December 3rd, 2012 | 6:00 am

Voice of Experience: Antonia E. Stolper, Partner and Head of Capital Markets Group, Americas, Sherman & Sterling

filed under Voices of Experience

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

A long-time partner at global law firm Shearman & Sterling, Antonia Stolper heads both the firm’s highly regarded Americas Capital Markets group and its top-tier Latin America practice. How did she achieve so much success? “I’m a great believer in serendipity in my career,” she remarked.

Certainly hard work and a commitment to her clients propelled her toward success too, she continued, but she believes it is important to be open to new experiences. “I do a lot of interviews and talk to a lot of young women, and they always ask, ‘Did you always know this is what you were going to do?’ And the answer is, absolutely not. What I do today didn’t even exist when I was in school.”

“People talk about how important it is to have a plan and I’m not so sure about that,” she added. “You can have conviction, drive and the desire to excel and succeed without knowing exactly where you’ll end up. It’s incredibly important to be open-minded to opportunity.”

Career Path in Law

After graduating from Yale, Stolper served in Honduras as a member of the Foreign Service. When she returned to the US, she spent a few years working in electoral politics before attending law school at NYU. She worked briefly as a junior associate at one law firm before moving to Shearman & Sterling 22 years ago.

“The Latin American capital markets were just opening up. Since I spoke Spanish and Portuguese and had a securities background, it made sense to marry the two,” she recalled.

For the majority of her career, Stolper has worked with clients in Latin America, although for a few years she was assigned to the Hong Kong office. “There was a view that every emerging market looks alike,” she explained. “That was obviously not the case, and from the time I came back, I’ve been working in Latin America ever since.”

And excelling. Stolper is one of the best-known international lawyers in Latin America and is regularly called on for her views on the region’s continued development. She has been instrumental in growing the firm’s Latin America practice. “I like being a senior woman in my little niche of the world,” she said. “Within Latin America, I’m recognized as one of the lead lawyers in the capital markets today. That recognition is something I’m extremely proud of.”

Her work takes her throughout the region, and there is no place in the region that Stolper can’t call home professionally. She recently closed IPOs in Peru and Chile, for example.

“It’s absolutely thrilling that we’re able to work with companies just coming to the market, to expand businesses and take advantage of growth, and to watch economies in the region which have been growing,” she explained. “We see them make a dent in poverty and other social indices in the context of economic development. It’s just incredibly exciting to be a part of that.”

“Development in general is my interest. I would say I do a lot of infrastructure and I love that – roads, electricity, power plants, airports. I get a very distinct thrill out of working with hard assets. But also we do a lot of work with banks, which through their lending have a tremendous impact on development.”

For example, Stolper recalled going on vacation in Latin America recently and seeing a road being paved, a road she had helped raise bonds to build. “It’s incredible to think that I made that happen,” she explained.

Advice for Women in Law

Thinking about her role as a leader at Shearman & Sterling, Stolper suggests that approaching business as a series of important relationships may be helpful to women who find that part of the profession challenging.

“Practicing law is quintessentially a people business,” she explained. “You’re a client’s lawyer, and it’s incredibly important as you’re coming up in the ranks to get to know as many people as possible and impress them. That network of relationships is what will create a successful career in the business of law.”

Having the drive to succeed is critical for career growth, Stolper believes. “I do think that you don’t get ahead if you don’t have the ambition to get ahead. This is a gross generalization, but being openly ambitious is not a particularly socially validated behavior of women. I think women are ambivalent about ambition.”

She continued, “And then life intervenes. I think you need to lead your life and be ambitious. If you don’t want to be at the top, no one’s going to put you there.”

As a senior woman in the profession, she feels a sense of duty to encourage junior women to advance. “As a committed feminist and activist, I feel strongly that I need to account for the women behind me. But we need men also. We need that commitment – women can’t do it alone.”

Making a Difference

Stolper says that being involved in professional organizations and non-profit work can help women advance their career while making a difference.

She has been a driving force behind the Vance Center for International Justice Initiatives, which is the international arm of the New York City Bar. “We’ve held a series of seminars on the status of women in the profession in different countries, to talk about the challenges facing women as a lawyer in different parts of the world. These challenges are sometimes very different than those facing us in the US.”

“In other countries, the glass ceiling is even more challenging than it is here – there are not a lot of senior women and the barriers really are rather significant,” she said.

As part of the Vance Center, she is working to expand pro bono work by lawyers in Latin America. “In Latin America, the movement for pro bono is part of a sea change, in which lawyers think about social responsibility. It is pushing the legal profession to a new stage of commitment to civil society, and supporting democracy in the region.”

The Vance Center work holds a special place in her heart. Having lived in the Caribbean and South America as a child, Stolper explained that that movement was particularly inspiring for her. “My involvement with the region has lasted my entire life,” she said.

She also makes an effort to serve on Bar Association committees. “If you take your career seriously, you need to find the hours for it. It’s really, really important to not get trapped. You need to build boundaries and get out and establish yourself as an independent professional. The need to create a life not completely swallowed up by your day job is very, very important.”

Finally, Stolper was also one of the original advisors of Shearman’s WISER women’s network. “Women having support networks is incredibly important and my personal one has always been incredibly important to me,” she continued. “Networking, business development skills, and philanthropic interests – these are things we need to be focusing on and what the WISER women have done is just spectacular and really important.”

In Her Personal Time

“I did raise a son through all of this,” Stolper laughed. “He was four months old when I went to law school.”

Outside work, she enjoys spending time with her husband and son. “I do want to emphasize that it’s incredibly important to people’s wellbeing that they have things that are important to them outside work. I am very politically active and I always have been. It’s incredibly important to have a balanced approach. I have been lucky in that I have a supportive family and environment to allow me to thrive. I didn’t do any of this alone.”

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