Paper Chase

Maura Abeln Smith oversees all things legal at International Paper Co.

Published in Corporate Counsel Edition - January 2010 magazine

By Nancy Henderson on December 7, 2009


Maura Abeln Smith believes that if you fall off a horse, you should climb right back on. Literally.

The accident happened in the fall of 2003, when Smith—an accomplished equestrian—was riding her horse and it bolted and spun, throwing her to the ground and breaking her back and wrist. This was six months after she had moved to Stamford, Conn., to start her job as senior vice president and general counsel for International Paper Co. After working from home for a month, Smith returned to her office in a body cast. “Everyone, from the CEO to my legal team, provided support and encouragement,” she says.

One year later, she started taking riding lessons again. “Get back on—that is my motto about everything,” says Smith, 54, who oversees legal affairs and government relations and serves as corporate secretary for International Paper (IP), now based in Memphis. “If the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

Smith demands nothing less from her team of 70 attorneys. “I expect a lot of the people around me,” she says. “I expect it out of myself. And I define ‘best’ not just in monetary terms but in terms of outcomes for the good of all.”

The elder of two children, Smith grew up in a small town outside Reading, Pa., with her father, a German immigrant who worked several jobs during the Depression and eventually became a businessman and self-trained metallurgist, and her mother, who went back to college when Smith was young and earned her master’s in social work while in her 60s.

Her mother, knowing the value of a hard-earned education, encouraged her daughter to apply to Vassar College in New York, which had just become a co-ed institution. Smith did, and earned a full-ride, prompting a number of academic scholarships. English was her first choice of major, but her parents convinced her otherwise. “I ended up majoring in economics because at least I could be a bank teller when I graduated,” she says.

Numbers and supply-and-demand charts turned out to be her forte. Upon graduating in 1977, she attended England’s Oxford University, where, as one of the first female Rhodes Scholars, she obtained her Master of Philosophy in economics. “This was a real step up into a very mathematically oriented program,” she says.

The experience spurred another scholarship, this time a full-ride to the University of Miami School of Law. “That was the only way I would have been able to get to law school financially,” she says. But, unlike Vassar and Oxford, she initially disliked her classes. “I found law school to be incredibly boring after coming out of a fairly intense, thought-provoking graduate program, and having to start reading cases and understanding how lawyers thought,” Smith says. “It didn’t click.” Eventually, she says, “I got the hang of it and understood the purpose of it all.”

In the midst of the early 1980s recession, Smith joined Steel Hector & Davis (now merged with Squire Sanders) in Miami. As part of the securities and banking practice group, she defended a client in one of the first antitrust violation cases involving ATM transaction fees. During her tenure, she learned the keys to a successful attorney-client relationship: always respond promptly and be upfront about the likelihood of success. “Don’t promise the moon if you can only deliver a star,” she says.

Five years later, she transferred to another prestigious firm in the city, Baker & McKenzie. As a partner, her practice expanded internationally, as the firm had a large presence in Latin America.

In 1990, when her clients in the banking industry had not yet recovered from the savings and loan crisis, Smith received a call from a headhunter for General Electric Co. about a general counsel position with its plastics division. “I had two young children and had just gone through a divorce, so I decided that a stable income and a solid company may not be too bad,” she says.

In taking the job, she became one of the first female general counsels at GE. At 35, she was also one of the youngest. “The job was much more than I expected,” she says. “The work-life balance did not exist back in those days. It was all about being available 24/7.”

Nonetheless, she credits her former boss—now a storied general counsel—for her future successes. “Ben Heineman developed the model of bringing in partners from outside law firms and putting them into general counsel roles and then doing the work inside,” she says. “I grew up being mentored by Ben.”

Heineman, now a senior counsel with WilmerHale in Washington, D.C., says that Smith “was a strong influence in helping GE evolve from a U.S.-centric law department to a global one, which drew heavily on the talents, skills and perspectives of attorneys who were trained and who practiced outside our U.S. comfort zone. She took responsibility, she welcomed accountability and she was an innovative thinker as well as a person on whom you could count to get the job done.”

In 1994, soon after being promoted to vice president, she defended the corporation when the U.S. government filed a lawsuit against its superabrasives operating unit and South African diamond maker De Beers. The suit alleged price fixing over various industrial diamond products, but was eventually dismissed against GE.

Four years later, Smith moved to Toledo, Ohio, to join Owens Corning as senior vice president, general counsel and secretary. She helped the company wade through its “biggest make-or-break-the-company litigation,” which involved hundreds of thousands of lawsuits alleging injury over exposure to asbestos. Owens Corning filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October 2000, and Smith spent the next 30 months working on the reorganization plan. Her proposed National Settlement Program concept, which called for agreed-upon settlements paid over time, ultimately helped determine the conditions of bankruptcy (Owens Corning emerged in late 2006).

Following a steady, upward career trajectory, Smith left Owens in 2003 to assume her current post with IP. “I had hoped to do something more, see if I could run a company or have a bigger department or a bigger opportunity,” she says. “So here I am.”

Early on, Smith worked to resolve a lingering antitrust class action suit in which IP was accused of conspiring with other manufacturers to increase product prices. (The company’s share of the settlement was reportedly $24 million.) She also sliced IP’s legal expenses by more than half. And when the company moved from Stamford to Memphis in 2006, she reassembled her legal team.

“For me, the fit is more about managing legal issues in an environment where people do the right thing,” she says. “The leadership team, I’m very happy to say, is highly ethical and I think that’s really at the heart of why I’m a good fit for them and they’re a good fit for me.”

When asked about her greatest strengths, Smith cites her memory. “That helps me ask good questions and follow up on multiple issues simultaneously,” she says. “I also care about people, so if there’s an issue that requires more than just technical supervision, I think that people trust me and will come and talk to me about it.”

Another strength is staying current with industry news and trends. “See that pile over there?” she says, motioning toward a stack of magazines on a table in her office. “Those are just last week’s articles about things that I need to know about. You can’t just shoot from the hip as a general counsel. Today you have to be on top of every single issue and not just look in the rear-view mirror but look ahead, see what is around the corner, and prepare your client for that.”

IP’s chairman and CEO, John Faraci, speaks to these qualities in his legal counsel. “Maura is recognized both internally and externally for her outstanding legal capabilities,” he says. “In addition to her sound legal counsel, she is a valued member of our senior leadership team who has a great ability to ask the tough questions on a wide range of strategic and operational issues.”

Recently, those tough questions have surrounded a joint venture with Russian paper company Ilim Group, in which IP invested $600 million. It’s the largest foreign-domestic alliance in the Russian forest sector. “While I don’t actually do the day-to-day work, I have to understand what’s going on in those parts of the world in order to give strategic legal advice about next steps and risks,” she says.

The project informs other parts of her career, such as her board membership of the National Center for State Courts. “If you contrast what we have in this country to other countries like the Russian system of courts, which is very much in need of appropriate independent judiciary and funding, you realize how important it is to preserve what we have.”

In 2009, the state Supreme Court appointed Smith to the newly formed Tennessee Access to Justice Commission, which addresses civil legal needs statewide.

Outside of the legal arena, Smith continues to compete in more than a dozen equestrian events each year. “The only thing that keeps me from thinking about my work, my people and my company are my horses.”

Despite her competitive nature, Smith doesn’t believe in taking advantage of an opponent. “If my winning hurts you in some bad way I’m probably not going to play the game in a way that it would need to be played in business. That’s why I think I’m a lawyer,” she says. “I like fairness. I like for people to have an even shot and be fairly mounted on the right horse.”

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