Steven Molo, a top partner at the Chicago law firm of Winston & Strawn, is defecting to the New York firm of Shearman & Sterling, a surprising move that had lawyers buzzing.

Molo, a prominent trial lawyer, is leaving Winston after 18 years. On March 1 he will join a firm that is better known for its corporate securities practice than for litigation.

Shearman is among the biggest dealmakers on Wall Street, structuring such transactions as mergers and acquisitions, initial public offerings and debt financing. By plucking Molo, the firm gains Midwest contacts without opening an office in Chicago. Molo will divide his time between Chicago and New York.

Molo brings with him years of experience in the courtroom, where he is known for his tenacity and attention to detail. Among the prominent clients he represented are former Illinois Senate President James “Pate” Philip in the fraud trial of Republican insider Scott Fawell and Oprah Winfrey in a defamation suit against a tabloid newspaper.

He also has taken on complex commercial litigation matters for such companies as Sears, Roebuck and Co., Allstate Corp. and Exelon Corp.

Although one of Winston’s top revenue generators, Molo worked in the shadow of Dan Webb, known as one of the country’s best white-collar defense attorneys. Webb, who has defended former U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and Microsoft Corp., is the chief legal counsel for indicted former Gov. George Ryan.

Molo, 46, said in an interview Monday that his decision to leave was unrelated to any rivalry with Webb or unhappiness at Winston. He said he wanted the chance to spread his own wings.

“This is an opportunity to build something at Shearman,” Molo said. “They have recognized a need to bolster the litigation practice.”

Jim Neis, Winston’s managing partner, said people at the firm were surprised but added that the move is a “wonderful opportunity” for Molo.

“He’s a very fine lawyer, a good partner and a good friend,” Neis said. “I’ll certainly miss him.”

Molo, who received his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Illinois, joined Winston in 1986 after working in the Illinois attorney general’s office.

He became a partner in 1989 and until recently served on the firm’s executive committee, which is similar to a corporate board of directors.

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