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How dealmaker Rebecca Maslen-Stannage rose to the top

“I don’t know if I was meant to,” she says, “but I actually found it really interesting because a lot of it involved speaking with partners, understanding what they are interested in, and thinking about the future direction of the firm.”

So what did the Stannage family do when she finally got the call late on Friday, March 5, letting her know that she had smashed through yet another glass ceiling with an outright majority of partner votes? “I had to keep it secret until it was announced to the partners and then the broader firm,” she says. “So my celebration was just me, [husband] Chris and the kids having a celebratory champagne. I had to duck calls from partners, who I am sure must have thought I was devastated, having lost.”

They needn’t have worried. In the 27 years since she commenced her articles at Freehills in Perth, Maslen-Stannage’s career has shown scant sign of setback. She has been either winner or a finalist in the Australian “Dealmaker of the Year” awards every year since 2011 and acclaimed as “brilliant” by Chambers Global, which ranks the top lawyers and law firms around the world.

TPG Telecom CEO Iñaki Berroeta in the months after the group’s tieup with Vodafone Australia where Mr Berroeta was CEO.

TPG Telecom CEO Iñaki Berroeta in the months after the group’s tieup with Vodafone Australia where Mr Berroeta was CEO. Credit:Renee Nowytarger

She advised TPG Telecom on its $15 billion merger with Vodafone Hutchison Australia, helped David Jones with its takeover by South Africa’s Woolworths, and guided Centro Properties Group through a restructuring that involved five interconditional schemes of arrangement and a $9.4 billion sale of its US assets – a deal, she says, “I really made my name on”. Nobody was surprised then when Freehills, one of the “Big Six” Australian firms, selected Maslen-Stannage as its deal lawyer when negotiating its own 2012 merger with UK firm Herbert Smith, to create a multinational practice of 2,100 lawyers across 26 offices.

Yet there was one disappointment, in her early days at Freehills, that had a profound impact on how Maslen-Stannage manages her career. As she tells it, she had discussed with her supervising partner her expected timeframe for making senior associate. Then, out of the blue, Freehills named a new group of senior associates – and Maslen-Stannage didn’t make the cut.

“It was ahead of the timing I had laid out, but I still thought, ‘Well, hang on a minute, if you are making that person a senior associate, then I should be on there too.’ I was a typical lawyer, always pegging myself against others.” While she laughs about the story now, Maslen-Stannage admits she was devastated.

The lesson she took away was that she needed to be more explicit in her demands. “I should have said that this is my expected timeframe, but by the way, if you are considering making any of these people a senior associate, then I should be one too. I just realised at that point that I can’t leave anything to chance. I have actually got to voice what I want.”

This advice is contained in every pep talk Maslen-Stannage delivers to the junior lawyers in her team, 80 per cent of whom are women and therefore more likely to “self edit”. “My message to them is to view your career as something that you control, rather than hoping that one day someone will tap you on the shoulder and offer you this opportunity,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to state what your ambition is.”

Maslen-Stannage’s ambition, intellect and work ethic are lionised in Australian legal circles – but are hardly surprising when you consider her childhood. She was the fifth of eight children born to a nuclear physicist father, who met her British mother while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. As a teenager, she attended Mercedes College, a Catholic girls’ school in Perth, before graduating from the University of Western Australia with dual degrees in law and commerce and then adding a Bachelor of Civil Laws from Oxford for good measure.

Maslen-Stannage credits the “chaos” of her childhood with helping to drive her career. Not only did it make her comfortable with change, and capable of tuning out the noise to focus on the issues that really matter, but it also gave her what she regards as the key ingredient in any success. “In a big family, you’ve got to be resilient,” she says. “To me, being resilient – in the law or any other career – is the most important factor because you have to be able to see your way through a challenge. If the team comes to me panicking about something, I say, ‘There will be a solution here because there always has been and there always will be.’“

James Palmer, the former global chairman of Herbert Smith Freehills.

James Palmer, the former global chairman of Herbert Smith Freehills.Credit:Herbert Smith Freehills

So what does she see as the main challenges facing HSF as she prepares to take the reigns from current chair James Palmer?

“Technology disruption,” she says, without hesitation. Artificial intelligence is encroaching rapidly on law firms’ bread and butter, providing analysis in due diligence processes, updating smart contracts, predicting outcomes based on case law, and carrying out the bane of every articled clerk’s existence: discovery. (Although true to form, the ever cheerful Maslen-Stannage admits that she never minded discovery and found it a “good training ground”).

