Photo by Laura Barisonzi.
Hector Gonzalez describes his Queens upbringing as a “stereotypical” refugee experience, but his life since then has been anything but ordinary. Born in Cuba and the first in his family to attend college, Gonzalez, a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, is chair of Dechert LLP’s global litigation practice and a member of the firm’s Policy Committee. The New York-based partner and white-collar specialist previously served stints in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, where he helped dismantle organized crimes families and major drug-trafficking rings. Gonzalez leads Dechert’s diversity and inclusion efforts, and is a board member of the Client Museum.
Lawdragon: Let’s touch on a few themes raised in our Roundtable with the white-collar team, including its success in making sure many investigations never get to a prosecution or even into public awareness. From the client side, what accounts for positive outcomes? What does it take to succeed in negotiations with regulatory and prosecutorial agencies?
Hector Gonzalez: Companies increasingly want to identify malfeasance as soon as they can, with the aim of reaching a favorable and discreet resolution. As companies have matured in compliance, they have improved in detecting issues earlier. So a successful outcome means having the internal controls to discover minor problems and address them before they snowball into crises. There is also a cultural shift to self-reporting, and a growing willingness to make immediate reports to government. When companies show a willingness to cooperate and be proactive in addressing identified issues, they are more likely to be treated leniently and achieve a favorable resolution.
LD: As outside counsel, can you share a few thoughts on what helps distinguish Dechert from other firms?
HG: We offer comprehensive support to businesses and individuals facing critical challenges. We have the experience, connections and know-how to resolve crises favorably while avoiding unwanted attention from consumers and the media. The firm is consistently recognized for its exceptional focus on client service, and we take a lot of pride in that.
Our geographical reach is an asset to our clients. We now have white-collar lawyers in the United States and Europe, plus significant Middle Eastern, Russian and Latin American experience. In the United States, as well as in Europe, we also benefit from many individual lawyers who have experience working for the government as prosecutors and regulators, at the state and federal level.
Another strength is our deep bench. Our firm’s chairman, Andy Levander, maintains an active white-collar practice and has helped attract and develop a robust team of litigators. Coming through the ranks we also have the likes of Jeff Brown, Jon Streeter, and Rebecca Waldman in New York, Vince Cohen in Washington, D.C., and other younger partners across the country, all of whom are considered to be rising stars in the white-collar field. We also have a strong group of associates across the U.S. and around the world.
LD: Let’s switch to parts of your personal story. Please talk a little bit about your family’s move from Cuba. How old were you and what was the transition like?
HG: I have a kind of stereotypical immigrant refugee story. My parents were not of any means, but they were prepared to take a risk when I was five-years old in moving to a foreign country in the hope of a better life. We moved to Queens. The hardest part for them was leaving their families and friends and finding a way to make a living when they didn’t speak English.
LD: Do you still have family in Cuba and do you get back there at all?
HG: I no longer have family in Cuba, but in the last year I went back to Cuba for the first time in 45 years. It was a bittersweet return. It was bitter in the sense that the country is in a poor state of well-being, but it was sweet because it was wonderful to see my country of birth and where I came from.
LD: Do you recall when you first realized that you wanted to be a trial lawyer, and why?
HG: I always had an interest in law enforcement, but I didn’t always know how that would crystalize into any specific career path. I eventually pursued a law degree as a means to engaging with the world of law enforcement. I was the first in my family to go to college, so I had no precedent or role model to follow.
LD: What led you to want to be a prosecutor and do government service for a time as opposed to staying in private practice for good?
HG: I think what led me along that path was a sense of duty to wider society. Coming to America gave me and my family some wonderful opportunities and I wanted to repay that by making a contribution somehow. Maybe it’s part of the immigrant mindset of wanting to achieve things, not just for yourself personally, but also with a broader purpose in mind. My parents made a huge sacrifice so I had a sense of responsibility to make it all worthwhile.
LD: Is there a case from your tenure as an AUSA that stands out as a “favorite” or is memorable for some other reason?
HG: As an AUSA, I prosecuted several significant matters involving organized crime and international narcotics trafficking. For example, I was co-lead counsel in a lengthy wiretap investigation and prosecution of twelve members and associates of the Luchese, Gambino and Genovese organized crime families for their racketeering activities in the NYC Garment Center.
I also led a multi-year DEA/NYPD task force investigation of a violent international narcotics trafficking operation known as the Velasquez Organization. The investigation resulted in the RICO prosecution of nearly sixty defendants charged with numerous crimes, including narcotics trafficking, murder-for-hire and extortion. As a result of the investigation, the NYPD was able to close approximately fifty open murder investigations linked to the Velasquez Organization and its associates.
LD: What about prior to that at the Manhattan DA’s office – what skills or experiences did you pick up from that appellate job that continue to help you?
