Managing director and EMEA general counsel Maria Leistner leads The Legal 500 UK in-house Finance award-winning team at Credit Suisse.
B U S I N E S S T H I N K I N G
EDITOR AND FEATURES WRITER
For the leader of an award-winning financial legal team, Credit Suisse’s Maria Leistner makes a surprising confession to GC: “When I was growing up, I was not very good at mathematics!”
It’s lucky for the law that she wasn’t, although finance wasn’t her first choice – she originally planned to become a criminal judge in her Bulgarian homeland. But the travel bug got the best of her and she found herself in London – via a postgraduate degree and then a venture capital job in Prague, an LLM in the US, and a spell as a project finance lawyer in France. Relocating to London was not a chance move however, says Maria. “What I ultimately wanted to do was come to London, because it was a huge financial centre. I also wanted to get the experience – I thought London would be a very international place to be.” By this time she had developed a love of finance, so she worked for a number of years in private practice, focusing on banking and structured finance until a client persuaded her to jump ship.
Credit Suisse has fulfilled all her expectations of a cosmopolitan environment, she says. “There are people from every part of the world - different accents, different backgrounds, different schools, different previous jobs”. And this diversity, in Maria’s view, is a major contributor to the success of the company, because it ensures that a panoply of ideas gets fed into daily business. It has also created a meritocracy, she argues.
There are many other aspects of her GC role that she enjoys, of course, not least the intensity of operating in the post-GFC banking climate, which has brought huge reputational and regulatory challenges for companies such as hers. It has been a learning opportunity that Maria has grasped with both hands: “There are very few things that scare or faze me,” she reflects. This is fortunate because in recent times Credit Suisse, as with many similar organisations, has had to reduce the workforce and refocus the legal, compliance and risk management functions. Over the next few months, Maria will be working to reshape the compliance function to ensure it is fit for the new demands of the rapidly changing banking industry and new regulations likely to come into play in 2015.
It’s a fast-evolving environment, and this means that Maria’s expectations of external counsel have evolved as well. “They have to be generalists, and in the same way as with the in-house function, there is much more expected from the lawyers in terms of risk management.” The term “full-service” has a different meaning nowadays, she claims, stressing that external counsel need to have an understanding of the whole project and the ability to assess its legal and overall risks. Panels have shrunk to just the few firms that can provide this sort of service: “You can only get that if you give the firms a certain amount of work. And also, you don’t want to work with too many firms because then you can’t get that element of risk management that you need.”
Working life necessarily has its ups and downs, and juggling an engrossing career with a young family – two boys of three and six – is physically exhausting. “I haven’t slept for six years!” Maria exclaims. But it’s manageable she says, and is very much a choice she made with her eyes open. And it’s given her a different perspective too, particularly on diversity issues. Maria counts her recent selection as one of OUTstanding’s top 20 “allies” or role models for championing Credit Suisse’s LGBT Ally initiative in October 2014 and helping to ensure an LGBT-friendly workplace, among her top professional achievements, and it is one that puts her in the company of Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg. It’s something she feels strongly about, because “I know now that when you are in a more influential position,” she explains, “you can use this position to foster something that you believe in.” Her commitment to diversity has seen her work with disadvantaged school children to encourage them to explore a career in law – “to give them wings,” she says - and she recently received two letters from some excited students. “One was a handmade card and the other was a really well-written letter. It’s a heart-warming experience to get a card from a kid to say that you have inspired them – it almost made me cry.”In her spare time, Maria is a compulsive reader, and currently has three books on the go. These are Jeeves and the Wedding Bells (Sebastian Faulk’s tribute to PG Wodehouse), Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett, and, tellingly, The Loudest Duck by Laura Liswood. With respect to the latter, she explains: “In the past couple of years I have found myself going to look at some books, in particular on gender diversity.” She attributes this to her growing experience and judgment, and, she continues, “it gets to a point where you start to think more about what’s right and what’s wrong, and this book covers these things – including what happens to a woman and a mother. Which is why I am a much more vocal diversity supporter than I was.”
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