In litigation, we’re looking for compatibility with outside counsel

Shannon Lazzarini used to be a dancer, but now she dances a different tune: legal litigation. Born and raised in Italy, she moved to New York to study at the School of American Ballet. But what she calls the twists and turns of life, and an injury, led her to law school and a job at the international mega law firm Skadden. After some years working up from summer associate to counsel, Lazzarini went in house to work for a former client, the Unicredit Group. She now lives and works in Milan, heading litigation for Unicredit Bank and its subsidiaries. We talked to her about her job and how being bicultural influenced the way she thinks and works.

You’re the head of group litigation at Unicredit. What does that mean exactly?
Chief of litigation. My role has a couple of dimensions to it. I have direct responsibility for the group that involves Unicredit S.p.A, and I also have responsibility for litigation that involves our subsidiaries.

How many people report to you?
The direct reports: five people. And the litigation function is many more.

As group litigation head, do you work with outside counsel? Which firms?
We certainly work with outside counsel.

How many firms?
It depends; we have a number of different panels, a large number of firms and of counsel.
Can you tell me which firms are your four or five main firms?
It’s a difficult question. We work with a lot of law firms here in Italy. That’s because the litigation is spread across the entire country. It has been a strength to have litigation in the forum. While Rome, as the legal seat, sees a lot of litigation, Milan being the other one, it would be unfair for me to single out law firms because of this particular distribution.
Regarding international firms, it’s a result of which jurisdictions in which we have a need, and where the law firms are located. Singling out a cluster of law firms would be unfair.

How do you choose firms?
They need to be very strong litigators, particularly in the banking sector, particularly when it comes to Italy. Those with a tested record in law firm litigation are our go-to law firms. The other aspect that’s important is that the firm is not a separate organism from the in-house team. They need to by symbiotic teams. They need to be business partners that know us, understand us, understand how we work, understand what our needs are. Not only the legal department and the needs of the legal department, but very much of the bank.

Is it a formal process?
Yes. We rely on our procurement office. There are formal beauty contests. We don’t do this every year, because our panels are cyclical, there are a certain number of years that they cover. But we do have a formal process with set criteria.

What did you do prior to working in-house at Unicredit?
I pretty much grew up at Skadden. I was counsel on the international litigation and arbitration teams. I was a legal assistant between college and law school; a summer associate there in law school; and I worked at Skadden in my third year of law school and then joined Skadden as an associate when I graduated. I was then elevated to counsel.

Was Unicredit a client?
They were. That’s how I got to know the bank.

Why did you take an in-house job?
As I got more senior at Skadden I started to get a more regular interface with the clients, and I got to know their concerns. I also got very curious about what the world was like on the other side of the fence. I wanted to see the instruments of an orchestra, if you need an analogy. In a law firm, even if you come from different backgrounds, you all have something in common. You’ve gone through the 1L years, you have some commonality. It’s not so in a company, especially a large one such as ours.

How is it different working in house?
One of the biggest differences is that in-house you see a much wider picture, from a 360 degree viewpoint. Sometimes outside counsel just gets fed with parts of what the problem is, so their response can be very technical and only geared to that issue.

It’s more being a business partner than a hired gun…
I think you’re right. I do look to my external counsel team as part of my advisers and they need to be attuned to the needs and reality of the bank. But sometimes it’s not easy to translate that to them, and for certain things they can’t be as effective as my in-house team.

You have an English first name and an Italian last name. Are you American?
I’m both. My mom is American and my dad is Italian. I was born and raised in Italy, but I used to be a ballet dancer, and that’s how I ended up in New York. I was accepted at the School of American Ballet, and through through the twists and turns of life and through an injury, that dream ended.

What differences have you found between Italian and American legal cultures?
Americans have a wonderful ability to zero in on the issues, to summarize what the key points are. American lawyers are very direct and concise, which I find helpful, but it doesn’t always work in all cultures. Italian lawyers are wonderfully creative. Their ability to think out of the box is admirable. They are very passionate and have at heart the defense of the bank. Lawyers who have worked with us for a long time really know the bank, know the people and how the different departments interact with one another. This makes the defense all the more effective.

Leave a Reply