Yvette Ostolaza: “I plan to stay in Dallas. Not moving.”
They were the “Seven Plus One.”
Seven women and one male equity partners in the Dallas office of Weil Gotshal in September 2013 made headlines when they packed up their offices in the Crescent Office Building and walked four blocks to Sidley Austin, which had only a couple dozen lawyers at the time.
Leading the Seven Plus One was Yvette Ostolaza, a first-generation Cuban American who grew up in a working-poor neighborhood of Miami, who learned English from watching Sesame Street and whose family told her she was crazy for thinking about going to college.
Neither going to college and law school nor moving to Sidley seems so crazy now.
Ostolaza, whose hourly rate is in the $1,400 neighborhood and represents dozens of major corporations, takes over Friday as chair of the management committee at Chicago-founded Sidley, a 2,000-lawyer global corporate law firm that reported nearly $2.8 billion in revenue in 2021. Ostolaza and executive committee chair Michael Schmidtberger, a Chicago partner, will co-lead Sidley’s operations.
At 57, she is the first Latina and the first Texan to lead a top 50 global corporate law firm.
“When Sidley hired Yvette and the Weil team eight years ago, I bet they knew they were getting great and dynamic lawyers, but no one at Sidley thought they were hiring the future top leader of the firm,” said Zeughauser Group law firm consultant Kent Zimmermann.
“Yvette’s accession to the top at Sidley is a testament to her and her leadership abilities and to the increased role that Texas now plays in the future strategic planning of corporate law firms,” Zimmermann said. “Yvette is the first Texan to lead a global law firm, but you can bet she will not be the last.”
“Yvette is the great American success story,” he said.
In Texas, Sidley Also Rises
Ostolaza’s rise at Sidley came as the firm dramatically increased its presence in Texas.
Sidley had fewer than 50 attorneys in Texas in 2012, the year before Ostolaza and the Seven Plus One joined. The firm also opened a Houston office in 2012. Not long after joining Sidley in 2013, the firm made her the head of its Dallas office and added her to its management and executive committees.
The result: Sidley grew in Texas from 70 attorneys and $78 million in revenues in 2014 to 192 attorneys and $250 million in 2021. Among the Texas Lawbook 50, the firm jumped from 31st in revenues to 10th.
“We had an absolutely fabulous year in 2021 in Texas and in all of our offices,” Ostolaza told The Texas Lawbook. “We continue to grow in Texas. We are hiring in Texas and in every city and in every practice group.
“Sidley and the world truthfully is less dependent on location than ever before,” she said. “Our firm looks for the best people no matter where they are located.”
Clients swear by Ostolaza.
“If Yvette tells me something, I listen,” says SAExploration General Counsel David Rassin. “Yvette is thoughtful, strategic, brilliant, straight-forward and an incredibly good communicator. My board loves her. I love her.”
Ostolaza said being the leader of a firm like Sidley is “truly a dream come true.”
In 2021 interview, outgoing Sidley management committee chair Larry Barden said Ostolaza is “natural” for the role.
“But the election of Yvette to the chair-elect role is not driven by our future growth plans for Dallas, which are significant, but by our plans for the firm,” Barden said. “Yvette is a highly talented leader who already is managing on a firmwide basis and with a global perspective.”
Ostolaza served as co-chair of Sidley’s global litigation practice, which has more than 800 lawyers. She plans to “maintain my full practice” of litigation and internal corporate investigations.
“It is important for leaders to stay in contact with clients,” she said. “I plan to spend time in each office talking with our lawyers about the challenges ahead, but I plan to stay in Dallas. Not moving.”
Sidley partner Angela Zambrano, who worked with Ostolaza at Weil and is co-managing partner of Sidley’s Dallas office, said Ostolaza’s “positive take on the world is her secret weapon.”
“Yvette has an amazing talent to see into the future,” Zambrano said. “She sees firm leaders in junior associates, office administrators in legal assistants and future general counsel in summer associates. Then she takes that vision and does everything she possibly can to give the person the opportunity to achieve that goal.
“She sees trends around corners, exudes energy and forward motion in a shifting marketplace, looks for the positives in everything and is singularly dedicated to ‘her people,’ meaning her clients and her colleagues across the firm,” she said.
EnLink Midstream Chief Legal Officer Alaina Brooks said Ostolaza goes out of her way to support her law firm colleagues and corporate clients.
“Some lawyers become more of relationship builders as they progress in their career,” Brooks said in an interview last year. “Yvette definitely has that skill, but she also remains a tireless advocate and innovative legal thinker. She is a tremendous lawyer. I trust her counsel without question.”
“You are calling Sunshine Carpets”
Ostolaza, 12, with her parents
Ostolaza’s parents, who now live in Dallas, fled Cuba in 1960 and settled in Miami. They started a handful of businesses that ranged from painting houses and putting up fences to carpet cleaning and even a printing company.
“As a young child, I learned to answer the phone like I was part of the business,” Ostolaza said. “I put on a deep voice, ‘Hello, you are calling Sunshine Carpets.’
“My grandmother sold Avon, and so I took Avon catalogues with me to middle school to try to sell to my teachers and fellow students,” she said. “The attitude in the Cuban community was, how soon can you get a paying job that helps out your family.”
During high school, Ostolaza lied about her age so that she could work at Sears to make extra money for the family.
Thinking she should work in her parents’ business, Ostolaza almost didn’t go to college. But a high school calculus teacher intervened and told her she “would be crazy to not go to college.”
“I planned to do what all good Cuban girls did – get married, get a job and help the family,” she said.
Thankfully, the folks giving SAT exams allowed Ostolaza to take the college entrance tests as a walk-in. She aced it. She applied at the last minute to the University of Miami. The college not only accepted her, but it gave her a full academic scholarship.
