Stephanie Liston is very pleased about her new job.
“I have to be careful not to act like the cat who’s eaten the canary,” she says of her move from Baker & McKenzie to US firm McDermott Will & Emery.
The highly-rated telecoms partner left Baker & McKenzie last Friday to build McDermotts’ new London communications group, making her the second lawyer to take this career path after head of employment Fraser Younson left the firm to join McDermotts in March.
Her decision has raised some eyebrows among her fellow specialists.
“I can’t understand it. They’re not a telecoms firm, but maybe they’re hoping to build a practice around her,” says one.
Another says that the move is “interesting”, noting archly that McDermotts has been “headhunting rather exotically in London”.
Exotic or not, McDermotts’ aggressive arrival in the City has drawn a sniffy response from some New York firms, which claim that McDermotts does not have a clear long-term strategy for the London practice.
“Having talked to the partners in the US, there’s not a chance. They have spent seven years researching the London market and they have taken it very seriously,” Liston says, jokingly adding: “New York firms are rude about everyone.”
McDermotts courted Liston for six months before she agreed to join the firm: “They convinced me of their commitment,” she says.
“I have seen many American firms come and go both from London and Brussels. So they had some hard questions to answer,” she adds.
A fellow telecoms lawyer says Liston was known as Baker & McKenzie’s “Ms Telecoms”, even though she did not head its communications group.
Liston says her partners at Baker & McKenzie were “very surprised and disappointed” by her decision to leave.
Certainly Baker & McKenzie’s UK managing partner Russell Lewin was rather less than fulsome in bidding Liston farewell, commenting: “The challenge of starting from scratch will always have its attractions for some people.”
The chance of building a new team was what made the offer one which Liston could not refuse. She hopes to have a team of two or three partners and four associates in less than six months.
Liston says that rather than her move to McDermotts being an anomaly, it shows the firm has done its homework on the London market by targeting communications.
“With liberalisation in the telecoms sector taking place across Europe, many investors tend to come from the US, which is already liberalised. The UK is a jumping-off point into the rest of Europe.
“The UK was the first EU country to deregulate and liberalise the telecoms sector.
“Much of the regulatory and business activity you see happening in the markets throughout the EU we have already seen in the UK, so it is a crucial focal point,” she says.
Illinois-born Liston began her corporate career with Texas-based firm Fulbright & Jaworski before going in-house with communications group MCI in 1990. She then moved to Freshfields to help build the firm’s communications group.
“At that stage Freshfields didn’t have a significant telecoms practice. The firm’s main focus was and is transactional work,” says Liston.
But telecoms clients also want advice on regulatory and commercial matters, she says.
No lawyer will say they are not a “relationship lawyer”. But, as well as being “Ms Telecoms”, she has kept hotel and resort clients and represents “a couple of oil and gas companies” from her days with Fulbrights.
Liston is spending two weeks in the Lake District before starting her new job at McDermotts, but one suspects she will have only one thing on her mind.
With effusive thanks for listening to her, she says: “It’s been great to talk to someone about all this.”
McDermott Will & Emery