From start-up to established: Du-ing it the right way

Anneliese Reinhold has built and developed the legal team at du from the ground up. She talks to GC about her journey as counsel; from the inception of du, to its rise to one of the world’s most respected telecommunications providers.

Of the two telecommunications operators in the United Arab Emirates, du (officially Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company) is the youngest. A publicly listed company, du has a market capitalisation of US$7.5bn, revenues of US$3.4bn, over 2,000 employees and a customer base of nine million. In addition to the usual telecoms fare – both B2B and B2C communications services and broadcasting – it also offers a suite of peripheral services and technologies that encompass blockchain, internet of things, AI and the broad array of digital services required to meet the UAE’s smart city ambitions.

Anneliese Reinhold is general counsel and senior vice president of legal and regulatory affairs at du and, having been with the company since the beginning, has seen it grow – and had a hand in growing it – into the giant it is today.

‘I’ve been here since the beginning and set up the legal department from nothing,’ she says. ‘I basically had a blank sheet of paper and a desk when I started. I built the team up, and we built our profile as one of the leading teams in the region.’

Today, the legal department numbers 12, and a diverse 12 at that: it is comprised of nine different nationalities and over ten languages, 85% female (compared to the company average of 38%), and one disabled employee. But it wasn’t always so well developed, and the journey from the establishment of the company into the effective powerhouse it is now is an interesting one, and one that Reinhold has seen – from the driver’s seat – in its entirety.

Legal Leaders

The team’s status as an in-house leader in the region has long been cemented, having been recognised and awarded by multiple outlets, including the GC Powerlist. Consisting of 10 lawyers and two support staff, the team provides legal support to the entire business, and is responsible for a diverse portfolio and a high volume of work. In 2018, the team was instructed on 1580 new matters and projects, including 900 contracts, by a total of 327 internal business customers across 31 separate business units.

Serving a company as dynamic as du means that the team’s work goes from the purely legal through to any number of the business’s broader commercial projects, and anything in between.

For example, in 2018, as a part of the company’s ‘Customer First’ customer experience transformation programme, du became the first and only telco in the region to receive the Crystal Mark certification, a standard awarded for clarity and simplicity in the terms and conditions offered by du to its customers. The conditions themselves were written by legal, with the push towards applying for the Crystal Mark certification also driven by legal. Reinhold sees this as a clear demonstration of how a customer-focused in-house team can deliver direct benefits to its business’s customers.

‘I’ve been here since the beginning and set up the legal department from nothing.’

‘If you can do things that hopefully alter the customer perception by validating that something that meets (or exceeds) international best practice, that’s important in this market,’ she explains. ‘Customers come from all over the place, bringing with them a wide variety of expectations, so you often anecdotally read in social media that the level of customer experience in the country generally (not just in telecoms) is not as good as it should be. The UAE Government is committed to changing these types of perceptions, and this is something du is keen to support.’

There are also a number of digital initiatives, which flow down from company-level priorities of efficiency and digitalisation. These range from process automation to replace manual data entry and methodologies, through to the implementation of a contract self-service tool for generating standard NDAs and the trial use of AI tools to capture contract metadata.

‘In common with many other legal departments around the world, the difficulty can be getting yourself onto the priority list to have access to these tools. There are so many other processes in the company that directly impact customers where the bang for the time spent by the robotic process automation team might be much bigger,’ she says.

‘But what I managed to convince our internal team about was that while we’re only a small team of 10 people, if we can save half a person’s time a month, that’s a massive benefit for us that can then benefit our 327 other internal customers.’

The Value Proposition

Legal’s approach to NDAs – often an unnecessary burden on resource-strapped teams around the world – is a good illustration of how a legal-backed initiative has been spun into – and demonstrated as – a valuable asset for the business.

Targeted at standard NDAs, Reinhold implemented a self-service tool for the business that would allow internal customers to have end-to-end control over the process for entering into standard NDAs. Last year, the tool generated 260 NDAs, each of which represents one item of work off the desk of the legal team and completed at a faster rate than would have otherwise been achievable.

For the more non-standard NDAs, Reinhold accepts these as an inevitability. But what she has done is outsource these to one of du’s panel law firms – something that, while admittedly requiring an initial leap of faith, she says has been worth doing.

‘It’s a bit scary, but we outsourced it to somebody who had been here on secondment, so we were comfortable that he understood what was required,’ she says.

‘We put parameters around it in terms of time spent, because we need to keep an eye on it budget-wise, as well as giving us the ability to assess whether a law firm is the right provider, or if we may wish to use alternative legal service providers going forward.’

Being able to streamline and automate a necessary but time-intensive task has had numerous knock-on benefits for the company. For one, the quicker turnaround for standard NDAs has encouraged the group’s commercial personnel to see that it is worth convincing clients to sign up to the standard terms, something that Reinhold has seen borne out in the split between standard and non-standard NDAs since the overhaul.

It’s also freed up time on the legal team itself. Whereas these would occupy between 30% and 40% of one team member’s time, they are now largely off the plate of the legal function, freeing members up to focus on more strategic projects for the team and wider business.

One project currently underway is the development of a new contract life cycle management system. While this is a company-wide project, it’s Reinhold who is the executive sponsor. Currently still in development, it is hoped that the project will result in a roll-out of an enhanced and comprehensive contract governance framework, with integrated analytics and reporting capabilities.

‘It will be end to end, from “I have an idea and I need a contract”, to the contract signing, to managing the contract in-life, to the end of the contract. The company will be able, for the first time, to look into that life cycle and see where something has gotten stuck,’ she says.

