An interview with Stephanie Beghe Sonmez of Paksoy, about her path from France to Turkey.
CEELM: Run us through your background, and how you ended up in your current role with Paksoy.
Stephanie: I was born and educated in France, where I earned a double-major degree in French and Anglo-American business law from the University of Paris X-Nanterre, in 1996. I then continued with an LL.M in Trade Regulation at NYU Law (in 1997) and a graduate degree in French Intellectual Property Law back in Paris, at the University of Parıs II - Pantheon Assas, in 1998. I was admitted to the New-York and Paris bars in 1998 and started to work at the Paris office of Cleary Gottlieb, where I stayed for eight years. I then relocated to Turkey in 2006, first with the Istanbul office of Denton Wilde Sapte, before moving to Paksoy in 2010 – for the first time experiencing a truly local, independent Turkish firm, albeit with a mostly international clientele and global working standards.
CEELM: Was it always your goal to work in Turkey?
Stephanie: Having grown up in Paris and spent some time in New York, studied different legal systems, started my career at an international firm, and developed a practice in cross-border M&A, I was always open to the idea of pursuing my career in a different corner of the world. The opportunity came through my personal life: a few years after marrying a Turk, we decided to move our family to beautiful Istanbul, a chance for us to raise our children in a multicultural city with a strong historical affinity towards French culture, and for me to further develop and find renewed challenges in my legal practice.
CEELM: Tell us briefly about your practice, and how you built it up over the years.
Stephanie: I was always keen to keep wearing two hats as I developed my practice: Corporate/M&A and IP/IT. The intense work at Cleary Gottlieb enabled me to do that, and the fast-developing business law scene in Turkey during the 2000’s also gave me the opportunity to keep building up expertise in both areas. In very different ways though: moving my cross-border M&A practice to Istanbul has been very exciting, with Turkey attracting foreign investments in a large variety of business sectors from virtually all regions of the globe. You can cater to the needs of American, Asian, Middle-Eastern, or European clients, with their very different approaches to doing business and varying levels of risk appetite. As for IP/IT, I initially found a much less sophisticated market and body of law than I had known in France, and I have since had a front row seat on major legal developments in these areas, as Turkish legislation has progressively caught up with European legislation over the years, especially for e-commerce and data protection.
CEELM: How would clients describe your style?
Stephanie: Hands-on, thorough, accessible, sometimes a bit tough in negotiations (I heard). To me the best praise comes when the counterparty says they wish they had you on their side, which has happened a few times.
CEELM: There are obviously many differences between the French and Turkish judicial systems and legal markets. What idiosyncrasies or differences stand out the most?
Stephanie: Not as many as you’d think. Starting with France’s distinctive administrative law and administrative court system, which Turkey has chosen to replicate, for better or for worse, I would say France’s and Turkey’s approaches to legal doctrine are pretty close. The main difference lies in the fact that many areas of the law in Turkey do not enjoy the same level of development as in France, so you don’t always have as large a body of jurisprudence and academic opinions to work with. This means more need for interpretation and creative solutions, and also more reliance on the formal or informal guidance of governmental authorities in regulated sectors.
CEELM: How about the cultures? What differences strike you as most resonant and significant?
Stephanie: While we may not always realize it, as French people we enjoy the comforts of a wealthy, fairly well-organized country, leading to a more individualistic and somewhat less flexible approach. Turkish people are more likely to accept that certain realities cannot be changed, but also more willing to adapt – to try and find a way to make things work.
CEELM: What particular value do you think a senior expatriate lawyer in your role adds – both to a firm and to its clients?
Stephanie: To my partners and colleagues at the firm, hopefully, a different perspective, the ability to decode situations or behaviours that could otherwise remain cryptic to the Turkish eye, and the benefit of my years of experience at international firms. To the clients of the firm, the comfort of a trusted advisor who can translate local concepts into a framework they are familiar with, understand where they are coming from, and help them determine where to draw the line, keep reasonable expectations, and make the most of opportunities when investing in Turkey.
CEELM: Do you have any plans to move back to France?
Stephanie: No I don’t. I accept the fate of all people who have adopted a second country as their own, which is that you’ll always miss something even when you’re home: the Seine while in Istanbul, the Bosphorus while in Paris.
CEELM: Outside of Turkey, which CEE country do you enjoy visiting the most, and why?
Stephanie: I find Montenegro to have quite a lot of charm, with its unique blend of Balkan identity and historical Venetian influence.
CEELM: What’s your favorite place to take visitors in Istanbul?
Stephanie: Istanbul obviously has countless beautiful sites to visit, but you wouldn’t want any visitor to leave without having enjoyed the pleasures of raki balik: sharing a meal of fresh fish, meze, and traditional raki while overlooking the shores of the Bosphorus at sunset.