Three years ago Maury Shenk had probably not envisaged becoming managing partner of Steptoe & Johnson’s London office as quickly as he did. In fact, he may not have envisaged himself in that role at all.
“I’m not sure I see my future in management,” he admits. “If the office should evolve in a way that it’s appropriate for somebody to take over as managing partner, I wouldn’t regret that. I’d say, ‘Good learning experience’, and I’ll focus on my practice, which is what I really like doing.”
The unassuming Shenk, with his carefully manicured goatee and immaculate, conservative suit, is a far cry from some of the more flamboyant managing partners on the legal scene today.
He made partner in January 2001, the same month that the merger with Rakisons went through. He was initially transferred to London to act as a liaison between the US and the London offices, as well as to undertake certain administrative roles to help manage the telecoms practice. But following the departure of high-profile Rakisons managing partner Tony Wollenberg to Salans in August last year, Shenk took over as managing partner.
“Because of some of the changes in the office, I’ve ended up with a bit more responsibility than I think was expected, or that a partner my age would ordinarily have in our firm,” he says.
That is something of an understatement. The situation Shenk inherited would have been a daunting task for an experienced managing partner, let alone the new kid on the block.
One former Rakisons partner says that the cracks were already starting to show well before Steptoe took the office on.
Shenk declines to comment on this. All he will say, rather obliquely, is: “The situation we found ourselves in was a more difficult one than we expected. It’s certainly fair to say that we didn’t expect or want the number of partner departures that we’ve had. Some of the people weren’t right for us, nor were we right for them. There were some people that wanted to explore areas that didn’t turn out to be core for us in London.”
This has led to a change in strategy for the firm. “There’s a change between what we thought we were doing at the time of the merger and what we think we’re doing now,” Shenk says. “Originally, we’d anticipated that the local practice here would be something of a freestanding entity, and we’d look for synergies within the firm. There are still significant elements to the local practice here – the commercial property practice, for example – which don’t have much in the way of synergy with the US. But one of the success areas is where we’ve been generating work in the London office for our US clients.” Such clients now bring in up to 30 per cent of the London office’s turnover.
There are currently three equity and eight junior partners in the office, which accounts for between five and 10 per cent of the firm’s overall turnover.
Key clients of the office include Canadian satellite company Stratus Global and Telecom One, a growing UK carrier. Motorola, historically the firm’s biggest client, is also important to the London office, as is Illinois Tool Works, a massive US conglomerate that owns around 600 companies worldwide.
Whereas Steptoe’s London office is largely known for its telecoms and technology work, Shenk is also looking to recruit a new team in the insurance and reinsurance arena. “We have some multinational reinsurance clients who’ve said they would use us on contentious matters here if we had the capability in London,” he says. “So that’s an area [of the insurance/reinsurance market] where it’s less important to be an English firm and located in EC3.
“Our initial approach is to pursue multinationals, and in that area I think we do have a reasonable shot at success. Although we’d look at doing this by joining with a group of English lawyers with an existing client base.”
The insurance/reinsurance practice is a key strength for Steptoe in the US – even though its Washington DC office is largely known in the US for its regulatory practice.
It is not surprising to find Shenk at a firm with a strong political bent. Born and bred in DC, politics is of keen interest to the man. “In Washington DC,” he says, “law and politics are more closely aligned. The real industry of Washington DC is politics. It’s something I care a lot about. I’m not very happy watching the international political scene now from the perspective of an American.”
Later in our conversation, he refers to the political situation again, saying: “That’s actually a reason for me to be happy not being in the US, because [the political situation] makes me angry.”
Shenk has considered working in the US government. “I thought about joining the government or an international organisation, and that’s actually something that’s fairly strong in the Steptoe & Johnson tradition. It’s the kind of firm that lets people go off and take a good government job and then come back, because they consider it actually increases the prestige of the partners,” he says.
Following his training at Harvard and then Stanford Law School, Shenk spent a year working with a federal judge in California. “Although we didn’t agree politically, she has a real respect for the law and for doing what the law said, rather than trying to enforce some kind of political agenda to the law,” he explains. “And I was really influenced by that, just taking what the law says seriously.”
His choice of career was in part due to his uncle, a criminal lawyer in Los Angeles with some high-profile clients. He acted for Frank Zappa, and advised Robert Wagner in relation to Natalie Wood’s death. He was also asked to participate in the OJ Simpson trial, but turned that one down.
While Shenk’s career was influenced by his uncle, his choice of current location is perhaps due to his mother, a French teacher who encouraged him to take an international view of the world (although the fact that his fiancée lives here, too, probably has some sway in the matter).
Shenk says he is very happy in London and that he has come to terms with his new role, but one still gets the feeling he is more lawyer than manager, still spending 60 per cent of his time on fee-earning work.
“There are challenges to my job, but I’ve learned from them,” he says. “It’s all been opportunity. For me, it’s been the chance to manage at a much younger age. And even if that isn’t where I see my career going, it’s been a tremendous learning experience.”
Steptoe & Johnson, London