‘We’ve bought something which was basically out of the box, but needed to be customised, as every company has different workflows and processes. We are almost at the development stage now. The next stage after that is starting to do conference room trials where we actually start to see it in action.’

External Validation

Starting a legal team from a blank slate – especially in a business as simultaneously eclectic and regulated as du’s – was a challenge for Reinhold: one which required a concerted effort towards validation to ensure they stayed on the right track. More than just paying lip service, the legal team at du took a number of practical steps to that end.

‘At that stage, there was no in-house community, so it was important, I felt, to get some kind of external validation for how I set up the department,’ says Reinhold.

‘We organised ourselves and, since 2014, we have been accredited by the Law Society of England and Wales with their Lexcel legal practice management accreditation.’

The accreditation sets out rules and guidelines to help legal providers to raise their standards of service. Under Reinhold, du’s legal team became the first non-UK legal department to gain the accreditation.

‘It gives you a framework and a structure to manage the department. It’s really important, I think, for everyone to have clarity and consistency in the way things are done,’ she says.

As well as the Lexcel accreditation, Reinhold has been determined to keep her team’s mission front of mind for all of the 12 members. In her Dubai office hangs a poster setting out the team’s strategy map, vision, mission and values.

‘The company uses the Harvard Balanced Scorecard strategic planning methodology, and I thought, “Let’s try this for ourselves and give our department focus”,’ she explains.

‘That, plus the Lexcel accreditation, has really helped us, and everything positive that we have achieved in terms of awards and recognition came after we made those changes. I’m a great believer in applying formal strategic planning methodology to the in-house legal team.’

In addition to helping maintain focus when developing the legal team into what it is today, Reinhold says that these formal initiatives have had positive ripple effects throughout the department and business.

‘I’m a great believer in applying formal strategic planning methodology to the in-house legal team.’

‘It really helps with engagement and has assisted massively with internal customer satisfaction as well. It’s had a lot of positive ripple effects, in particular the performance of the team and morale, because people need to understand why we are here and what we are trying to achieve. Also the strategy process: the whole point of it is to force us to rationalise strategic projects during the year,’ she explains.

‘Otherwise, you are going to find, as our company did, that you are running around chasing all these things and you’re not actually able to be satisfied that you’ve got any of them finished – or, if you have got them finished, that they were finished in a quality way.’

The retention point is one that Reinhold reiterates can be a struggle, as it can in any in-house team. This is even more of a pressing issue given that, despite du’s size and national importance, it is operating in a market with a typically transient workforce, isn’t a multinational corporation and it has a flat organisational structure, which means it can be a struggle to offer employees places to go – be that geographically on a secondment or organisationally by way of advancement. Addressing that, Reinhold sees it as vitally important that the entire legal team is involved in these higher-level, strategic corporate projects, beyond the day-to-day legal work.

‘I hope that the strategic initiatives that the team members do under our strategic planning process give people on the team something more meaty than the routine operational work, so that they are still able to feel a sense of career development and growth,’ she explains.

As one of two telecommunications companies in Dubai, du falls under the ambit of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA). The Authority’s stated vision is to ensure that the UAE is an international leader in ICT, with its regulatory activities undertaken in line with that vision and strategic, organisational goals that flow down from it – goals like enhancing the competitiveness and effective sustainability of the sector, developing the quality of ICT services provided in the UAE to ensure that the country remains a global leader in the space, and taking a leadership role in the promotion of smart technological infrastructure in the UAE.

The state of telecommunications in the UAE is already positive, with one of the highest rates of telecoms penetration in the world: fibre fixed networks reach more than 94% of UAE households, mobile penetration is at more than 200% and 4G LTE mobile indoor coverage reaches 95% of the population. Earlier this year the UAE became only the fourth country in the world to launch 5G mobile services, while the du mobile network itself ranks in the top 20 in the world according to benchmarking done by P3, an internationally-recognised network tester and certifier.

In-house in Dubai

Being with du from the beginning has also meant that Reinhold has seen the in-house community in the UAE grow from small beginnings to what is now a thriving community. With Reinhold also serving as Chairman of the global board of directors of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), her perspective on the development of the UAE’s in-house community holds weight in a global context.

‘When I arrived in the region, there was a more “traditional” view of in-house lawyers, and there weren’t very many of them,’ she says.

‘Now, there are very many more, and I think the mindset has moved from this traditional modus operandi to what I would call more progressive and in-line with international best practice.’

‘You really need to be more on the front foot in order to demonstrate your value.’

A manifestation – and precursor – of this is ACC’s ‘Seat at the Table’ initiative, which aims to encourage business leaders to ensure that they are involving their general counsel at the executive decision-making level, to get the benefit of their independent and diverse views, particularly regarding legal cornerstones such as corporate ethics and culture, risk management, compliance and governance.

‘It’s very relevant to this region, because the in-house function is still developing here, so it’s really important that things like the ACC’s ‘Seat’ campaigns get traction here, as well as globally. I’m a strong supporter of the Seat at the Table initiative, because I think that lawyers have to ensure that they don’t get sidelined. Good corporate governance requires genuine diversity of thought at the highest levels of organisations. A key component of this is ensuring genuine diversity in functional representation. Emerging agendas like the Business Roundtable’s recently announced shift to a ‘stakeholder value’ focus make securing this genuine diversity of thought even more critical – it’s a way of ensuring that these new approaches actually deliver tangible results.’

Reinhold circles this discussion around the in-house team not getting sidelined back to her own team’s work at du, a big focus of which is on showing value to its internal stakeholders.

‘You really need to be more on the front foot in order to demonstrate your value. That’s why doing things like the Crystal Mark certification is important, because you have to be able to show that you can do things to move the needle for customers and the business directly.’