With Hispanic Heritage Month coming to a close, Norton Rose Fulbright Chief Operating Officer Stacey Martinez has some words of wisdom for other Hispanic and minority lawyers: Stop trying so hard to fit in.
Martinez knows firsthand that doing so hasn’t always served her well. It happened first growing up in Nederland, Texas, a small, predominantly white refinery town 93 miles east of Houston near the Texas-Louisiana border. To blend in, her parents didn’t encourage her to learn Spanish, despite her family’s fluency in it, so she didn’t.
It happened again at the beginning of her legal career, when she was trying to find her voice in the white male-dominated life science litigation practice.
“One of the lessons I have learned on my journey is to not be afraid to state your position or opinion on an issue,” she said. “At times it seems daunting, particularly when you are younger, but the unique point of view you have from where you came from and how you grew up is valuable.”
Learning this lesson has helped Martinez work her way up the ladder at Norton Rose Fulbright, where she has spent her entire 35-year legal career. After serving in multiple leadership positions, including partner in charge of the firm’s Austin office and global co-head of the life sciences and healthcare practice, Martinez became COO in 2020. Today, she’s one of four women — and one of three minority women — on the firm’s nine-member management committee.
“While we are proud of the strides we have made toward greater gender and racial equity, firm leadership does not view this as a completed task,” she said. “We feel it is incumbent upon all members in our community to fortify the infrastructure we have developed, continuing to cultivate and foster programs that ensure a culture that is not just equal but aggressively fair.”
She also helps younger minority and female attorneys be more comfortable in their own skin.
“As a result of me trying to fit in and not being my authentic self in the early part of my career, I can see when others are doing the same,” Martinez said. “I try my best to talk them through it and work with them to be comfortable with their own style and who they are as both a person and a lawyer.”
In the following Q&A, Martinez discusses more about her family heritage and path from litigation associate to COO, how the firm has benefited from having women of color in high-ranking leadership positions, the difference between sponsorship and mentorship and the firm’s overall philosophy on diversity, equity and inclusion.
Editor’s Note: This Q&A has been slightly edited to match stylistic guidelines.
The Texas Lawbook: Tell me a little bit about yourself — where you grew up, what your parents did, and were there any lawyers in the family?
Stacey Martinez: I grew up in Nederland, Texas, which is a small community close to the Gulf of Mexico where some of the biggest oil and gas refineries are located. Both of my grandfathers worked in the industry – one for Texaco and the other for Gulf Oil. My maternal grandmother worked in our school cafeteria. My paternal grandmother, Amelia Martinez, was the oldest of eight children. She left school during the sixth grade to help contribute to the family finances. During her younger days[years], she picked cotton and worked in a beauty shop. She became a welder during the war and then opened a drapery shop where she sewed drapes for Sears and Roebuck. She ultimately started a Mexican food restaurant – La Suprema. None of my grandparents had college degrees.
My father received a college degree in sociology. He primarily worked as a salesperson for a variety of industries until he went to work in the refinery as well. My mother graduated from high school but did not go to college. She was a secretary for the National Maritime Union until she started working in the restaurant with my grandmother. She and my grandmother were the driving forces behind its success and it is still in my family today.
I am the oldest child on both sides of my family. When I was young, my grandfather, Valente Martinez, would only speak to me in Spanish as he wanted me to learn the language. Interestingly, we lived in a community that was not very diverse and there were only a handful of ethnic students in my high school. My parents wanted me to “fit in” so they did not really encourage me to speak a different language. As a result, regretfully, I never learned Spanish.
There are not any other lawyers in my family — I was the first.
Lawbook: How and when did a career in the law first come to mind?
Martinez: I graduated college with a degree in accounting and worked as an accountant for a year or so, but it was not for me. My mom always wanted to be a lawyer, and I took her advice when she suggested I go to law school. At the time, it was the path of least resistance, but it turned out to be the right choice for me.
Lawbook: Tell me about your career path from life sciences litigator to COO of a major global firm. How did that transition come about?
Martinez: When I started at what was then Fulbright & Jaworski, I was on the insurance defense team trying a variety of cases for insurance companies. I then moved to the medical malpractice team and ultimately ended up handling pharmaceutical product liability cases.
Around 2004, I was asked to take over the pro bono committee for the firm’s Austin office. We put together a program to handle asylum cases, which was an incredibly rewarding experience. I then joined the diversity committee, which was eye-opening because of the importance of the issues and the intense commitment of the group to do better. A few years later, I became the administrative partner for the Austin office and then took on the role of partner-in-charge. I have since served on several firm committees. In 2018, I stepped down as the head of the Austin office to take on the role of global co-head of life sciences and healthcare.
