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Texas Law Firm Touting Abortion Aid Backs Governors Urging Bans

July 8, 2022, 9:30 AM

The largest law firm in Texas, Vinson & Elkins, is pledging to cover its employees’ travel expenses for reproductive medical care after contributing to the campaigns for two Republican governors pushing strict restrictions on abortion.

The Houston-founded firm’s political action committee has given Texas Gov. Greg Abbott $65,000 in the last two years, according to state filings. The firm’s PAC donated directly to Abbott’s campaign and to PACs associated with the governor, who faces a tightening re-election race in November.

Vinson & Elkins said in the aftermath of the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade that it would cover the cost of employees’ out-of-state travel for abortions. That includes in Texas, where a new state law signed by Abbott largely banned abortions and targets those who assist residents in getting access to the medical service.

The firm also contributed $20,000 to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin in his successful bid for governor in 2021. Youngkin has said he wants to pass a law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

That leaves Vinson & Elkins in an increasingly common spot for large firms that have long sought to remain apolitical: on both ends of a hot-button issue that has potential consequences for its employees and its clients.

“The challenge is when you get to some fundamental issues like human rights,” said Kent Zimmermann, a law firm consultant. “There’s a question of whether companies and law firms can play both sides successfully. Companies and law firms are in a very difficult position on that.”

Vinson & Elkins, through a spokesman, declined to comment on political contributions.

At least a quarter of the country’s 100 largest law firms have said they will cover reproductive health travel costs for employees in states where new abortion restrictions are going into effect. A slew of major corporations has also made similar pledges.

Vinson & Elkins has 12 offices, including three outposts in Texas and one in Richmond, Va. The firm reported more than $912 million in gross revenue and $3.5 million in average profits per equity partner last year, according to data complied by the American Lawyer.

The firm “will, as part of its health plan, provide a travel benefit for covered health care services that are unavailable locally,” a spokesman said.

The move reflects the “growing recognition” among firms that taking a stance on social issues offers a competitive advantage in retaining clients and lawyers, especially those from younger generations, according to Zimmermann.

The contributions to Abbott and Youngkin highlight the dueling interests at play. The firm has given money to candidates on both sides of the aisle, including Sylvester Turner, Houston’s Democrat mayor.

Texas Heavyweights for Abbott

Vinson & Elkins is not unlike some of its law firm peers when it comes to political spending in Texas, a state long controlled by Republicans.

Jackson Walker, Norton Rose and Hunton Andrews Kurth, all of which have big Texas offices, have donated varying sums to Abbott and other Texas candidates. Baker Botts, another large Texas firm, has focused its PAC spending largely on candidates for state court judge seats.

None of those firms have said publicly whether they will follow Vinson’s lead in covering travel expenses for out-of-state abortions.

“For a large law firm that might have significant interests before the state, with the state, and or in courts, a large political contribution if nothing else buys a certain amount of access if and when it’s needed,” said Joshua M. Blank, the director of research for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “It doesn’t guarantee an outcome. But, these law firms can justify this as part of the service they provide to clients.”

Hunton has donated $165,000 apiece to Abbott and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) since 2015, according to data from Transparency USA, a non-partisan organization tracking political spending at the state level. Norton Rose’s PAC has donated $150,000 to Abbott since 2015, while Jackson Walker has contributed $20,000 to the governor.

Vinson & Elkins has donated $137,500 to Abbott over the same time.

None of the firm PACs appear to have made campaign contributions to Beto O’Rourke, the El Paso Democrat challenging Abbott in the November election. Abbott holds a six-point lead over O’Rourke among likely voters, down from an 11-point margin in April, according to a June poll by the University of Texas.

The state has not had a Democrat governor in nearly three decades.

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the law firm and other employers’ promises to cover travel out of the state to receive abortions.

Life Beyond Lone Star

Founded in 1917 during an oil boom, Vinson & Elkins has built a reputation as a powerful Texas law firm with a prominent energy practice.

The firm more recently has pushed to establish itself as a viable player beyond the Lone Star State. It doubled its headcount in New York—where two of its four top executives are based—over the last five years to more than 100 lawyers. Vinson & Elkins also has offices in California, Washington, London and Tokyo, among other locations.

The firm’s leaders said in a March interview that they want to grow to 1,000 lawyers, which would represent a more than 40% increase in headcount. They’ll try to do that in a recruiting market in which lawyers have more mobility than ever before and increasingly want to know what firms stand for, according to Zimmermann.

“Talented lawyers that can practice anywhere, more of them are going to gravitate to places where they want to live and more of them are going to want to live where there’s more human rights than less,” he said.

Meghan Tribe contributed to the report.

To contact the reporter on this story: Justin Wise at jwise@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com