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Hispanic Heritage: Reflections from a Leading Lawyer

Vinson & Elkins partner Francisco J. Morales Barrón sits down for a conversation about work, life, and his connection to Latin America.

Let’s begin with your experience at Vinson & Elkins. You’ve been at the firm for nearly a year now. What drove you to join, and what has stood out in your time here so far?

Well, reputation goes a long way in Big Law, so I knew that the firm fit my practice and career goals. Qualities like strength in industries that are poised for growth, deep experience and top-tier clients in the areas where I work, exceptional attorneys whose care and skill helps turn single matters into long-term business across multiple practice groups — these qualities spoke to me, and made me want to join.

But collegiality is what sets the firm apart. V&E reminds me of my rather short-lived college rowing career: each seat knows that to win we have to push together. No one is looking for all the accolades, all the awards, all the plaudits. People here work with one another — for one another. They care deeply about the firm. It’s unique, and I love it.

Your practice centers on corporate M&A — both the public and private sides. What led you to deal work?

You know, when I decided to study law, I saw myself becoming a litigator. But the more I learned about corporate law, the more I grew to like it. At Penn Law, I had the privilege of taking corporate-related classes with eminent scholars and practitioners in the space, and I always did better in these classes than in constitutional law.

As a practitioner, I have worked with, and against, the who’s who of M&A, and seeing them in action has reinforced my belief that my professional calling is in the corporate world. The teamwork, the client calls, the numbers, the moving pieces, the quarterbacking of multiple advisors in multiple jurisdictions, the high-stakes negotiations — I enjoy all of it.

The top M&A advisors transcend the role of simply being a client’s legal counsel. It’s a complex space. It moves fast, and pressure often runs high. But it’s in those high-pressure moments that I feel most in my element. Time slows, and my focus sharpens.

A remarkable mentality. I hope you don’t take it for granted.

Thanks — and believe me, I’m grateful for it. Keeping calm in key moments has been crucial in helping me deliver for my clients over the years.

A principle for how you approach your work, it sounds like.

Not exactly. The principle is more like staying true to yourself — being authentic. Calmness works for me in professional settings because it’s an extension of who I try to be in life. Plenty of attorneys succeed with other approaches.

But if we’re talking work principles, another big one for me is self-care. Someone once told me: “Do less to do more” — meaning, sleep, eat well, take time off, spend time with people you love, things like that. Making space for life will do wonders for your ability to be your best at work. It certainly has for me.

And then just decisiveness. In my early career, I was obsessed with every technicality, no matter how trivial. Of course, I’m still tuned into the details and any risks they could introduce. The difference now is how I interpret them. Laying out a clear path forward for clients, rather than just laying out all the possible paths, has been a game-changer for my practice.

Turning now to your personal background: You grew up in Mexico. Tell us about your connection to the country.

My family is from Mexico City, and I grew up in Guadalajara. My mother taught math at my school; my father worked for the federal government. I spoke Spanish at home with my family, and in my neighborhood, but mostly English at school.

Mexico was home. But I got an amazing opportunity to attend a top school in the United States on a generous financial aid package, so I became the first member of my family to leave home — much less Mexico — to study.

So, you didn’t yet want to be an attorney.

It hadn’t crossed my mind. I set out to study applied mathematics and theatre, but quickly realized that I wasn’t cut out for a career in math. And though I loved theater, particularly dramaturgy, the discipline was very Euro-centric in the early aughts, and I found myself alienated from most of the theater crowd. At first, that led me to East Asian theatre — but eventually, to studying political science and East Asia more broadly.

This was nearly 20 years ago. China was rising, and a deep interest in the country took me through three-and-a-half years of intensive Mandarin practice, including coursework at Tsinghua University in Beijing. I had a job offer in the city, and was going to stay. But after five years away from Mexico, I had begun to miss it.

You got homesick.

