team doesn’t ever have to have a conversation with the business about the right time to get involved. First and last the legal function exists to support the business in its aims, and whilst good governance and the company’s reputation are paramount considerations, everything else is otherwise open to a discussion on how risk is priced and allocated.”
In an effort to consolidate spend, BT uses a global panel for external legal services. The panel is currently comprised of three firms: Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Bird & Bird and CMS Cameron McKenna. Where domestic or specialist firms are required to advise on certain matters, they are retained through one of these three international firms.
Having a panel of external firms does help the company achieve more flexibility in relation to costs. Apostolou notes, “Our first concern was to keep our global purchasing power intact – we looked for those firms who could do the right job in the right way, and for the right price.” He admits, however, that often the best relationships are usually with individual private practice lawyers, rather than a firm.
Of course, whilst the appointment of the panel prompted much discussion on legal costs, it was by no means a new topic for consideration. “Attempts to break the paradigm of billable hours has been an ambition of the in-house community for a long time now” Apostolou says. “Following the financial downturn, the better firms have finally begun to listen creatively and are prepared to be more flexible than ever before. There is now more interest in talking about tying fees to outcomes and to exploring ideas around ‘gain share’ which the more traditional firms have tended to shy away from in the past. We don’t want law firms to make less money as such, but we do want them to see that where they can assist us in growing our business profitably, with that may come a larger slice of the pie.”
Another recurring theme is that of governance and compliance, which Apostolou says never fails to make its way into conversation each day. “High standards of governance and compliance are non-negotiable features in our daily lives. Especially in today’s climate. Our customers and partners need the comfort of knowing that they are dealing with a company that puts good governance at the heart of what it does. Used in the right way, that’s a key sales message.”
When asked whether he has any tips for future or up-and-coming in-house counsel, Apostolou responds, “I think if I had to choose one word that sums it all up, it would be ownership. Offering advice isn’t enough. Driving business benefit through your relationships with your business colleagues is the critical piece. But never at the expense of forgetting that as a lawyer your first duty is to your profession and to the community in which you practice. There are times when having to say no is more important than trying to find ways to say yes.”
Indeed, for Apostolou, relationships are key. “The main focus of the in-house role is to find the legally compliant, commercially sustainable, quickest and most practical route to the aimed-for business outcome. Sometimes this requires the business to change both its way of thinking and its expectations. When things go badly, there is sometimes an unavoidable ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality which is damaging in the worst way as it prevents advice getting through in the right way at the right time. When things are going well, a distinction remains but in a much healthier way so that in-house counsel are viewed as intimate confidants and counsellors.”
If there had to be one guiding principle, Apostolou is quick to find one. “The only thing that really matters is the best interests of your employer. In an organisation like BT, that necessarily boils down to the interests of the shareholders. If you ensure that your advice and assistance is aimed at promoting and protecting those interests, you’re unlikely to go far wrong.”