Howard Trienens, a lawyer who guided the disintegration of the telecommunications giant AT&T Corp. during the 1980s, excelled at turning complex problems into solutions that his clients could support.
AT&T was under pressure from the federal government, its customers, and competitors to loosen its decades-long grip on U.S. phone service.When the company’s CEO Charles Brown asked Trienens to become the general counsel for AT&T. the company in 1980. Brown had worked with Mr. Trienens and his Chicago-based law firm Sidley Austin LLP a decade earlier, when Mr. Brown ran AT & T’s Illinois Bell Telephone Co. subsidiary.
Sidley specialized in representing companies in regulated industries, such as railways and electrical services. Meeting the government’s demands to end AT & T’s permitted monopoly on service was particularly difficult, Trienens’s colleagues said. The company had argued for years that dismantling the network would jeopardize the quality of local phone service that AT&T backed with profits from its long-distance phone business. But fighting the government’s antitrust case against AT&T would likely take years of litigation in federal court with an uncertain outcome.
Trienens, who died July 26 at age 97, ultimately advocated for the voluntary separation of regional phone companies from AT&T. The sale of these highly regulated local phone service providers, collectively known as Baby Bells, would leave AT&T with its long-distance calling service, its equipment manufacturing business, and the freedom to pursue new business in computers and cable television.
By 1984, AT&T had reached a consent decree with the federal government that created seven new regional phone companies stemming from Baby Bells. The agreement laid the foundation for the creation of today’s telecommunications industry, Trienens colleagues said. One of the regional carriers, SBC Communications Inc., later bought its former parent and took its name, creating the modern AT&T Inc.