In celebration of Latinx|Hispanic Heritage Month, Ropes & Gray presents a special podcast series featuring prominent Latinx and Hispanic clients who have had distinguished legal careers while also making significant contributions to their communities and working to advance diversity in the law. In this episode, Ropes & Gray litigation & enforcement associate Natalia Mercado Violand interviews Lola Velazquez-Aguilu, lead counsel of Medtronic’s Brain Modulation business, about her background, remarkable legal career, and commitment to diversifying the judiciary. Prior to joining Medtronic, Lola worked as an Assistant U.S. Attorney with a focus on white collar prosecution. She has long been engaged in significant volunteer and pro bono efforts, including serving as Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’s appointed Chair of the Commission on Judicial Selection. In addition, she was part of the team that successfully prosecuted Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd and is credited with her leadership in developing the state’s medical case. Lola reflects on some of the pivotal moments of her life and career, and shares insights about what organizations and leaders can do to further diversify the legal field.
Introduction: Hello, and welcome everyone to a special Ropes & Gray podcast celebrating Latinx|Hispanic Heritage Month. I'm delighted to welcome you to the first in a series of podcasts that will feature prominent Latinx and Hispanic clients who have had remarkable careers in the legal industry while also making significant contributions to their communities and working to advance diversity in the law.
For those of you who may not be familiar, this heritage month actually spans two months. It begins on September 15, in recognition of the date when five Latin American countries—Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua—earned their independence from Spain in 1821. Mexico, Chile and Belize became independent on September 16th, 18th, and 21st, respectively. And what started originally as Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 expanded to a month-long celebration in 1988. At Ropes & Gray, this heritage month is a period of recognition, education and celebration—when we honor the history, traditions and achievements of Hispanic and Latinx people and communities.
With that in mind, our podcast series begins with a conversation between Ropes & Gray litigation & enforcement associate Natalia Mercado Violand and special guest Lola Velazquez-Aguilu. Lola is lead counsel for Medtronic’s Brain Modulation business. Her legal career has included public service in the federal government, Big Law, in-house company counsel and high-impact pro bono work. All the while, she has worked to diversify the judiciary at both the state and federal levels. She is on the leadership committee of the Infinity Project, whose mission is to increase the gender diversity of the state and federal bench, and she was appointed by Governor Tim Walz to chair the Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection. Also, quite notably, Lola was a key member of the team that successfully prosecuted Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. Her work on that case was described by former acting U.S. solicitor general Neal Katyal as “as good a performance from a lawyer as I’ve ever seen in my life.” Quite fittingly, this year, the Hispanic National Bar Association has named Lola its Pro Bono Attorney of the Year.
Despite her extremely busy schedule, Lola always takes the time to connect with diverse lawyers and provide advice and mentorship. I know many of our Ropes associates, including Natalia, have benefited from her guidance.
It is a great privilege to have Lola with us today to discuss her extraordinary career, her dedication to advancing diversity in the law, and her perspective on the challenges and opportunities for Latinx and Hispanic lawyers. With that, I will pass the mic along to Natalia.
Natalia Mercado Violand: We are eager to hear and learn from you, so I'll jump right in. Let's start off by discussing your extremely interesting background. Can you tell us a bit about your roots and anything about your background that's made you who you are today?
Lola Velazquez-Aguilu: I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. I was born and raised there. My parents are both Puerto Rican. They met actually in Connecticut. My mom, who is from Puerto Rico, moved to Connecticut—she was getting her practicum in social work, working on her master's degree. And my dad, who's Nuyorican, was an organizer for the Migrant Farmworkers’ Movement in Connecticut. My mom was working primarily with migrant worker populations, and that's how they met. They had this shared passion and interest for social justice and service. They ended up going to Wisconsin. My aunt was getting her PhD there from the University of Wisconsin, and my dad worked then in Wisconsin still with farm workers, with migrant workers, and then with farm workers during the farm crisis.
