Trailblazer from a young age
D. Jean Veta is an outstanding financial services regulation lawyer. She is an experienced government and private practice lawyer having worked as Deputy Associate Attorney General at the U.S Department of Justice before she joined Covington. While at Covington, her practice has focused on defending financial institutions and their officers and directors in civil and regulatory enforcement matters, government investigations, internal corporate investigations, and congressional investigations. Ms Veta is also active in pro bono work and has assisted numerous civil rights organisations over the years. She recently spoke to Chambers Women in Law about her experience in the legal world and the changing position of women in the law.
Whilst at law school, Jean began to shake the legal ranks. She was marked out as being a female trailblazer from early on in her career. “I was the first female editor-in-chief of the Tulane Law Review since World War II. I was told that the previous woman editor was a stand-in for the “real” students who were at war,” she says. Soon after Jean moved to Washington, D.C., to clerk for U.S. District Judge Harold H. Greene who had a big case on his hands–the break-up of the Bell telephone system. “Growing up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, I had always been drawn to the idea of working in Washington because it offered a combination of law, policy and politics. At Covington, I started off as a general litigator, but then became interested in the financial institutions practice.”
While an associate, Jean became involved in a key case that helped determine her future direction in law. “I worked on the Bank of Boston case in 1987. The bank had been accused of money laundering and the Senate Banking Committee launched its own inquiry. Charles F.C. Ruff, a revered partner at the firm, tapped me to help him mount a defense. We successfully navigated the politics of Capitol Hill and represented the bank in a series of Senate and House Committee hearings. After that case, I knew I had found my niche — defending banks (and their officers and directors) that get in trouble with the government.”
The Bank of Boston case helped pave the way for Jean and with the help of her Covington colleagues, she built the regulatory enforcement practice she has today. “I became the 8th woman to earn her partner stripes at Covington and the first female chair of the firm’s Financial Institutions practice group,” she tells us. Today, Jean’s practice includes the representation of clients on a broad array of regulatory enforcement matters, including safety and soundness, anti-money laundering, lending discrimination, and other government investigations.
Jean hit the pinnacle of her legal career through her work on the IndyMac Bancorp cases. “My proudest achievement so far has been representing Michael Perry, the former CEO of IndyMac Bancorp, in matters arising out of the failure of IndyMac Bank, including a fraud case brought by the SEC and a $600-million negligence lawsuit brought by the FDIC. We also represent Mr. Perry in other actions stemming from the bank’s failure, including purported securities class action lawsuits, mortgage-backed securities cases, and purported ERISA class action lawsuits.” What made this case such a ground-breaker for Jean? “This group of cases really calls upon the legal system to do the right thing in a very challenging environment. Everyone seems to be looking for a scapegoat to blame for the financial crisis. In the face of that, I represent someone who is being blamed, but who has done everything one could reasonably do as a CEO under the circumstances, to avert the collapse of his bank. It is challenging to get this message across at a time when no one wants to listen and everyone wants blood,” she states.
With success come challenges and the IndyMac Bancorp cases are no different. Jeans tells us that “the greatest challenge is dealing with thorny legal issues in high-stakes cases like IndyMac. I overcome them by surrounding myself with top-flight partners and associates.” Despite constant challenges, Jean has managed to succeed to the top of her legal game. “It has been a challenge to break into the top tier of white collar enforcement lawyers because it has long been a male dominated practice,” she reflects. “My strategy here is to be the best prepared lawyer in the room, figure out what motivates the opposition and where their weaknesses are, and then develop an approach to advance my client’s interest.”
Jean’s rise to the top was also encouraged by a number of supportive mentors. “I have been blessed with mentors–although almost all of them were men because women had not risen to the top as I was coming up through the ranks,” she says. “The two who stand out are Mark Weiss and Chuck Ruff. Chuck was, among other things, a Watergate special prosecutor and former U.S. Attorney. Clients ranging from Fortune 50 companies to sitting U.S. Senators turned to Chuck when they needed help. Indeed, [before his death,] Chuck served as White House Counsel to President Clinton and steered the White House through the president’s impeachment trial. Mark was instrumental in shaping the legal landscape for financial institutions and taught me most of what I know about this regulated industry. Both Mark and Chuck gave me good advice along the way, from how to think about a problem to dealing with clients to navigating private practice in a large firm. Both were extremely generous and gave me opportunities internally and with clients.”
Jean has channelled the supportive mentoring experience into her own role as a mentor to other women. This is yet another example Chambers has come across where a former mentee has made the transition to successful mentor. “Another part of my role as a lawyer that I take seriously is mentoring women. I was part of Covington’s effort to promote women lawyers and helped launch the American Bar Association Section of Litigation’s focus on “the Woman Advocate” in the 1990s. In the 1995 book, The Woman Advocate, I wrote a chapter entitled, ‘Grabbing the Brass Ring: Making Partner at a Large Firm.'”
Technology as a game changer
Jean believes that women have been able to cope with work and family life better than before through rapid advances in technology. “Technology has been a game changer — as both a blessing and a curse,” she says. “On the one hand, it has made it so much easier for all lawyers, but especially women lawyers, to keep up with the competing demands of work and family. On the other hand, we’re now expected to be available virtually 24/7. On balance, I think the positives probably outweigh the negatives.”
Like a lot of working mothers, Jean sets herself ground rules in order to make the best out of her family time however nothing is ever entirely straightforward. “It depends on what day it is,” she says. “Some days it’s a piece of cake, other days it’s impossible, and many days are somewhere in between,” she laughs. “Kidding aside, my life partner and I have three very active young children and we make it work with a lot of humor, good will and grace. We are constantly juggling but one thing that we always try to do is have dinner together as a family at 6:30 p.m. I often put the kids to bed and then turn my computer back on at 8:30 to keep working at home. When I am on the road, we talk at least once a day if not more. We just got iPads for the family and plan to start using the Face Time, so I can stay even more connected!”
Diversity from a client’s point of view
For Jean, it is mainly positive experiences that have turned into major opportunities in the law. “There were certainly some opportunities or assignments that I believe I did not get because I was a woman. However, they were fortunately the exception rather than the rule. By the same token, there have been times when being a woman has been an advantage — for example, because the in-house lawyer is a woman or because the client thinks a woman lawyer will be more sensitive to difficult inter-personal issues that may complicate a case. Putting aside these two extremes, I find that, most of the time, clients care more about a lawyer’s work than her gender.”
Jean believes it is the important not to get caught up in a purported dichotomy between diversity and competency. “It shouldn’t be a choice between a really good lawyer and a female lawyer,” she says. “It should be a choice between a really good lawyer and a really good female lawyer.” Client interest is a good reason for firms to adopt diversity initiatives too. “I think corporate diversity initiatives are very effective. When clients want to know what lawyers are handling their matters and the gender/diversity statistics of the legal team working on a matter, it sends a message to everyone that diversity counts.”