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Making Partner in a Pandemic: Vinson & Elkins’ Quentin L. Smith

March 15, 2021, 9:41 AM

Like many people, I had grand plans of conquering the new year as 2020 started and I was on the right track. In January, I finished my last Leadership Council on Legal Diversity (LCLD) Fellows meeting where I met fantastic attorneys from across the profession. In February, I mock tried a jury trial for a large upcoming trial. And during the first few days of March, I participated in a firm-wide diversity conference, entertained clients at an Eagles concert, and took a trip across the country with another client to celebrate a recent litigation victory.

I thought, maybe, if a few things go my way, I might have a good case for making partner at my firm, Vinson & Elkins. The very next week, everything changed.

On March 11, 2020, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that the city of Houston was shutting down its largest annual event, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, because of “community spread” of Covid-19. An NBA basketball game stopped mid-game and the season was postponed after a player tested positive for Covid-19. And news broke that Tom Hanks tested positive. These were like scenes out of movies.

The same week, V&E’s coastal offices closed, followed shortly by the firm’s Texas offices, moving the entire firm to a remote working environment. For the most part, there was no change in my ability to work because like many lawyers in 2020, I already had to be able to work anywhere.

But the thought of not interacting in-person with my colleagues, clients, witnesses, judges, and arbitrators was concerning. What was going to happen next? Would 2020 be a bust? Would all my matters just stop?

Racial Unrest Impacted My Goals

Before I could find answers to those questions, the country began to erupt with racial unrest. First, individuals of Asian decent began to face discrimination based on the believed origins of Covid-19. Then, social media platforms and news outlets began to rebroadcast the horrific killings of Ahmad Aubrey and George Floyd. Like many, I watched thousands of people across the globe protest for justice and reform.

Perhaps realizing the compounding pressures of having to perform at a high level while working from home, during the midst of racial unrest as a Black attorney, I received check-in calls from various firm leaders and colleagues. I will forever be appreciative of the colleagues who reached out, including Mark Kelly, our firm’s chairman, and many others.

After a few days of contemplating the “new normal,” I decided the world was not stopping. I decided to make the best of it and focus on what I could control. I would work toward accomplishing many of my prior goals, being creative in this virtual environment. I also vowed to do more on the diversity and inclusion front, given the increased awareness surrounding those issues.

Alongside great colleagues at the firm, I forged ahead with virtual depositions, mediations, and hearings. We obtained several favorable judgments for our clients and a complete dismissal of a seven-figure claim against another. As to internal diversity and inclusion efforts, I organized a firm-wide diversity call, attended by over 200 lawyers across the world, starting a conversation that continued for hours.

Finally, I threw myself into virtual recruiting, meeting with summer associates from across the firm and reconnecting with those law students I helped to recruit to the firm nearly a year prior. Throughout the summer, I addressed candid questions from concerned law students about the firm and its response to the pandemic and recent racial justice events.

Outside of work, I found ways to interact with clients, engage in the community, and help advance diversity in the legal profession. Through my various networks I was able to bring several new clients to V&E, and expand relationships with existing clients by bringing in new matters. I also maintained client relationships by delivering CLEs and hosting firm-sponsored virtual events with the Houston Symphony and the Theatre under the Stars.

Working in the community, I took part in virtual mock trial arguments with local diverse students, acting as a judge and a coach in a series of mock trial arguments. As a member of the steering committee for the Texas Minority Counsel Program, I was able to play a small role in a successful virtual conference. Finally, I stayed engaged with my LCLD community through our lively 2019 Fellows GroupMe chat, which has allowed attorneys to exchange ideas on how to make the legal profession a better place for everyone.

By mid-summer, I was focused on tackling one day at a time, thankful for health and safety during the midst of a pandemic.

While I was focused on navigating these significant shifts in my daily life, I was surprised when I received a call from Jim Thompson, V&E’s co-head of litigation, telling me that the firm was putting me up for partner. The partnership admissions process flew by. Unlike typical years where a member from the partnership admissions committee may stop by your office or invite you for coffee, all of my partnership conversations were held by video conference. Although atypical, the conversations flowed well as everyone was familiar with video conferencing by that time.

Focus on What You Can Control

The firm publicly announced my promotion while my wife and I were welcoming our first child into the world—providing a spectacular ending to an otherwise tumultuous year.

If there is a lesson I learned from making partner during a pandemic and amid racial unrest, it is this: focus on what you can control and do what you can to put yourself in the best position to reach your goals. I also realized that the saying that “it takes a village to raise a child” is also true for newly promoted law firm partners. I would have not made partner at V&E if it were not for my village—family, colleagues, clients, and friends.

As a partner, I look forward to helping clients achieve their various goals, continuing the firm’s involvement in the community, and continuing the work that I have been doing to promote a diverse and inclusive environment for lawyers and staff in the firm and the broader legal community. I am lucky that V&E supports me in my work to achieve these goals and I look forward to playing my part to continue moving the ball forward every day.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Quentin L. Smith is a partner at Vinson & Elkins LLP where he represents clients in business, petrochemical, and energy disputes. He serves as general counsel to the Theatre Under the Stars, a trustee to the Houston Symphony, and a member of the steering committee.

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