Muni mentorship & a path to success


Chip Barnett (00:03):
Hi and welcome to another edition of The Bond Buyer podcast. I’m Chip Barnett and my guest today is Virginia Wong. She’s a partner with Nixon Peabody, where she leads the law firm’s project finance and public finance practice group. And today we’re going to be focusing on effective mentorship and building successful teams in public finance. Welcome to The Bond Buyer, Virginia. 

Virginia Wong (00:27):
Thanks very much, Chip. 

Chip Barnett (00:30):
Firstly, could you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself? 

Virginia Wong (00:33):
Sure. So my name is Virginia Wong. I’ve been with Nixon Peabody for the majority of my career, more than 25 years in public finance. I’m the head of the practice group, as you mentioned. Our practice group consists of about 45 folks, give or take, and we are very excited. We were just recognized by Chambers as a Band 1 firm nationally in public finance. It’s the first year that they recognized public finance as a practice area. So we were ranked nationally as well as in California, New York City and Washington, D.C. And I’m also the mother of three teenage boys. 

Chip Barnett (01:17):
Okay, that’s great. So let’s get started and dive right in. Could you tell us a little bit about your personal leadership style? 

Virginia Wong (01:25):
Sure. So as I just mentioned, I have three teenage boys and my life is all about organization and delegation. So I understand the unique challenges of being a parent with a full-time job in managing an active law practice. And my life only works if I’m organized and I’ve got everything delegated and working right. So I often work with my colleagues and junior lawyers to help them develop their own paths to success and develop their own ways to manage their practices. Everybody’s got to come up with their own style and their own methods that work for them. For me, I find that being organized, starting my week, my month, knowing what’s coming, making sure that it’s all covered, is important to make sure that everything is moving the right way. And that then also gives me a time to make sure that I do all the things that are important to our practice group, touching base with the other lawyers in our group, making sure that I schedule time to see our clients, making sure that we are doing the proper training. All of that is really important to me and making sure that I am the kind of leader that I want to be. 

Chip Barnett (02:48):
How has mentorship shaped your career and how important is it in paying it forward? 

Virginia Wong (02:57):
Well, as I said, I’ve doing this for a long time and I, I’ve been very fortunate my whole career to be surrounded by strong role models in public finance, both within Nixon Peabody and outside of Nixon Peabody. I always feel that I sat at the feet of giants while I was a junior lawyer working with Art McMahon and John Bove, Mark Page in New York City. I got to work with clients like Marge Henning and Kim Arnone, Carol Ryan, people who are just giants in our industry, very, very smart and wonderful role models for me. Other lawyers at other firms like Eileen Heisler at Orrick and Anne Rubino, who I’ve gotten to work with many times over the years. Just terrific role models and mentors. And that’s one of the things that I really love about public finance is that we get to work with people over and over again and develop these strong relationships. 

One of the things that I think is important is paying it forward for the junior people who are coming up behind me, just as I benefited from the people who I got to work with as a junior lawyer and continue to get to work with now. When you’ve experienced strong mentors and role models, it gives you a vision of what you want for your career and how you want your career to develop over time. And I believe it’s very important for us to do that for the people who are coming up behind us. It’s important that they understand not just the legal side of what we do, but also the business side of what we do, what is important to our clients, what is important to our industry, and making sure that those fundamentals are covered in a really consistent way. 

Chip Barnett (04:58):
In order to …

Virginia Wong (04:58):
Sorry, Chip, there’s just one other thing I wanted to mention. One thing that we’ve noticed in our market over time, especially post-COVID, is that we don’t get together in person like we used to. We don’t spend time at the printer, we don’t spend time at closings. And a lot of the informal mentoring that used to happen in those types of situations now are now opportunities that our junior lawyers and the people in our industry don’t get to have. So we think it’s very important that we find those opportunities for the people in our industry to form those relationships, to find those role models and mentors. And so one of the things that’s important to me as a practice group leader is looking for those opportunities for folks as they develop their careers. 

Chip Barnett (05:53):
I think that’s exactly right. And in order to build effective teams, I think it’s important to map pathways to success both individually and collectively. Could you discuss that? 

Virginia Wong (06:07):
Sure. Succession and long-term planning is an important part of what we do. We focus on recruiting, retaining and developing top talent for our practice, and we maintain a strong bench, so we’re always ready to assemble high-impact client teams because really client services is at the heart of all we do, and being able to identify individual strengths is vital to building successful teams in our industry. Ken Lynch, who’s my predecessor, always refers to me as a matchmaker because my job is to identify individual strong points to fill potential gaps and pairing the right people so that they continue to develop together. We want all the members of our teams to have a stake in the success of a given project or client relationship. This creates collective buy-in. It also helps us with our long-term succession and planning with respect to clients. And I’m proud to say that our team is incredibly invested in our client work and seeing each other succeed or one another succeed. 

One example of an effective team and how I like to approach transactional work is the work that we did for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico on its debt restructurings. Since 2018, we worked with the Commonwealth on three debt restructurings, the largest one being the Commonwealth’s GO debt restructuring, which closed last year. It was a $33 billion debt restructuring. We had approximately 20 attorneys and staff working on the matter from a wide variety of practice areas. We had over 400 deliverables. We served as bond counsel in that transaction, and we ended up closing it in Puerto Rico. So as you can imagine, the logistics of having to close in a client’s office and having all those deliverables required an extraordinary amount of teamwork, organization, delegation. Each individual’s strengths played a critical role in our success on that transaction, and we are very, very proud of the work that we did there. 