My parents ultimately got divorced, but they both had very interesting commitments to social justice. My dad was very focused on workers' rights. My mom became a police officer when I was in kindergarten. It was an interesting application of her training as a social worker—she was recruited because of that training. She worked as a neighborhood police officer through several years when I was growing up, in pretty pivotal years. And so her work as a police officer was just very visible in our house. It became a big part of my life as well. It wasn't just that she was a police officer in a particular community, she was a member of that community, so they knew her, but then they knew my brother and they knew me as well. So I think from both of them, it was always about service. And the expectation, to quote Spider Man, "To those whom much is given, much is expected" was very much a theme in our house. They would always just bring my brother and I around to different community events and lots of different cross-segments of the community as well, but the expectation was always that we would work hard, we would do well in school, and we would find opportunities to serve our communities.
Natalia Mercado Violand: That's incredible, and I'm sure that has led you to your path now. You've been a practicing lawyer since 2006. Can you provide the highlight reel for us? In your view, which were the pivotal moments in your career?
Lola Velazquez-Aguilu: One of the pivotal moments for me was before I started practicing. I was elected editor and chief of the law review at the end of my second year of law school. And I was the first person of color to ever be editor in chief of the law review, so it was a big deal at my law school. It was also incredibly validating for me, and I just carried that with me going forward—what it meant to be the first, seeing how much it mattered to some of the alumni, seeing how much it mattered to my colleagues. Of course, I always had this from my parents of what it meant to be a representative, but in the law I felt it acutely and somewhat differently when that happened. So for me, that was a pretty big moment.
I've been blessed in that I've liked every legal job I've had. But obviously, working as an assistant U.S. attorney, I still think about the kind of routine of standing up in court and introducing myself and saying, "My name is Lola Velazquez-Aguilu and I represent the United States of America." I felt super proud every time I said that. And even when I say it to you now, it's something that I carried with me and I took very seriously the privilege and honor of representing the United States in court. So, the U.S. attorney's office was just this incredible place where I had such strong relationships. There's a line in the movie Speed about relationships formed in really intense circumstances—that's something about when you're in trial with folks, you're in the trenches with them. Anybody who's ever tried a case knows the kind of deep bonds you form with your trial partners—you basically live with them for months on end. And I loved that about the U.S. attorney's office—they weren't just my colleagues, they were my family. I had my kids while I was working there. I think my son, because of my trial schedule, I think he celebrated his first five birthdays at the U.S. attorney's office. I think the first time we had a birthday dinner not there, he was like, "Whoa, this is different." But it was such a good part of our lives. I really cherish those years.
As far as highlights, I'm proud of course of what I was able to accomplish in helping to diversify the judiciary—it was a problem—and to be appointed by Governor Walz. Obviously, when the attorney general called me to work on the Chauvin prosecution, I knew that for me, having worked on first-degree murder appeals as a law clerk, murder cases are really challenging. They’re emotionally taxing. It's like nothing else I have worked on over the course of my career. But I was extremely privileged to be able to work on that case, to be able to be a part of what I hope we accomplished obviously for the community and for the family, but I think for the legal profession as well.
Natalia Mercado Violand: We could do a full hour podcast just on the Derek Chauvin trial. What was it like to work on such an important history-making case? And how did your personal and career background contribute to your role on this team?
Lola Velazquez-Aguilu: My personal background, definitely. We had a very diverse team of lawyers who were working on this case—diverse in the type of experience people brought to the table, obviously diverse in race, gender, age and background. And the perspective that each of us brought to the table I think was ultimately really important, because we were trying to understand how different jurors might view this case, but also trying to serve segments of our community who were very skeptical of the ability to achieve justice. I think one thing that was, for me, very significant was obviously I felt we needed to bring a level of rigor to this. We needed to approach this in a new way, to leave no stone unturned, to challenge our assumptions about the way things are done in a way where there could be only one result. But obviously, I also came to this as the child of a police officer and feeling like it was really time to show people that this is not policing, and that those in law enforcement will step up and will say, "This is not what the profession represents. This is not how law enforcement serves communities." And obviously, I've never been a police officer, but as the child of a police officer, I felt very much that this was in service of my mom and other police officers like her. I thought all the time about it and it pained me when I would watch the videos, because I couldn't help but think if a cop like my mom had showed up that day, there's no doubt in my mind that George Floyd would be alive.
