The inside track—insights into the communications sector with Nina Barakzai

Today sees another of our ‘inside track’ industry interviews. In it, Nina Barakzai, group head of data protection and privacy at BskyB Ltd provides an insight into the communications sector.

How did you come to work in this sector?

I have been heavily involved in communications and media since holding roles in BT, Reuters, Associated Newspapers, Oftel (now Ofcom) and ntl (now Virgin Media). I moved into financial services (Towers Perrin, now Towers Watson, and Hewitt, now Aon Hewitt), and then into technology (Dell) but maintained a focus on privacy, ethics and data governance. This was driven by my fascination of working in the virtual reality of employees, customers and suppliers interacting online in real time, globally.

What attracted you to this particular area?

I love the speed at which information flows and how it connects everyone globally. The thrill is in understanding where and how the information flows, how we can make it more robust and how, as legal professionals, we can help manage the risks around those flows so they inform and drive commercial activity without destroying the excitement of learning new things, creating new products and services.

This has become more absorbing as advances in technology have moved us from news getting onto the streets in hours to the availability of 24-hour real time instant news via the internet. Sources can be big media players, all the way through to user generated content, uploaded from personal devices anywhere. Add in the choice to share on social media platforms and you have the ability to connect, participate and create beyond imagination.

How does this fit into your career history?

I have been lucky enough to work in both a finance and legal environment, mostly in large private organisations, but also gaining valuable insight into the intellectual challenge of working in a public sector organisation.

My roles have developed from a strong transactional and operational focus in my finance roles at Thomson McLintock (now KPMG), BT and British Gas Exploration & Production (now Centrica) to move into the regulatory and compliance function in Oftel and ntl.

The regulatory business environment was changing rapidly as European legislation brought harmonisation. This allowed me to build great experience in applying European principles on a regional basis. The professional benefit here, in the privacy space, is that you can work with legal professionals in multiple jurisdictions and they will all be working within the same set of EU principles, albeit each jurisdiction may transpose the Directives in a slightly different way. This enriches how you understand the law, and helps all of us reach a common understanding. It also helps build a set of working practices that drive an approach that is practical but based on principle, rather than building specific solutions that are different for each jurisdiction, and harder to implement across a global group operating across multiple jurisdictions.

What do you think are the key challenges and opportunities facing your sector?

The energy created by working in a fast-paced environment is that there is often limited time to absorb detail before you are asked to respond. For most organisations, the challenge of handling ever increasing sources of information, new products and services fuels a drive to constantly improve. This is both a challenge and an opportunity.

It is easy to be flooded with detail yet not be able to sort out the interesting items from the mundane. The ideas that you generate may be one step ahead or one step behind. The challenge is always to try to be where your customers, employees, stakeholders and suppliers want to engage with you.

How do you see your industry developing over the next five years and beyond?

All sectors are developing fast, supported by advances in technology. The reality of globally connected societies is already widespread but, to my mind, any sector’s ability to empower and drive changes in consumer behaviour, commerce and economic development will deepen as the technological capability grows.

This is going to be evidenced by the increase in the number of mobile devices, the widespread sharing of data and the always connected lifestyles of individuals. I think the age groups who have grown up with mobile devices and easy access to the internet will become ever more demanding of what they can consume as a matter of course while they are on the move.

I, along with many others everywhere, want access to information and content. As communications become more possible, we can leapfrog some of the early challenges and harness ever increasing capabilities. Organisations which can absorb fast paced change are likely to survive, but I am more optimistic and believe they will probably thrive.

Have you seen any changes to your client base?

Despite the ability to buy from multiple sources, people still want to build sustainable relationships on a commercial and consumer level. This manifests itself in greater interaction and a demand for more specific answers from their in house legal professionals which tend to be commercial, rather than just legal.

What are the key challenges facing them and how have you reacted to meet them?

The need to be ever more agile, facing competition on a local, regional and global scale demands greater complexity and speed of response, with legal advice which needs to be practical. More often than not, my internal clients ask for advice that brings in a wide range of issues, rather than focussing on one area of law. This is where the in-house legal professional can add real value, as they can bring in their organisational and sector specific knowledge to better support their clients.

How do you view the provision of legal advice in your sector?

As an in-house legal professional, the availability of external legal advice is now much more competitive. As an informed buyer, I will always explore alternative sources. Where a service provider works hard to gain a better understanding of my business and what I might need, they are more likely to be invited to build a sustainable business relationship.

Those service providers who assume that purchasers only buy legal advice from lawyers may find that their competitors from other types of organisation have been more successful. This is particularly true of certain types of service which can be purchased on a global basis. Skills in remote locations can be called upon to deliver in such a way as to shave time from deadlines by taking full advantage of differences in time zones. This may not only be available for low cost transactional activities but, as information flows become more global, skills also become more global, and experienced legal support and advice can be delivered on a global basis.

What do you expect from your external lawyers (and internal lawyers if you wish)?

As an in-house legal professional, I expect my external advisor to have a good understanding of the sector in which I operate, and at least, have taken the time to familiarise themselves with my organisation’s activities and publicly available information, as displayed on the corporate website. External advisors market themselves on what their expertise might be. Good advisors will try to make sure they get clear instructions and avoid the risk of a ‘cut and paste’ response, where they cut and paste legislation. The most useful external advice is that which checks to make sure they have understood the question and then provides a practical answer, not one which my internal clients can already challenge because they have done an internet search for it.

Are there any features of your interaction with lawyers that you’d like to change?

Responsiveness doesn’t necessarily mean answering quickly, so it is always encouraging to have external counsel taking the time to validate what they think is the instruction, sense check if the question being asked is actually the right question, and then demonstrating they have an sound understanding of the industry and the organisation’s position in that industry. This type of interaction does exist, and helps to build the relationship as one of a professional advisor and business partner.

Interviewed by Neasa MacErlean. The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor. This interview first appeared in Lexis®PSL Commercial and was conducted on 1 May 2014.

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