“The challenge is how do we push ourselves up the value chain as some [of our traditional] work becomes commoditised,” she says. “What’s going to be of strategic importance to clients and how do we make sure that we are shifting always into the next trend, the next thing, the next theme.” Maslen-Stannage points to HSF’s recent launch of a dedicated environmental, social and governance (ESG) practice – amidst a seismic shift in ESG awareness, regulation and enforcement – as an example of the firm’s adaptability.

Globalisation is another challenge – and opportunity – for the firm, as clients increasingly face cross-border legal problems. Maslen-Stannage is excited about the footprint that HSF currently offers clients, but says there is room for further growth in Europe, Asia and the Americas, particularly north America. “There are a lot of opportunities there that we would love to position ourselves for,” she says. “The US is obviously the largest market for legal services in the world, so it’s a logical place as we look to increase our global presence.”

The US is also home to aggressive firms with massive wallets, which they are merrily using to poach star lawyers across Europe and Asia. This goes, in part, to the heart of the third major challenge facing HSF: how does it continue to attract and retain smart young lawyers, who no longer view themselves as “lawyers for life”, in a market where there is increasing demand for work-life balance and fierce competition for talent from rival law firms, investment banks and corporates?

In the year to last April, HSF’s turnover increased by 2.5 per cent to £989.9 million ($1.8 billion), with profit down 7.7 per cent to £283.2 million ($508 million) and profit per equity partner dipping 9.7 per cent to £857,000 ($1.5 million). While the firm recently boosted this with a one-off bonus of 5 per cent of salary for all staff in recognition of the challenges faced during COVID-19, the figure is still dwarfed by, say, the US$5.2 million ($6.7 million) profit per equity partner that US firm Kirkland & Ellis pays out. Yet Maslen-Stannage argues that HSF is a “different proposition” from its US rivals. “Our lawyers could walk into a job with them tomorrow and earn more money but they don’t want to because the culture is different,” she says, somewhat optimistically. “It’s all about hard work and less about the person – that’s the stereotype.”

She is more realistic about the challenge of retaining women, who historically have dropped out of the partnership race due to the profession’s long, unpredictable hours, as illustrated by Maslen-Stannage’s own typical work day. She admits she begins at between 6.30am and 7am and often works late into the night – and this is before the demands that her new role will entail.

Compared to its peers, HSF has made solid strides in partnership diversity since introducing gender targets in 2014. The cause has been helped by prominent partners (like Maslen-Stannage) who have combined children with successful careers and by firm signalling, such as its decisions to allow part-time partners and to make some lawyers partners while they are still on parental leave. However, despite more than 50 per cent of HSF’s trainee intake being women, its partnership is still only around 30 per cent female.

“We have made a lot of progress but we still have further to go; there is still a lag,” Maslen-Stannage admits. “The good thing is that it is getting better. There was this sense for decades that it was just not shifting.”

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She expects COVID-19 to give the movement another major shove. “The flexible working philosophy that has come out of COVID will let us go another step in retaining women and men we would otherwise lose,” she says. “Even if you are working really hard, it makes all the difference in the world if you can be home with your family for dinner or at home while you are working late at night. It will really help partners with families to balance everything and make them feel that their career is not too great a sacrifice on the family front.”

So how has she managed to balance her own spectacular career with raising two children – Sylvie, now 18 and a first-year student at the Australian National University, and 16-year-old Rohan, in Year 11?

First, Maslen-Stannage acknowledges the “incredible support” of her husband Chris Stannage, a fellow lawyer who has chosen a more flexible career path. Then she credits her rowdy childhood – again – for relieving her of the pressure to do everything perfectly. “I have friends who feel they have to home cook every meal for their kids as well as working around the clock – it’s just not actually possible,” she says. “Coming from a more chaotic household where everything didn’t need to be perfect – near enough was good enough – has been really helpful.“

Maslen-Stannage says she has been lucky over the years to have had male partners who have given her the advice, encouragement and confidence to go full-tilt at her career. Passionate about helping other women to make the same upward journey, she hopes her new platform as HSF global chair will help her to get her message out louder, quicker and clearer. “I think the difference in this role is when I say something now, it’s not just seen as Rebecca, M&A partner’s, view, it’s seen as the Herbert Smith Freehills view,” she says. “There are all these women who are looking to me for signals and I am giving them the signal that you have the same opportunity as everyone else, so go for it and don’t self edit.”

Among those future lawyers will be daughter Sylvie.

“She is now studying law and for me that was really nice because I thought. ‘It must have been OK for her growing up in this household, quite full-on with two lawyer parents, if she herself is choosing that lifestyle’,” Maslen-Stannage says. And then she laughs.

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