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A Conversation With Stroock Alum Stephen Fefferman

We recently chatted with Stroock alum Stephen Fefferman. He spoke about his time at Stroock, what it’s like working in-house as EVP, Deputy General Counsel of Business & Legal Affairs at Paramount Global (formerly known as ViacomCBS), and he even shared a bit about his co-worker/wife, Liza Burnett Fefferman, EVP, Communications for Paramount’s MTV Entertainment Group. Stephen also weighed in on the difference between good and great outside counsel and offered some practical career advice for newer lawyers.

Q: While in law school, you worked as a law clerk at Winstar Communications. What was that like?

SF: Working at Winstar was a great experience. It gave me insight into how a large publicly traded company operates and what it takes to be a strong general counsel in that environment. Many of my law school colleagues spent their post-1L summer working for smaller law firms or clerking for judges. The opportunity to work in-house took me in a different direction and solidified my desire to eventually follow an in-house career path.

Q: When you work in-house you get a whole different perspective. You get to really know how corporate thinks. I bet that insider’s perspective really helped a lot in practicing at a firm.

SF: Definitely. The process of risk analysis for in-house counsel versus outside counsel can be very different. As in-house counsel, you have a keen understanding of the specific risk tolerance of the business and its leadership so you have more information when evaluating the potential exposure and latitude when deciding to accept certain legal risks. As outside counsel, your job often requires providing a detailed framing for the risk of a particular transaction or policy decision, but often without the ability to recommend a specific course of action.

Q: What made you pick Stroock?

SF: Stroock had, and still has, a phenomenal Intellectual Property Group. It’s unique for big firms in that it operates as a boutique within a large firm and it offers nearly 360 degree IP service capabilities with litigation, prosecution, transactional and general advisory services — all in one group. Many other firms with IP practices have a dedicated prosecution group, with corporate attorneys and litigators handling IP-related matters. Working at Stroock gave me exposure to a full-service intellectual property practice within a large firm context, which is helpful in understanding a client’s full scope of needs.

Q: What did you enjoy most about working at Stroock?

SF: One of the things that I liked the most is the family atmosphere Stroock fosters. It’s very much a place where you feel valued, your skills are developed and you are recognized for your work. Mid to upper-level associates routinely took time out of their busy day to help guide young attorneys in various areas of IP law and general legal practice. Although the work is challenging and the hours are grueling at times, Stroock is certainly a place where the people are invested in teaching and developing young attorneys.

Q: How did you end up at Paramount?

After leaving Stroock, I joined a mid-sized firm, Meister Seelig & Fein LLP, where I focused on serving clients in the apparel, advertising, e-commerce, and media spaces. I typically worked with small to mid-sized businesses, which was different from serving the types of institutional clients I worked with at Stroock. The smaller businesses came to rely on me as de facto outside GC. As a result of my work at Meister Seelig & Fein, I had the opportunity to join Marc Ecko Enterprises, a fashion and apparel company with magazine and video game publishing businesses. The work that I did at Marc Ecko led to the opportunity to join what was then known as Viacom.

Q: Tell me about your role at Paramount.

I lead the Ad Sales, Global Sourcing and Enterprise Technology legal group, a department of around 25 attorneys and legal professionals who support a wide variety of areas throughout the organization. My group handles the legal work for an ad sales organization that generates $10 billion in annual revenue and the cross-functional technology organization that operates across the globe. In addition to ad sales and technology, my group handles transactional and day-to-day advisory work for our research and marketing divisions and a variety of other clients across the organization.

Q: What do you like best about your job?

SF: In addition to the variety in my practice, one of the great benefits of working in-house is being able to see issues in context and being an integral part of the forward-thinking strategic thought leadership for the business. As you get embedded with your clients and really begin to understand their ongoing and evolving business strategy, you develop a deep understanding of how each decision will impact the organization as a whole. Being able to work hand in hand with the business team on coming up with holistic strategies to achieve their business goals is incredibly rewarding.

Q: What do you find the most challenging from a business perspective? How about from a legal perspective?

SF: Working at an organization the size of Paramount can be challenging due to the sheer number and variety of clients and business lines, each having its own immediate needs. In addition, you have to juggle those immediate priorities with the long-term strategies of the organization. Deals need to get done, but at the same time, we need to focus on a forward-looking plan for what the next two, five and 10 years are going to require of our business.

When I started at what was then known as Viacom, it had a relatively dominant position in the content development and distribution landscape. Due in part to consolidation within our business and across industries and changes in distribution strategy, the complexity of our business has increased. This has added to the challenge of negotiating transactions in a way that is protective of the legal rights and remedies of the company but advances our business priorities.

Q: What do you like best?

SF: I really enjoy being a business partner to my client groups with a seat at the table when making important strategic decisions.

Q: I'm going to digress a moment with a couple of personal questions. I know that you and your wife both work at Paramount. How did that come about and do you ever work together?

SF: I joined the company first and she joined a few years later. Despite the fact that we are working at the same company, we don’t actually get to see each other all that frequently when we’re at work. Even now, working at home through COVID-19 and a limited return to office model, we only really see each other at the beginning and the end of the day. When we do get a moment to catch up for lunch or dinner, it’s a real treat.

Q: Even though you don’t really work together, it must be nice to see each other around from time to time and have someone who really gets what your work is about.

SF: Having a partner who really understands what’s going on, the end game and rationale, and knowing that we’re working in support of the same causes at work and at home is a big plus. A lot of the challenges she deals with are the same that I deal with.

I have to say that Liza is a superstar at the company and I’m very proud of her. It’s a highlight of my day when people tell me how much they love working with her and how great she is (not that I didn’t know it already!).

Q: I read The New York Times coverage of your wedding. Great story! Does your wife still have the dollar bill first-date proposal ring?

SF: Of course! She keeps it in a special jewelry box.

Q: Now back to business. What can outside counsel do to make your job easier? 

SF: In many cases, law firms lack the context to provide the specific and targeted advice that will be most valuable to their clients. Outside counsel should invest the time to understand their clients’ legal needs in the context of their businesses in order to deliver the highest quality legal service. With that understanding, they can provide forward-thinking strategic advice along with short-term risk analysis. Clear communication also makes a huge difference in the quality of attorney work product. Those are the things that set outstanding outside counsel apart from the rest.

Q: What career advice do you have for newer lawyers?

SF: First, do the work. I don’t think there’s a substitute for learning by doing. Jump in with both feet and get as much experience and exposure as possible. Second, try to figure out what you love to do and don’t be afraid to change course. If you do the hard work and deliver, others will recognize your drive and will be more willing to go to bat for you and provide you with the support necessary to make a career transition.