When Jeff Cody became the managing partner of the firm in 2020, he asked me to take on the chief operating officer role. His pitch was that my previous experience within the firm would be accretive to this new role. He was right in some ways, but there has definitely been a learning curve. Overall, it has been a very fulfilling experience.
Lawbook: What have been some of your biggest lessons learned — first as a Hispanic life sciences litigator and later as you worked your way up the Big Law ladder?
Martinez: One of the lessons I have learned on my journey is to not be afraid to state your position or opinion on an issue. At times it seems daunting, particularly when you are younger, but the unique point of view you have from where you came from and how you grew up is valuable. It does not always change the path of a decision, but it certainly makes others think about it from a different perspective, which is one of the things that makes diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) so important.
Litigation was still a very male-dominated area of law in the 1990s and 2000s. If you did not have good role models, you could get lost or be seen as irrelevant. The female litigators with whom I worked were incredible trial lawyers and role models. They were equals with everyone, whether it be in the courtroom or the boardroom. Although they were not always treated as such, they stood their ground and didn’t take a back seat to anyone. It was so helpful and inspiring to watch and learn how to represent yourself and your clients in that type of environment.
Lastly, as a result of me trying to fit in and not being my authentic self in the early part of my career, I can see when others are doing the same. I try my best to talk them through it and work with them to be comfortable with their own style and who they are as both a person and a lawyer.
Lawbook: Describe a time when having a Hispanic or other minority voice in the room made a significant difference.
Martinez: Our U.S. management committee has benefited greatly from having three members who are women of color, but it was particularly profound during our discussions in 2020 following George Floyd’s murder. These diverse viewpoints were important as we considered how to provide support to all of our people. Soon after, we formed the firm’s Racial Equity Council. This council has developed and implemented many initiatives to help recruit, retain and promote our Black lawyers and non-lawyer personnel.
The success of our firm’s Racial Equity Council has led to the formation of our Minority Equity Council, serving all of our racially and ethnically diverse personnel, and our Women in Norton Rose Fulbright (WiN) Council, which supports our women firmwide. A diverse leadership team gave us a broader perspective, which contributed to us making a positive difference across the firm.
Lawbook: How does diversity come into play when running the firm’s operations?
Martinez: DEI are core values and business imperatives at Norton Rose Fulbright. We believe that personnel who bring a variety of competencies and perspectives will best meet the needs of our increasingly diverse client base. Our DEI strategy is purposely broad and covers a variety of areas: ethnic and cultural diversity, gender diversity, sexual orientation and gender identity, among others. As one of the largest law firms in the world, we are using our global status to organize our diversity efforts internationally. There is at least one diversity professional in each of our five global regions who manages and measures these initiatives.
Lawbook: When it comes to law firm diversity, what is the overall feedback from firm clients on that topic? How has the demand for diverse legal teams evolved since you first started practicing?
Martinez: Nurturing and growing DEI initiatives with our clients is crucial to our firm. We have established national DEI recruiting and development programs to partner with our clients to build a pipeline of diverse candidates for the firm and the profession of law more broadly.
Additionally, our firm has achieved and maintained “certified plus” status in Diversity Lab’s Mansfield Rule initiative, which measures whether law firms have affirmatively considered at least 30 percent of women, lawyers of color, LGBTIQ+ and lawyers with disabilities for formal client pitch opportunities, leadership positions and other promotions. We also regularly partner with clients to provide DEI-focused content to the legal community, in an effort to continue important conversations, empower and learn together. Through these efforts, we present a stronger united force for change in the profession while strengthening our relationships with valued clients.
Lawbook: How has diversity recruitment and retention changed at law firms from the time you first joined the firm in 1988 to now?
Martinez: Recruiting and retention methods have changed substantially over the course of my career. We are now focused on the recruitment of diverse lawyers not only within the junior ranks but also at a senior level. One recent example is last year’s addition of an 11-lawyer team from minority-owned law firm Blackwell Burke, some of whom served as pro bono counsel in the successful prosecution of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.
The firm works with multiple universities to provide resources for diverse students interested in law school. These resources include résumé writing and interviewing workshops, networking, legal writing and other professional development skills. We also participate in a mentorship program that pairs attorneys with diverse University of Texas law students throughout an entire school year.
We have also participated in various pipeline programs over the years aimed at increasing diversity in the legal industry and in the firm. We have partnered with Shell on an ABA-award-winning pipeline project, Tomorrow’s Attorney Pipeline Program, which exposes diverse high school students to a variety of practice areas, motivates those students to consider a career in law and creates awareness of resources that can help them prepare to attend and ultimately succeed in law school.
Lawbook: Your firm seems to put an emphasis on the difference between sponsorship and mentorship and that there is an appropriate time and place for both. What does that distinction mean to you, and what have you found to be the most effective ways for senior lawyers to participate in both with young diverse attorneys?
