Voice of Experience: Maura O’Sullivan, Partner, Finance, Shearman & Sterling

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

After over 25 years in law, Maura O’Sullivan, a partner in the Finance Group at Shearman & Sterling, has developed a keen understanding of how to serve clients and how to do exceptional work. But she’ll never forget the early days.

One of her early assignments as an associate sparked her interest in complex deals and taught her the importance of making a difference on behalf of clients. “News Corp is a big player today,” she recalled, “but in the early ‘90s, it was having financial difficulty. As a member of the Shearman & Sterling team advising News Corp, I helped negotiate a workout of all of its debt globally. There were over 100 different credit facilities and about 150 lenders involved.”

Even by today’s global standards such a level of complexity would be considered significant – but at the time it was almost unheard of. She explained, “The corporate organization chart – if you put it on the wall – covered 10 feet. I spent my mornings talking with European lenders, my afternoons in the US, and my nights with Australian and Japanese banks. We got all of the lenders to agree to a standstill.”

“That, as a deal, will always stand out because of the sheer complexity and the opportunity to be creative. Starting with News Corp and continuing to this day, workouts and restructuring are among the more interesting things that I do. I like to find solutions that help my clients.”

The Importance of Leadership

In addition to the work for her clients, O’Sullivan is viewed as a leader inside Shearman & Sterling. She is a long-time member of the firm’s elected policy committee – the firm’s nine-member global governing body. “It makes me proud that my partners have a certain amount of respect and faith in me,” she said.

According to O’Sullivan, it’s critical for young lawyers with leadership ambition to become adept at the business and relationship aspects of the legal profession. This is something she learned very early in her career.

After graduating from the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts with a double major in Ancient Greek and Mathematics, O’Sullivan went straight to Fordham University to study law. “I did better on my LSAT than my GMAT, so I went to law school,” she recalled with a laugh.

After working as a summer associate at Shearman & Sterling, she came back to the firm full time when she finished law school. Although she is now a partner in the firm’s Finance Group, she has had the opportunity throughout her career to work in many aspects of corporate law – including debt restructuring, project finance, securities, leasing, and more. She has primarily focused in the leveraged finance area for the past 15 years or so and has built an solid reputation within the banking and legal communities.

“When the credit markets are up, we do a lot of acquisition finance, but when things aren’t going as well, we do workouts, DIP financings, and restructurings,” she explained. “The bank finance group at Shearman & Sterling is adept in all aspects of the syndicated loan environment.”

Working in this space has been fascinating because of the depth of knowledge she has been able to develop around each of her clients’ businesses – and the business on the other side of the table as well. “You get to learn about all of the companies that you deal with – from tax issues to asbestos issues. You really get to delve into the company and its issues and know them well,” O’Sullivan said.

In addition, the issues involved with finance law are becoming geographically broader in scope as well. “The world is getting to be a smaller place,” she said. “Most companies have a global footprint. So I’m also in the world of international relations. Generally in my practice, I have a US borrower, but probably 80 percent of the companies have international operations. As the world changes, very few are purely domestic.”

Importance of Mentoring

Mentoring has been a source of pride for O’Sullivan, especially during her time as Shearman & Sterling’s Finance Group practice leader. “Being able to work with our younger partners or our partners who have hit a bump in their career, and trying to help them achieve the amount of respect and success they deserve has been very rewarding,” she says.

O’Sullivan says she does her best to remember the early years of her career. She recalled, “When I first started out, I assumed that just being a good substantive lawyer was enough. I probably spent too much time at my desk doing good work and not enough time projecting confidence and developing relationships. I thought my good work would speak for itself, but the importance of being active and visible was true back then and is increasingly important today.”

As the legal profession has grown more competitive, maintaining good relationships with external clients as well as with people inside the firm has become critical for advancement. “You really have to build and maintain those relationships,” she added.

She also believes internal mentoring relationships can make a huge difference for women’s career advancement. “On some level, I think what helped me the most in my career was having a mentor who really cared about my development as a lawyer at Shearman & Sterling. And if someone has taken an interest in you, my advice is that you should try paying that forward for someone else.”

Challenges in the Legal Profession

Just as client issues and deals have become more multifaceted, the legal industry itself has become more complex, O’Sullivan said. “The legal industry as a whole has become far more competitive than when I first started. Back then, relationships were more at the institutional level – someone would say ‘Shearman & Sterling is my lawyer.’ Whereas today, it’s more and more about your personal relationships with bankers or the various people you meet.”

She believes that men and women face many of the same challenges when it comes to building a rewarding law career – but there are some topics that a man may not have to consider. For example, “The one thing I’ve tried to watch – and I don’t think men have to watch this – is that if a man takes a pretty aggressive stand, people say he’s just defending his client robustly. Women may get called something different. What is a good thing in a man can come across as strident in a woman.”

The lawyers who consistently get labeled as “difficult” may have a harder time winning repeat business, particularly in such a competitive market. It’s not fair, she continued, but that means that women lawyers have to find other ways to aggressively represent their client. “Personally, I try to defuse things with humor to try to get my point across,” she said.

Advice for Lawyers

O’Sullivan said her advice for junior lawyers is the same advice she shares with her 24-year-old daughter: find your passion. “Try out different things,” she says. “Find out what you love to do, because you’re going to spend a long time doing it!”

She continued, “The second piece of advice is hard – you have to define for yourself what success is. You can’t let anyone else tell you. When you’re living up to someone else’s standards, it is very difficult to achieve what you want to achieve.”

“I came to Shearman & Sterling thinking I would stay here two years, but I stayed because I really enjoyed what I was doing here – drafting documents, putting pieces together, and knowing more about a topic than anyone else in the room. I love it, and that’s why I stayed. I think it’s important to tell young people – you can’t go off of what anyone else views as successful. That’s a sure way of making yourself miserable!”

In Her Personal Time

Outside work, O’Sullivan enjoys cooking and spending time with her family. Her daughter is completing a master’s degree in theater, and O’Sullivan enjoys supporting her by seeing her shows. “I want to show her I believe in her,” she said. “And I’m hoping that she has learned from my example that following her heart is what she should do.”