Ostolaza, despite working nearly full time, whizzed through college in three years.
Eastern Airlines hired her for a marketing position that paid well and allowed her to travel the world. As part of the job, she worked with the airline’s legal department. That is when she caught the lawyer bug.
“My family thought I was crazy to quit this high paying job to go to law school because all they knew about lawyers were the criminal defense lawyers who advertised in our neighborhood,” she said. “My parents were shocked at my decision.”
To be sure, law school and the world of legal language and procedures were foreign territory for Ostolaza at the start.
In her first class, which was torts, the professor started the lecture discussing the rights of plaintiffs and defendants. Confused, Ostolaza leaned toward the classmate sitting next to her.
“What’s a plaintiff? And what are torts?”
The classmate responded, “You are kidding, right?”
She was not, but she survived and thrived. She graduated magna cum laude and served as articles editor for the University of Miami Business Law Journal.
“The lesson was there is no shame in not knowing everything,” she said. “You have to ask questions. You have to observe. Most things in life are learned.”
During law school, Ostolaza did a summer clerkship with former U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson. The Dallas office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges offered her a summer associate spot, which she accepted.
The following year, Weil offered Ostolaza a position in 1991 as an associate in its litigation practice paying $69,500 a year. Weil paid significantly above the other Texas law firms at the time.
Ostolaza spent 22 years at Weil, where she rose in the ranks to lead the firm’s complex commercial litigation practice and was a member of Weil’s management committee.
“I loved my time there,” she said. “It is a great firm.”
Ostolaza’s first big jury trial as lead counsel came in a lawsuit she filed in 1996 for her client High Caliber Gun & Knife Shows against the City of Houston.
The city passed an ordinance that required gun show operators using city convention space or arenas to hire off-duty police officers to examine the government-issued identifications of every person entering the show and to get them to sign a document declaring all weapons in their position.
“We argued that the ordinance was unduly burdensome and did not even address the concerns the city had in drafting the ordinance,” she said.
U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon granted summary judgment for Ostolaza’s client. A three-day jury trial followed. The jury awarded $329,000 in damages against the city and awarded Ostolaza $54,442 in legal fees.
Houston officials appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Ostolaza argued the appeal to a three-judge panel, which handed her a unanimous decision affirming the lower court judgment.
“I was so nervous while the jury was out,” she said. “Even though I am confident in my case and my preparation, I am never overconfident about what a jury or a judge might rule.
“The great thing is that client is still my client to this day,” she said. “I love that our profession allows us to have long-term relationships with people and companies.”
clients: the motive for moving
In 2013, Ostolaza led a group of seven women equity partners and a male partner at Weil to jump to Sidley’s Dallas office. The Texas Lawbook called them “The Weil Seven Plus One” – a name that stuck.
“Moving was more about my clients,” she said. “Sidley was in the right cities for my clients, and it has the right balance between corporate transactional, regulatory and litigation. Moving was not a decision I made lightly, but it was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.”
In 2016, Ostolaza became an outspoken advocate of the Dallas Women Lawyers Association’s effort to convince the Dallas Bar Association to add a permanent position on the DBA’s governing board for a DWLA member. The DBA board initially balked, but Ostolaza and more than 600 Dallas area lawyers, judges, general counsel and law school deans signed a petition supporting the move.
The DBA reversed course and added an extra voting seat for DWLA members.
In 2019, Ostolaza spearheaded a heated legal battle for Texas Pacific Land Trust, one of the largest private landowners in the state. The dispute stemmed from a contentious proxy fight between TPL and a group of activist investors who were seeking a seat at the table when one of TPL’s coveted board of trustee seats opened up.
Though the matter settled within three months, the litigation included a lengthy and detailed complaint, punches and counter-punches in a hefty countersuit, and even navigating a rogue board meeting in Sidley’s Dallas office.
Ostolaza is also a committed believer in lawyers giving back to the community. She and Sidley together with Dallas-based Celanese Corporation and Haynes and Boone were the recipients of the 2020 DFW Outstanding Corporate Counsel Award for Pro Bono and Public Service for their extraordinary work on asylum cases on the border. (You can read more on that here.)
“Big corporate law firms such as Sidley can help change people’s lives through pro bono,” she said. “Big law firms can dedicate a lot of resources to address issues that are systemic in our society and do it in a meaningful way.”
Ostolaza obviously recognizes the significance of her being the first Hispanic woman to lead a top 50 corporate law firm.
“I have never felt that being Hispanic was a negative to my career and being able to speak two languages has certainly been a positive,” she said. “I’ve felt more discrimination as a woman than as a Hispanic.”
Numerous male lawyers earlier in her career advised her to try a transactional practice because she is a mother.
“Honey, you don’t want to be a trial lawyer and away from your family all the time,” she said they told her.
“None of us are perfect, and all of us look through the lens of where we came from,” she said. “I am proud that 50 percent of the Dallas partners are women.”
Cliff Vrielink, a Sidley corporate transactional partner and co-head of Sidley’s Houston office, said Ostolaza is an amazing lawyer and the perfect choice to lead the law firm.
“Yvette is tireless and settles for nothing but the best,” said Vrielink, who is a member of Sidley’s executive committee. “Because of these traits, she not only has incredible client loyalty but also has attracted and assembled a team of amazing, talented, hard-working lawyers who are at the top of the profession.”
“Another reason that Yvette will be a terrific chair is that she is an incredibly compassionate, caring and fun-loving person,” he said. “During Covid, she sent clients Shake Shack burger packages to help celebrate the Fourth of July. She organized a drive-in movie event and she reached out and called summer associates to make sure they were comfortable coming to the office and getting the most of their summer experience.
“She didn’t do any of these things because she had to,” he said. “She did it because she is passionate about people.”