“Leadership was very interested in learning about our experiences and really wanted to have an open conversation. I think that set the tone for the entire conference.”
As a busy corporate associate in V&E’s New York office, Mike Garza doesn’t often have the chance to connect in person with Hispanic lawyers working in other V&E offices. But that changed this past March when Garza, who is Mexican-American, headed to Houston, where he attended the firm’s Diversity & Inclusion Conference.
“The biggest thing that I was looking forward to was the opportunity to meet more diverse attorneys from across the firm,” Garza said. “This was a great opportunity to do that, and to network with both partners and associates from other offices that I typically do not get the chance to work or interact with.”
Garza is one of 140 attorneys from V&E’s U.S. offices who gathered in Houston for a two-day conference filled with networking events, professional development workshops, and other sessions aimed at supporting diverse lawyers.
The firm has been hosting biennial diversity conferences for its lawyers since 2010. This year’s gathering attracted a record number of attendees. Notably, attendance among allies – supporters of diversity and inclusion causes – rose by 20%.
Among the firm leaders in attendance: V&E Chairman Mark Kelly, V&E Managing Partner Scott Wulfe, and Management Committee member Gillian Hobson. All three serve on V&E’s Diversity & Inclusion Executive Committee, whose members individually oversee the firm’s diversity initiatives.
Working to increase diversity on multiple fronts
The conference is one of a number of programs V&E has undertaken in an effort to recruit and retain attorneys with diverse characteristics and backgrounds.
V&E understands that promoting diversity is important for the firm’s long-term success. As noted by the American Bar Association, diverse lawyers raise the quality of legal services by bringing “different perspectives, experiences, and opinions to identifying, addressing, and resolving legal issues.” At the same time, clients are increasingly requiring that firms staff matters with diverse teams.
“We want to provide our clients with the absolute best legal services,” said Steve Gill, V&E’s talent management chair, who is also a member of the firm’s D&I Executive Committee. “Bringing together diverse viewpoints helps us in that regard.”
Other V&E diversity initiatives include offering scholarships to diverse law students and sponsoring on-campus affinity groups. About one quarter of the firm’s lawyers volunteer their time to serve on a Diversity Council that focuses on diversity programming and initiatives.
Such efforts have earned the firm accolades. V&E was named a 2019 “Houston Top Law Firm for Diversity” by the National Diversity Council (NDC). In 2020, for the ninth year in a row, V&E received a 100% on the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Corporate Equality Index, a national benchmark that weighs corporate policies and practices pertinent to LGBTQ employees.
Nonetheless, V&E still has a way to go in achieving its diversity goals. While the firm has made progress in recruiting diverse lawyers, retention rates still lag behind, a common problem for Big Law firms.
“We want our partnership to one day look like our incoming class,” Gill said. “You can’t do it overnight. It’s a process that we are committed to sustaining.”
Conference goal: boosting retention
Demonstrating support for diverse lawyers was a key objective of the recent D&I Conference. A party held at Gill’s home set the stage. While enjoying dinner, diverse attorneys had the opportunity to network with their peers and with firm leaders.
In addition to networking events, conference attendees were offered professional development guidance. During one popular session, called the “Individual Development Plan Workshop,” diverse associates were paired with partners who advised on the associates’ career plans.
“This was an opportunity to sit down with a senior partner and talk about where I’m at, how I can grow as an attorney, and what I should be doing to advance,” said Garza, who was matched with Brian Moss, co-head of V&E’s Global Finance practice group.
Getting the message from clients
At another session called “Client Insights – The Growing Demand for Inclusive Business,” attendees heard directly from clients about their efforts to work with diverse legal teams.
One panelist from a Fortune 50 company gave a shout-out to V&E associate Paige Wright. Wright, who formerly worked as a chemical engineer at the client company before becoming a lawyer, had reached out to the panelist via LinkedIn ahead of the conference to introduce herself. The in-house panelist noted that she expects to see Wright included in future pitches for the company’s matters.
“I was thrilled about it, especially since I’m a junior associate,” Wright said. “To get that kind of attention from an important client in a room full of partners really meant a lot.”
“A lot of times, diverse associates feel like they may be overlooked,” Wright added. “Vinson & Elkins has been very proactive about making sure that diverse associates don’t feel that way. It was nice to hear a client say, ‘Diversity is important to us, too.’”
A platform for voicing concerns and triggering action
The conference also served as a forum for diverse attorneys to candidly share their concerns with the firm’s leadership. During the conference, attendees were encouraged to propose ideas for advancing diversity. Since the conference, additional survey feedback has been solicited, and firm management has met several times with the D&I team to discuss the ideas generated. Draft action plans are now under review with the goal of achieving tangible results.
“Are there some areas we haven’t thought about addressing? What are our top priorities? What programs should we be putting in place to make sure that we’re continually fostering an increasingly inclusive firm?” said David Dixon, V&E’s diversity & inclusion manager, who organizes the firm’s diversity programs along with Julie Tran, senior director of talent management, and Allie McWilliams, senior diversity & inclusion coordinator.
In the past, feedback shared at conferences has sparked action. For instance, V&E’s leadership listened to diverse associates’ concerns about work assignments and took steps to ensure they’re getting their fair share. Among the changes: some practice groups have incorporated workload surveys or work assignment committees to better monitor how work is distributed.
Reflecting on the conference overall, Garza said he was impressed by the degree to which V&E demonstrated its commitment to its diverse attorneys.
“Leadership was very interested in learning about our experiences and really wanted to have an open conversation,” Garza said. “I think that set the tone for the entire conference. Maybe there are some issues out there, but let’s figure them out, and let’s make V&E an even better place to work at.”