Pretty much. And returning in my early 20s deepened my connection to the country. I traveled around areas I had never been. I worked for a Mexican public affairs firm, learning much about advising clients and building relationships with them. I met my now-wife, Ruth.

I grew a lot in two years — professionally and personally. But Ruth is from the States, and she wanted to return for grad school. This, I thought, would be an opportunity for me to do the same. She chose Latin American literature; I chose law.

In college, I had some exposure to U.S. legal scholarship: I wrote my senior essay on whether battered women should constitute a protected class for U-visa status, and every year, I attended the first lecture of Akhil Reed Amar’s constitutional law course, even though I never managed to actually take it. Professor Amar would start his lecture on the brilliance of the U.S. Constitution, and I was always captivated by him — or, more precisely, his telling of the founding fathers’ genius.

Do you maintain ties to Mexico?

I do. Ruth and I now live in New York with our two children, but I still have family in Mexico, and we visit them when we can. Also, with the firm continuing to build its presence in the country — and in Latin America more generally — I’ve had the opportunity to visit on business in recent months as well. But I’ve lived outside Mexico now for just as long as I lived in it. And my identity — how I connect to the country — has evolved substantially.

How so?

Well, when I arrived in the States, I felt strongly about my Mexican identity — so strongly that I co-founded the Yale Mexican Student Organization. The thing is, Yale already had several excellent organizations for people of Latin heritage — especially La Casa Cultural, the Latin American Student Organization, and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán — but I didn’t exactly see myself as Latino. I saw myself as …

Distinctly Mexican?

Yes. Or to be more precise, I felt that because of my upbringing, I wouldn’t be able to relate to the challenges faced by U.S. Latinos. But now, with more life experience, I realize how exclusionary — and misguided — my thinking was.

Right. People are people, and we as a society should be inclusive of everyone.

Especially as it relates to opportunities in life. I’ll never forget when I was first interviewed for a student visa at the U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara. A consulate employee asked me, “Why do you get to attend a top-tier American school, when I never got to?”

My response was: “Luck, I guess.” At 18, I didn’t know what to make of this interaction, other than that it left a bad taste in my mouth. But having revisited it often, and now that I have spent half of my life in the United States and consider myself an American, I think it illustrates a continuous challenge for minorities in our nation: Even our success can sometimes stir resentment, and that resentment often leaves us doubting ourselves.

It’s certainly a challenge in the professional world.

Yes, and it often takes the form of impostor syndrome, which can undermine people’s careers. In some instances, careers do not even start because students think they will never have a shot. In other instances, even very established professionals face this self-doubt.

More broadly, people of diverse backgrounds are underrepresented in professional services, including our industry, and especially in the upper ranks. I sit on the New York City Bar’s Diversity Pipeline Initiatives Committee, participate in the New York City Bar’s Associate Leadership Institute, and am a member of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund Advisory Council, and we’re working hard to put that right.

Not just by getting more diverse applicants into colleges, law schools, and ultimately jobs, but by helping diverse professionals make connections, develop skills, and build a lasting career. Only by creating such networks will we be able to lift each other up.

What inspires you to make this kind of work part of your life?

Just an obligation to give back. Life has been good to me, and working to help people from historically disadvantaged groups, especially in pursuing a career where I’ve had some success, feels like a useful way to pay my advantages forward. I want to help anyone who needs it, whatever their background, and I think — given my ethnicity — the Latinx community is where I can make an especially meaningful impact.

Meet Francisco

Office: New York

Hometown: Guadalajara, Mexico

Law School: University of Pennsylvania

Some favorite activities outside work: Getting on my Concept2 and doing a 10K; dancing with my daughter and son; reading (a little bit about everything).

A favorite artist: Jean-Michel Basquiat. As a teenager, I watched a couple biographical dramas about him, and his work and life have fascinated me ever since.

A dream adventure: When I lived in Beijing, I dreamed of taking the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing all the way to Moscow, spending some time in West China, and writing about the experience. But I never found the time, and given today’s geopolitical reality, that train has left the station.

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.