Deborah Sabalot

Tamzin Hindmarch meets Deborah Sabalot, the New Orleans’ lawyer who is flying in the face of fashion by ditching KLegal for a future in her adopted home of London with Lovells.

There is no doubt that the latest arrival in Lovells’ financial department, former director at KLegal Deborah Sabalot, has adapted quickly to her new UK citizenship.

When asked why she swapped New Orleans for London, in true British tradition, she ends up talking about the weather.

“I can go home for a couple of weeks, but when I do I soon miss being here. I love the theatres, the BBC, the proper news services, the lifestyle and my friends, most of whom are over here. But I hate the cold,” she says, shuddering as she peers out of the window at the pouring rain. “On the other hand, it can be refreshing compared to New Orleans which is always so hot.”

Sabalot’s passion for the UK was sparked in 1972 when she spent a year in Glasgow as a natural history student.

After graduating, she came back to complete a master of arts in analytical bibliography in Aberystwyth, specialising in legal books.

“When I graduated in the States, everybody I knew was going to law school. The thought of spending another three years with the same people sent me off on another year abroad,” says Sabalot.

On her return to the US, she began working for a firm in Louisiana as a law librarian and research assistant, specialising in maritime law. In the evenings, she studied and became qualified in US law.

“It had reached the stage where I wanted to earn some money. I wanted a career that paid the bills and most of my family are lawyers, including my brother who is in charge of in-house counsel back home.”

She adds: “My mother always wished for one of each – a doctor and a lawyer – but she didn’t do too badly in the end.”

Sabalot’s UK career began in the City at Holman Fenwick & Willan, where she worked for four years as a librarian.

But the desire to practise law continued, inspiring her to join a US firm, which she abruptly refuses to name. She is more open about her time at Clifford Chance, which she joined in 1988, qualifying and practising in UK law, specifically financial services regulation.

She says: “I spent seven good years there, but I did not feel that I was getting the support I wanted for the sort of practice I had in financial services.

“I wanted to deal with more operational issues. And because I knew some partners in KPMG, I approached them and they decided to take me on which was a bit of a risk for them as I was their first senior lawyer working in this area at the time.”

Sabalot joined accountancy giant KPMG’s financial services regulatory group five years ago. She became a director, working with a team which has grown from 20, when she joined, to more than 140 today. She then moved to its legal arm KLegal in October last year.

“I wanted to see how it would work in terms of my practice,” she says. “Then I started thinking about how I would like to explore whether law firms would be interested in taking a multi-disciplinary approach in terms of being able to work with other professionals and consultants to get the best for their clients.

“In my practice area I believe it is particularly important to have people with very different skills.”

Now, as part of the financial services group at Lovells, she joins five partners and seven assistants.

But she leaves KLegal at time when a number of the City’s big names have recently joined.

Gareth Davies, ex-Simmons & Simmons private finance initiative equity partner, Chris Hoyle, one-time head of telecoms at Rakisons, and Steven Levinson, previously Paisner & Co’s head of employment, have all joined KLegal.

Hoyle, who is head of information technology and telecoms at KLegal, says: “It is an unusual decision when so many others are joining us, but people will always come and go. There has never been a more volatile time than now for legal recruitment and lawyers are moving and changing around like dance partners every time the band strikes up.”

But Sabalot sees nothing strange in her move. When asked why she chose to leave KLegal, she snaps: “They make their own decisions. I make mine.” She adds: “I joined Lovells because I think that there is a lot to be said for a lawyer-led multidisciplinary approach where the lawyers effectively have control to determine the direction of the work.”

She adds: “I believe Lovells has the right attitude towards developing its financial services and sees it as a real opportunity to be able to provide support to a whole range of clients.

“The existing practice is strong on the retail side of the business whereas my experience is more on the wholesale side, so what I see is a real opportunity to combine both.”

She also predicts huge structural changes to the way that services are regulated during the next two years, in particular when the Financial Services and Markets Bill comes into force.

“It will become a much broader subject, including many disciplines such as banking, insurance, stockbroking, investment management – so there is enormous potential to build an excellent practice.”

She is a keen advocate of the multidisciplinary partnership structure. “At the moment we can give legal advice, but we want to be able to add value to that by being able to give them advice which will help them do business as an additional service.

“We can see that clients increasingly want more from their lawyers, therefore we are trying to see how we can best provide that. We are looking to work as a team to build the City’s best financial services practice.”

And even the fatter pay packets offered by the US firms will not tempt her away from the City she calls home.

“Let’s just says UK offices are a lot quieter,” she says, laughing.
Deborah Sabalot