We had team members that were in charge of various pieces of the transaction, a lot of coordination among all of them, not only internally, but also externally with the Commonwealth, with the oversight board, the other lawyers that were involved in the transaction, creditors, trustees, bond insurers, it was really extraordinary and a wonderful example of a well working team. We also believe in partnering with our MWBE colleagues. We have worked very hard to build strong relationships with the firms that we work with. We include members of those firms in our training programs. We look for opportunities to partner with them whenever possible. Internally, we also have a DEI ‘on track’ program, which promotes diverse mentees access to leadership positions. Last year, I participated in that program with one of our colleagues, Jade Turner Bond. She’s a partner in our L.A. office, and it was a really wonderful experience. We started off with just talking about client development, how I approach that, how she likes to think about it, what she’s looking for in terms of career development. And what I found to my surprise was that in a program like this, it wasn’t a one-way street. I learned a lot from Jade in that process and her fearless approach to client development. And at the end of the program, we successfully pitched and brought in a new client, and Jade is just a terrific attorney and someone who’s going to be a real leader in our industry. 

We understand that training and mentoring opportunities are vital, and we also support our attorney’s non-legal skills development by offering programs on well-being, mental health, affinity groups, pro bono, social impact, and other areas. In terms of how we work, our industry has largely maintained at work hybrid work model and that’s something that we follow in at Nixon Peabody. We learn from that process that we can be productive from outside our physical offices, but yet maintain the in-person collaboration that we value and is so important to us. It also adds a collegiality that we miss in virtual meetings and phone calls. 

One thing we do to try to foster collaboration in the New York City office is each week we have an email that goes around that says when we expect to be in the office, just so that people know, especially our junior associates, know that when they’re in the office, that who will be there and we can maximize the use of everybody’s time when we’re all together on any given day, we’re always looking for ways to make new connections for our people and help create those connections that are so important in our industry. As we talked about, those face-to-face meetings just don’t happen the same way that they used to. And so we’re always looking for ways to have our folks meet with our clients either in meetings sort of on social occasions where we can just get together and have a meal or have a drink or trainings where maybe we could go in and do some staff training on continuing disclosure or cyber-security or some things that we see as issues for our industry where we think we can be helpful to clients. 

Chip Barnett (12:28):
Okay. And we’ll be right back after this important message. And we’re back talking with Virginia Wong of Nixon Peabody. In your opinion, what maintains an engaged and high performing team? 

Virginia Wong (12:43):
In public finance we build communities locally and across the nation, and I believe this work really resonates with many of our attorneys and other professionals in our business. And it drives their passion to give back to their communities. Our team’s work impacts citizens every day. We build affordable housing, we maintain transportation systems and water systems and power systems, and we take great pride in doing that work, doing it well and doing it creatively. I find that when people care about the work that they’re doing and they’re doing it at a high level, it’s easy to keep them engaged. 

Chip Barnett (13:20):
What’s a growing trend that you see in the industry that you are excited about? 

Virginia Wong (13:26):
Well, with interest rates having been so low for such a long time, we’re now seeing some areas re-emerge, types of things that we haven’t done with clients for quite some time, such as interest rate swaps, derivatives, long-term investment agreements. We’ve been very active with tenders and exchanges — different ways to be creative and help our clients deal with this changing interest rate market. 

Chip Barnett (13:55):
What keeps you grounded? 

Virginia Wong (13:58):
My family keeps me grounded. Work is important, but it isn’t the be all, end all of who I am. 

Chip Barnett (14:04):
As an adjunct professor at Fordham University in Public Finance. What are you most excited by with the new talent that’s entering the industry? 

Virginia Wong (14:17):
Well, public finance is not a traditional law school course, but we’re lucky to have students that are interested in learning more about it. I’ve been co-teaching the class for just about a decade now, and we get such a wide variety of students who have an interest in public service in one way or another and find that public finance is a way to satisfy that interest in public service. And since it crosses over with so many other areas, public policy, securities law, corporate and finance law, et cetera, and in fact, this year we hired an associate who had been in my class, Greg Home. It’s the first time we ever hired somebody straight out of the class, and he was so excited about the practice area, did a lot of independent research to learn more on his own, and it’s that kind of thing that’s just so wonderful about teaching a class like that. 

Chip Barnett (15:21):
Do you have any last thoughts for our listeners today? 

Virginia Wong (15:24):
So I think that one thing that I’ve learned over the years of doing this and why I enjoy public finance so much is the people who I get to work with every day, both internally and externally, clients who care so much about the work that they do. It’s so important to so many people and I really value those relationships and the work that we get to do with those clients. 

Chip Barnett (15:58):
Virginia Wong of Nixon Peabody. Thank you everybody very much for being with us here today. 

Virginia Wong (16:03):
Thank you, Chip. 

Chip Barnett (16:04):
And thanks to the listeners of this latest Bond Buyer podcast. Special thanks to Kevin Parise who did the audio production for this episode. And don’t forget to rate us, review us and subscribe at For the Bond Buyer, I’m Chip Barnett, and thank you for listening.

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