For Elizabeth Espin Stern, leaving the firm where she had practiced for 19 years wasn’t easy. The firm had nurtured her from green associate to polished partner. It’s where she had met her husband. It’s where she felt comfortable. But her father, a career diplomat, had always told her that a difficult decision is an opportunity in disguise. And this one felt right.
“I knew it was time to come [to Baker & McKenzie],” Stern says, “but it felt like I was running away from my professional home.” But to grow her business immigration practice, which Stern had launched on a hunch as a fourth-year associate at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, she needed to hook up with the global capabilities afforded by a powerhouse international firm like Baker & McKenzie. So that’s what she did.
“In coming I felt like, ‘You need to evolve now.’ I’d always had an office with white walls, a very pretty office but always with white walls.” She gestures to her very bright, vivid teal walls. “I went for color. I thought, ‘You know what? Why not? I feel like I’m in Technicolor now.’”
Seeing Stern at the helm of her elegant desk, clad in a purple silk shantung suit and wearing her signature red lipstick, it’s hard to imagine her in black and white. After all, this is a woman who as a child attended glittery diplomatic parties on Embassy Row.
Stern’s father, Cesar Arturo Espin, was raised in Ecuador and came to the United States as a young man on an Army scholarship. He rewrote his country’s manual for strategic warfare around this time, lobbying for the adoption of modern Western strategies. The CIA took note of Espin’s talents and recruited him. Espin was interested in service, but didn’t want to lose his Ecuadorian citizenship. So the agency referred him to the Organization of American States, which made him a diplomat with the delegation of Ecuador. He returned to Quito, married, and escorted his bride to their new home in Chevy Chase, Md. Stern was their first child.
She has fond memories of tagging along during diplomatic functions. “I remember the food was wonderful and that I could drink as much Coca-Cola as I wanted,” she says.
She also drank in the scenes playing out in front of her, observing diplomacy in action. It all seemed very commonplace. “I never knew anything but that,” she says. “That was just part of our lives.”
She hung around exclusively in diplomatic circles, with her Spanish-speaking mom and dad. She entered kindergarten without knowing a word of English.
“I always remember and think about how kind the kids were to me,” she says. She learned English fast, and long family trips every other year to Ecuador made it easy to retain her fluency in Spanish. Still, when she entered college, her goal was not to be a diplomat but the next Woodward or Bernstein. “I really got into how Watergate was being covered and how important the story was,” she says. “Being a reporter seemed like a fun thing to do.”
At the University of Virginia, she qualified for the Echols Scholars Program, which allows undergraduates to shape their own curriculum. With her eye on The Washington Post, Stern opted for a heavy diet of political science and language arts. By then she’d also become fluent in French. But in her sophomore and junior years, a legislative internship on the Hill and a class in constitutional law presented a new direction. She was hooked. Learning the way that law impacts society and shapes people’s lives interested her even more than becoming a reporter.
“I thought, ‘It won’t hurt my goal to take three years to go to law school,’” she says. “And then I’ll become a journalist.” Of course, once at the University of Virginia School of Law, she rationalized that it couldn’t hurt to practice law for a few years. By her fifth year at Shaw Pittman, she was flush with work handling immigration matters. At that point she had to admit she’d found her calling.
When Stern started at Shaw Pittman, she asked the firm if she could add some cross-cultural work to her regular load as a litigation associate. They referred her to some clients in the emerging high-tech industry who had questions about visas for employees arriving from the Asia Pacific. It wasn’t considered substantive work at the time, but it was a start.
“I thought they weren’t giving me anything robust,” she says. “I wasn’t quite sure how much law was involved in visas because my only experience was with the diplomatic visas that no one seemed to have to work on—people just magically appeared in the country.”
Still, Stern did her due diligence and mastered the details. Then everything changed. In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. For the first time, companies were required to monitor who was working for them and to assist the government in determining that the employees were here lawfully. At the same time, the tech companies in suburban Maryland and northern Virginia were growing at warp speed. They were desperate for talent and looking to bring people in from abroad, particularly India and China.
Stern worked with these young companies to craft policies on recruitment and the integration of foreign workers into their domestic work force, as well as on business plans and the feasibility of opening plants in remote locations. (This was before outsourcing was common.) “I really started to work sideby-side with the entrepreneurs, and I became their trusted outside adviser,” she says. “That’s a term that’s very common now, but at the time for a very young associate straight out of law school it was fairly unusual.”
Stern saw her opportunity. She approached a couple of senior partners and presented her case: How would they feel if she spent the next year building an immigration practice?
It made perfect sense, but she was still kind of shocked when the partners said yes. “Not every firm would’ve done that,” she says.
Stern and her team got cracking. They rolled out an extranet that allowed job candidates to track the status of their visa applications and advised clients to appoint an executive to act as point person for compliance issues. The practice boomed.
Renee Martin-Nagle, vice president and general counsel for Airbus North America Holdings, turned to Stern 16 years ago to take care of the company’s immigration concerns. “I could tell she was compassionate,” she says. “That’s what you need when you’re dealing with immigration cases.”
Matthew Small, senior vice president and general counsel for Blackboard Inc., a client of several years, also relies on Stern. “When you have an employee who might get deported, when it’s a crisis situation, when you’ve exhausted all the other remedies,” he says, “Liz provides high-level advice and high-level contacts.”
Stern’s reputation grew fast. So fast she didn’t even notice. When a reporter called to interview her for a Leading Young Lawyers list in 1994, she kept waiting for him to say whom he was calling about. “He said, ‘Liz, do you realize we’re calling about you?’, and I said, ‘Of course!’” she recalls, cringing. “But inside, I was dying.”
By 2005, her practice included a roster of Fortune 500 clients and had grown to a point where it needed worldwide reach. At Baker & McKenzie, Stern and the six-person group she brought with her have access to 70 global immigration attorneys and 400-some global employment attorneys.
Meanwhile Stern has also become a player on the Hill, articulating the impact of immigration policy on the country’s commercial sector. She testified at judicial hearings on policy reform, in 2001 and again in 2004. “My fear is that the people who’re being stopped are the ones we want here,” she says, “and the person who’s truly creating a security risk is going to be smart enough to work the flaws in the system.”
Stern has been asked more than once to consider a presidential appointment to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. She has declined for several reasons—for one, she wasn’t sure if there would be enough time left in the president’s term for her to make an impact. “I will wait,” she says, “but I hope that I can make my publicservice contribution in one form or another because I do think it’s critical to give back.”
She’s inherited that sense of obligation from her father, who, in his 31 years as a diplomat, was an adviser to many secretaries general as well as an informal adviser to several Ecuadorian presidents. “My father has always been a fighter and an advocate of things he believes in, starting with advocating for change in Ecuador’s military system,” says Stern. “I had the opportunity to see him in action and to hear about what he was doing while I was growing up. That affects you.”
She’s also hesitant to leave her highly successful team at Baker & McKenzie. For now, she’s thrilled to arrive each morning in her Technicolor office and see here fate takes her. “I feel like I walked into my destiny,” she says, “and it just worked out.”