The reports of BlackBerry’s death have been greatly exaggerated. With 85 million active BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) users—more than double the population of Canada—and growing, the Waterloo, Ontario-based telecommunications and wireless-equipment company is in the midst of a comeback. In order to facilitate that rejuvenation, though, BlackBerry’s four internal legal teams have to stay up-to-date on changes in not only the legal field but the technology field as well. Luckily, with scale comes expertise, and through constant collaboration between the four BlackBerry teams—Enterprise Services, Devices, QNX, and BBM—they’re able to understand any issue that comes their way.
“It may be odd to hear a lawyer say this, but I worry more about keeping up with the industry than I do the law,” says Eric Smith, the divisional general counsel of the BBM unit. “I know that at the end of the day, if I get a legal issue I’m not clear on, there’s somebody here that can answer it for me.” It’s this pervasive team ideology that guides BlackBerry, and for Smith, who joined the company in 2010, it’s integral to his continued success.
In October 2013, BlackBerry globally launched its cross-platform version of BBM. As head of the division’s legal arm, Smith’s job was to ensure the delivery of legal services across all interested parties while keeping a singular focus on the business objective. To accomplish this, Smith worked with the rest of the BBM team to understand everything from the different rules for developing for different platforms and distributing the app through various app stores to the logistics of pulling together and coordinating the delivery of services from other areas such as marketing, trademarks, privacy, market access, regulatory, and tax.
“The people that you’re dealing with are usually not just down the hall from you; they’re all over the world, and many of them you’ve never met,” Smith says, explaining that in order to handle a project like this, one has to make sure to embrace communication challenges head on. “I may not be the lawyer on every file, but I need to know what everybody is doing and how it all feeds into the big picture because every stakeholder needs to understand how decisions that are made by others affect them and have the opportunity to contribute to that decision-making process.”
Handling that big-picture legal thinking and connecting the four BlackBerry legal teams is Mary Huser, the company’s vice president and deputy general counsel for global litigation, regulatory, privacy, trademark, copyright, and employment areas. “Basically, any external legal threats come to me,” Huser says.
Threats can come from any division, so Huser collaborates closely with not only Smith but three other division leads. The divisional general counsels address each business unit, and Huser is part of an umbrella functional area that covers external inquiries or threats across the business. “My role also involves not just those reactive issues but proactive assessment of risks, compliance, disclosures, other legal obligations,” she says.
And because BlackBerry is on the cutting edge—seeing opportunities that no one else has and creating products and services no one knew they needed—it must also plan for legal unknowns. “BlackBerry is one of [the pioneers], if not the pioneer, in the field of mobile technology,” Huser says. “You have all these opportunities, but it also involves assessing the risk of laws that may not even exist yet.”
One new problem for technology companies such as BlackBerry is the recent proliferation of patent assertion entities. “These entities stunt innovation by trying to stop fast-moving, disruptive advancements,” Huser says. Unfortunately, most of Huser’s cases involve these entities, and she and her team fight back by working with others in the industry on legislative, judicial, and administrative legal initiatives across the globe. Thanks to her efforts, BlackBerry recently won a verdict against NXP Semiconductors in Florida, and it’s currently resolving a successful trial against Innovative Sonic Limited in Texas.
DOs & DON’Ts
of legal management in the telecommunications sector
Constantly think of the endgame
Keep your integrity
Stay connected in the industry
Serve your community and give back
Lose the forest for the trees
Get disconnected from management or the industry
Wear out—it’s a marathon not a sprint
BlackBerry’s global nature is part of its strength, but it also means that, to stay ahead, Huser and her teams must remain involved in legislative efforts around the world, including in new areas of their industry such as data protection and privacy. Many of those areas are evolving, and companies such as BlackBerry have to keep themselves at the forefront to not only stay protected but lay the foundation for growth and forward thinking.
“As this industry is so rapidly evolving and growing at an exponential rate in terms of different kinds of mobile-technology offerings, the challenge for the legal team and for me personally remains to not only keep track of all of that but to keep ahead of it,” Huser says. “But that’s the exhilaration of the job, trying to stay ahead of an unstoppable train.”
Part of the reason for launching on different platforms was to look at ways to monetize BBM. Some of those things have already launched, including a virtual goods store, but BBM is looking at ways to deliver unique sponsored content as well. “It’s a very ambitious and fast-paced road map,” Smith says. “We’re focused on making sure that we can help the team deliver on that road map.”
When Blackberry changed its name from Research in Motion in 2013, it did so because it understood that the BlackBerry name transcends the company. While BlackBerry is still leading a charge with its hardware lines, it now exists on iOS, Android, and Windows devices, and it relies on its expertise and legacy in security in addition to the one it blazed in mobile hardware. This move shows a willingness to increase its reach by alternative means while still focusing on the mobile-security knowledge that helped build the brand. And with Smith, Huser, and the whole legal team protecting that core focus in-house, the company’s future isn’t just safe—it’s secure.