Martinez: Research shows that formal sponsorship programs have a positive effect on individuals and organizations, especially in increasing diversity at senior levels. Although it is often compared to mentorship, sponsorship differs significantly in that mentorship can be executed privately while sponsorship is designed to be highly visible. An influential sponsor goes beyond giving general career feedback and advice. Done well, sponsorship can serve as a highly effective intervention to accelerate the careers of diverse lawyers.
We have three sponsorship programs at Norton Rose Fulbright targeting mid-levels and up that provide opportunities, networks and leadership to establish a diverse talent pipeline of leaders poised to take the reins of their markets. Our Racial Equity Council Sponsorship Program is designed to maximize opportunities for Black non-partner lawyers to succeed at the firm, the Mid-level Development Sponsorship Program aims to improve pipeline retention of our top level-2 minority associates challenged by natural attrition and the Leadership Development Sponsorship Program is designed to enhance firm succession planning activities and develop a strong pipeline of minority and female leaders as they look towards partnership.
We also have two formal mentoring programs aimed at providing a platform for the development and retention of firm associates. Mentor and mentee relationships offer benefits at all stages of one’s career, encouraging the personal and professional growth of both new and experienced lawyers and promoting an understanding of our firm’s culture. We have also started a mentorship program for our business services personnel as well.
Lawbook: Norton Rose Fulbright appears to have made significant strides in hiring and promoting diverse talent in recent years. For example, 19 of the 27 first-year associates hired in 2020 were women or lawyers of color and three of the nine members of the firm’s management committee are women of diverse ethnic backgrounds. What have you found to be one or two of the most effective ways to both diversify the pool of candidates to recruit from and diversify the leadership ranks?
Martinez: It is important to us to recruit, retain and promote diverse lawyers and nurture them to take on senior leadership roles. Our firm wants to ensure that its pipeline for leadership is inclusive of all who contribute to its success. Our partners work to identify diverse talent to ensure diverse representation. The strategy includes developing women and minority non-partner lawyers as successors for key roles with our clients and partnership through three unique sponsorship programs.
While we are proud of the strides we have made toward greater gender and racial equity, firm leadership does not view this as a completed task. We feel it is incumbent upon all members in our community to fortify the infrastructure we have developed, continuing to cultivate and foster programs that ensure a culture that is not just equal but aggressively fair. We are primed to effect real and lasting change for our racially/ethnically diverse and female personnel, the firm and in our communities, and we will continue to develop and execute plans of action to enact meaningful change.
Lawbook: What are your tips for retaining diverse talent?
Martinez: Our firm has had formal DEI efforts in place for decades and has continued to expand and refine them over the years. Our racial affinity groups exemplify how diversity plays a crucial role in our business – these groups were launched with the intent to foster professional development, create opportunities for networking and business development and expand daily interaction within our communities and beyond.
We currently have three racial affinity networks: Asian, Black and Latinx. These affinity networks provide a forum for our diverse lawyers and business services professionals to network, exchange ideas and engage with firm leadership. The groups also help attract candidates during the recruiting process and diversify our talent pipeline. In addition, our Racial Equity Council, Minority Equity Council, the Women in Norton Rose Fulbright (WiN) Council, Pride Network and Veterans Network are all actively engaged in support of all personnel.
To more specifically engage and address the needs and interests of its members, each network is tasked with organizing and implementing its own initiatives. Leadership for each network develops an annual strategic plan focusing on issues of concern to their members. These groups, which are open to all firm personnel and include allies, lead to higher employee engagement and retention and help us identify and mentor future firm leaders.
Lawbook: Has the firm increased its recruiting efforts in Texas with law schools known to have a more diverse student body, such as UNT’s law school?
In 2020, we established the Norton Rose Fulbright Diversity Fellowship, which is open to all students and provides scholarship funds to assist with law school tuition and related expenses for 1L and 2L summer associates. Since its inception, we have awarded around $100,000 in scholarships. We also partner with student organizations and affinity groups at law schools across Texas to engage with and recruit 1L and 2L summer associates, and 33 percent of our law school outreach events annually are diversity-focused events.
Lawbook: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Martinez: My Hispanic grandmother fought so hard for everything she earned. As I mentioned earlier, she didn’t have a high school education, but she worked hard and taught herself how to not only survive but succeed in all of her endeavors, including how to run her own business. Hearing her stories of struggle and how she overcame being seen as a second-class citizen because of her heritage was immensely powerful. Being part of her journey later in life taught me so many things — how to solve problems on your own, how to speak up, the importance of being strong and capable and doing the right thing. It taught me to be resourceful and to find a way to be successful no matter your gender or race.