Vinson & Elkins will switch up its leadership model from a chair and managing partner duo to a four-member executive committee as the firm continues to push for growth far beyond its hometown of Houston.
Keith Fullenweider, a private equity focused lawyer based in Houston and co-head of the firm’s corporate department, will become Vinson & Elkins’ chair in January 2022, the firm announced late Monday.
He’ll work with a trio of vice chairs: New York-based corporate partner and office co-head James Fox, Dallas-based co-head of complex commercial litigation Michael Holmes, and New York and Austin, Texas-based IP and technology litigation chair Hilary Preston.
“We view this as a job of service, we’ve all had wonderfully successful careers beyond our wildest dreams at a firm we love, we’re kind of lifetime V&E-ers,” Fox said in an interview. “So we look at where we stand today and say ‘this is a real opportunity to give back to the firm and help our partners take their practices and the firm as a whole to the next level.’”
The leadership shuffle comes as the firm emerges from a better than expected 2020, due in part to its emphasis on renewable energy work, and looks to future possible hires in areas like private equity, litigation, and real estate.
The four newly elected leaders will replace chair Mark Kelly and managing partner Scott Wulfe, Houston-based corporate lawyers. The pair will have spent ten years in their positions by December, the maximum allowed for leaders at the firm.
The new group brings geographic diversity to leadership, Fox pointed out, as Vinson & Elkins itself builds out offices and clients in a greater variety of places. He also said the ranges of practice areas represented among the group would likely give it “a strong ability to lead into the future.”
Though the new leadership has more than half a year to prepare, the group projected growth as a central goal.
“I think whether it’s the first hundred days or the longer term plan, it’s about expanding to markets and geographies that are not currently our core markets and geographies,” said Holmes.
Growth plans may be bolstered by the firm’s resilience during a pandemic that left many Big Law firms in far better financial straits than initially projected.
Vinson & Elkins’ profits per equity partner grew to $2.9 million last year, up 5.1% over 2019, while its revenue slipped slightly by 1.3% to $782.4 million, according to Am Law figures.
The firm is in the process of finding office space in Los Angeles, one growth area. Most of the six renewable energy partners Vinson & Elkins hired from Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in February are in LA.
Fullenweider said the firm can envision adding lawyers to work on private equity, real estate, project finance, and litigation in the city, in addition to recently hired investment funds partner Emily Stephens.
The new team cited its real estate practice as another key area of growth, and touted the firm’s work in digital infrastructure, which includes data centers and fiberoptics.
Vinson & Elkins benefited in 2020 from a two decade long commitment to building its renewable energy work, according to Fullenweider.
“Conventional energy has been a bit slow, frankly, for the last several years,” Fullenweider said. “We had a remarkable year last year in renewables and I believe we did as many, if not more, renewables M&A transactions than conventional energy transactions, which was a pretty remarkable thing for any firm.”
Traditional oil and gas companies have recently hit the wrong end of a boom-bust cycle, and last year’s massive drop in oil prices spurred by Covid-19 lockdowns dealt another blow.
On the litigation side, Preston expects more courtroom work to emerge as Covid-19 in the U.S. recedes.
“Over the next 12 to 18 months the opportunities here are going to be huge for our associates that are looking to do trial work, and I think there will be a strong demand for people who can handle that kind of work and want to get on your feet experience.”
Preston, who is one of a small but growing number of female leaders in Big Law, said she sees other growth areas too. These include tech-related disputes, international arbitration, bankruptcy litigation, and securities litigation, as well as investigations that were either paused or slowed down during the Trump administration.
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