This month at Lawyer Monthly, we had the wonderful opportunity of speaking with the General Counsel one of the UK’s most successful communications companies, providing broadband, TV, mobile and landline services. Mine Hifzi has worked internationally but now focuses on the UK to share her expertise and constantly push her own boundaries in order for her and her hardworking team to flourish. Here, Mine speaks about how Virgin Media constantly ‘changes the game’, the legal process behind upcoming launches and the challenges behind representing an iconic company.
What is an aspect which surprised you the most when you first began working as General Counsel at Virgin Media? How did your perception of the company change?
What struck me is how Virgin Media really lives up to its reputation as a challenger brand by shifting the status quo and changing the game. Whether that is through Project Lightning – the single largest investment in UK broadband infrastructure for more than a decade, or by questioning whether TV football fans are getting a fair deal.
Working here really pushes your boundaries. The team is extremely collaborative with a collective drive and we help each other to think creatively and differently.
My ethos and that of my team is summed up well in the David Whyte quote: “Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive, is too small for you.”
What is the biggest challenge of representing such a big company? How do you overcome this challenge?
Quite simply the size, complexity and volume of the matters the Company undertakes. I meet that challenge by having a great team. I am fortunate to have such talented lawyers who are experts in their fields and who thrive on the unexpected and unprecedented. We partner closely with the business to immerse ourselves with the business priorities and to provide wise counsel, which often goes above and beyond legal advice. At the same time, we have established relationships with external counsel who really understand our business and the markets in which we operate so that they naturally operate as an extension to our in-house team.
A key example of the Legal team’s contribution to the business is Project Lightning where our input is critical to its success. In addition to driving the contractual negotiations with multiple vendors, supply and outsourcing arrangements, we work with other departments on obtaining planning permissions and seeking reform of the wayleave framework.
At the same time, Virgin Media has launched its new TV proposition to ensure our customers have the best way to watch the best TV, today and in the future – a new set top box, a revamped TV Anywhere proposition and Virgin Media Store – a digital locker. The lawyers have been a valuable part of the team driving the necessary deals forward and abandoning predictable thinking to help obtain the necessary rights to future proof the deals.
How do you ensure that you receive the best outcome for your company, whilst adhering to Virgin Media’s policies?
Our policies are there to enable the Company’s success and protect the best interests of the Company, its employees and its customers. The policies have been put together to ensure they are memorable and fun and so that they spark a thought process and discussion. It won’t surprise you to hear that we are committed to ensuring our policies are fit for purpose and that we make a conscious decision about how and when to update.
In what ways are you ensuring that the legal department at Virgin Media is constantly progressing and ‘changing the game’ – how do you develop your team and keep up to date with new regulations?
We are a relatively small team but our nimbleness means we can get things done quickly and flex to meet business priorities. Our lawyers use their expertise to lean in and work as true business partners, playing to individual and collective strengths to achieve the best commercial outcome.
Our size also means there are plenty of chances for our lawyers to grasp development opportunities and get involved in matters outside their comfort zone. All of our lawyers gain direct exposure to senior stakeholders throughout the organisation and take accountability for their projects. Being part of the Liberty Global group presents further openings for new roles and we have had lawyers move internally to business roles. It is the greatest compliment when I get approached by a business colleague who identifies the talent with the legal team to headhunt them for another role within the organisation.
On new regulations, we work hand in hand with the regulatory and public affairs teams to ensure we are ahead of the curve and can influence the debate on new regulations.
In retrospect, how did your experience at Discovery Communications help you to progress as General Counsel?
When I joined Discovery in 2003, I was the first lawyer that Discovery hired outside the US. I had to build the legal team from scratch and also had to win the respect of the business as part of a cultural shift in working closely with an in-house lawyer. This clean canvas was a fantastic opportunity but brought significant challenges in proving to the business the benefits of in-house legal resources. It was a truly eye opening experience and made me realise what makes an excellent in-house lawyer stand out from the rest: the ability to be a business partner who never loses sight of the commercial objective.
My experience has taught me that the General Counsel role is really one of ‘wise counsel’ to the CEO and the business. The General Counsel should act as a strategic sounding board to the business and with their team, think creatively about the legal hooks that can be deployed to achieve the business objectives in a proactive way. It’s about adding value, closing deals and providing an independent and at times an instinctive view.
How does your international experience enable you to prosper as General Counsel?
Having held a number of international roles, I have been fortunate to work with incredibly interesting and diverse individuals across the world. Leading diverse groups of people and negotiating with people from different backgrounds and cultures opens your eyes to different ways of working. In addition, it underlines the importance of having diversity within teams.
I feel privileged and humbled by my international experience and have fond memories. To prosper I fundamentally believe that you have to enjoy what you do. The experiences I have had, and the vibrant and varied people I have met and worked with would fill many pages and I do harbour a desire to write a book at some point. In the meantime, it is my children who often benefit from my international tales. Or, on some occasions my colleagues will find me explaining legal problems through storytelling – it is a great way to capture attention!
Have there been any instances where there is disagreement when reporting to the CEO? How do you push past that and ensure the right decision is made?
Healthy disagreement is a good thing because voicing diverging opinions ensures a robust debate to ensure the right decision is made. It’s important that differences are called out so that all perspectives can be put on the table. One of my roles is to ensure the facts are presented accurately and independently so that a decision is made with full transparency.