HG: There is a strong focus at the appellate level in knowing the law, understanding both the statutes and the process. You just have to think about the law itself more deeply, and that provides an invaluable foundation on which to later build a successful all-round practice. You also see how others develop cases and where they get them right and wrong. It’s good to learn from mistakes, and it’s even better to learn from the mistakes of others!
LD: How would you describe your style as a trial lawyer? Is it different now than as a young prosecutor?
HG: I have developed my own style as a trial lawyer, one that I am comfortable with, and that suits me. Being able to develop your own personal style comes with experience, so there is no point in putting on an act. You aren’t going to succeed that way.
LD: Obviously, lots of great prosecutors eventually try to make the transition to private practice. What does it take to do it successfully? What is the greatest challenge to thriving in a business-oriented setting after public service?
HG: The main challenge in the transition to private practice is the need to adapt to a client service environment, and developing a client-centric approach to your work. This involves building an understanding of the challenge your client has gone through, and the culture they operate in. This is true whether the client is an individual or a company. You want to give your client certainty and solid advice, but in the real world there are gray areas. In government service, things were more black and white.
Another big challenge is that in government service, cases come to you. You don’t need to go out and find them. In private practice, you have to get out there and sell your services and demonstrate your credentials. Maintaining a pipeline of work for yourself and your practice group is a challenge, especially in litigation when matters can settle suddenly or drag on over many years. I have learned never to take for granted a steady stream of business.
LD: Many excellent lawyers do not get involved in firm leadership. What pushed you in that direction – was it something you always wanted or did more senior partners encourage it?
HG: You have to have the personal desire to take on that extra responsibility, but my involvement initially came about because some senior individuals at Dechert specifically approached me and suggested I get involved. It has been intensely rewarding. There is no better way to get to know your partners in different practices and offices, and it gives you an invaluable insight into the terrific breadth of capabilities and expertise.
LD: How do you explain the still-relatively-low representation of minorities among law firm partnership and leadership ranks?
HG: I think there are historical reasons for the low proportion of law firm leaders from diverse backgrounds. In the past, more so than today, minorities didn’t have the same opportunities to attend top-tier law schools, which are the incubators for new lawyers. The result is that there has been a paucity of senior minority lawyers in law firms.
This cycle of discrimination creates institutional obstacles. It is the responsibility of firms like ours to try and break that cycle, and create processes and programs that attract women, people of color and other minorities to the firm, and, more importantly, empower them to succeed and thrive. We are taking this role very seriously, and investing significantly to try to continue to grow and improve.
LD: Assuming some level of discrimination will always exist – what helps a young lawyer move past that, or succeed despite facing it?
HG: There are several things that I think are important. You have to understand the historical issues that have created implicit bias, as I believe this helps you to remain positive and allows you to fight the urge to be indignant. Then you have to realize that it’s about doing high-quality work. If you work hard and offer continually excellent client service, your chances of succeeding are much higher.
It is crucial as well for young lawyers to create strong support networks, including mentors and colleagues. A support network means that you have to reciprocate; you have to be a source of support back, someone they can rely on. You can never do anything on your own.
LD: What does Dechert do to not only recruit diversely but to retain lawyers who do not traditionally reach leadership ranks?
HG: We have a partner-led Diversity & Inclusion Committee, of which I am deputy chair, and we also have a full-time Director of Diversity & Inclusion whose role it is to develop and implement programs to increase diversity and foster our culture of inclusion. This committee overseas a whole program of proactive training, coaching, mentorship and monitoring of our efforts to promote diversity.
As part of the firm’s commitment to building an inclusive environment, we have also designed a “diversity dashboard” that helps leaders see where things are working effectively, and where more attention is needed. We have currently reached a stage where nearly 30% of our associates and counsel are diverse, but we are still working hard to make sure that improves and that success is reflected at a more senior level.
LD: Are you involved in any pro bono or public interest activities? Please tell us what you find meaningful about your time serving them.
HG: On average, I have devoted from 50 to 100 hours per year advising individual clients on a pro bono basis. I am currently supervising a team of several lawyers representing the estate of a man who died while in federal immigration custody.
I am also actively involved with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), a nonprofit civil rights organization that focuses on health justice, disability rights and environmental justice. I have been a member of NYLPI’s board for fifteen years, and I have served as the chair of the Program and Litigation Committee, which is responsible for overseeing the organization’s docket of pro bono litigation. I have also served as NYLPI’s board chair.
In addition to my work on the board of NYLPI, I have supervised a number of civil rights cases that NYLPI has referred to Dechert, alleging violations of 42 USC Sec. 1983, the federal statute that gives individuals the right to sue government when they feel that their civil rights have been violated.