Natalia Mercado Violand: Wow. That's just an incredible perspective that you had and I'm sure contributed greatly to the team, just having that background and perspective. I've got to ask, what was it like to receive the verdict?
Lola Velazquez-Aguilu: I remember obviously I went to the courthouse. Some of it felt normal in some sense. Do you know what I mean? You have to remember, once you're in this, trying a case, you're just trying a case. And the larger implications, that's not something that we thought about on a daily basis—we just had to get in there to do our work. What I remember is it was really secured. Obviously everything was really locked down, so there's lots of tight security, and so very few people could actually be on the floor of the courthouse where the courtroom was. I can't remember why, because I wasn't typically there because I was working in a different part, but I was there, and Derek Chauvin walked by at one point. And I felt such sadness. I felt tremendous sadness for the Floyd family always, because obviously they had lost their brother. The day when we did some of the medical testimony and they had to watch the videos over and over and over again, it was incredibly hard for them. So to grieve your loved one, to have your loved one die in that way, and then to have to grieve them so publicly, I felt such sadness for them. No matter what we did, no matter what an amazing job we did, that was still their brother in that video. It was still their loved one who they'd never be able to see or talk to again. But I also felt such pity for Derek Chauvin and sadness, because I kept thinking, I just wished for his sake that he could have done different. Every time I watched the video, I just wanted in my heart to will him to stand up. I don't know what circumstances in his life led him to that moment, but it makes me sad for him.
Natalia Mercado Violand: Thank you so much for sharing all that with us. It certainly was emotional for all of us following the case, so I can’t imagine what it felt like being in your shoes. I'd like to shift gears just a little bit. As we are well aware, there are few Latinos in the legal profession, and the statistics are stark. For example, five percent of law firm associates and two percent of partners are Latinx or Hispanic. What are some challenges you have faced navigating such a homogeneous industry? And on the flip side, how have you been able to leverage your Latinidad for success?
Lola Velazquez-Aguilu: I think one of the challenges, which isn't unique to Latinas, but is more a challenge that I think all women of color face is we're segmented into these little boxes—you can't just be a woman, you have to be a certain type of woman. When you have stereotypes layered on top of you, you're so often then cast in that way, and it has the effect of robbing you of your substance and your emotion. So, for example, when I'm regarded as the angry Latina or the fiery Latina. There have certainly been moments in my career when I feel very strongly about something, and I'm not afraid of advocating and speaking up. And I have literally had moments when somebody actually thought they were being defensive or supportive of me, like, "Yeah, Lola, she can't help but react that way. She's been this woman of color in this predominantly white male profession, and she's really had to struggle." As though I'm somehow defensive and that's what they're seeing, and not that the substance is of such a nature that it requires their attention, or that my emotion is a reflection of how strong of an issue this is or how much something has to be addressed. I'm not someone who gets angry at work. I'm not someone who yells at people. But you display the slightest bit of emotion, and it gets amplified, because it's validating of a stereotype. And that gets laid on our shoulders all of the time, even by the most well-intentioned people. It's exhausting. There's a certain amount of resiliency that you have to be able to demonstrate over and over and over again. And at times, a bravery to be able to identify what is happening and call it out. So there have been moments when I have said, "If you hear my tone right now, please make no mistake that it is a reflection of how I feel about this issue, what I believe about this issue, or the way I'm perceiving your reaction to it." Does it help? I don't know. But maybe I hope it sometimes is enough to say to someone, "Don't take this other than what it is, which is a substantive position being delivered to you in a clear and concise way, as would any of my colleagues." But we don't get as much leverage in that space.
You asked me, how has it benefited me, right? I do think that when you navigate as an “only,” I think there's aspects of who I am that—I've been over the course of my life that’s very attuned to other people's cues. So, one of the things I think people say about me is I have a pretty high EQ. And I think there's some element of that that's just watching other people, seeing how they react to you, having to understand nuance and inference, but also having to be objective about it, so that you're not constantly seeing bad intention all over the place. I think that one of the benefits that I have, as strange as it is to say this, is I've lived a lifetime of facing these stereotypes and expectations. And with that, you develop a certain toolkit to confront these situations to be able to see different people's perspective, to be able to meet the moment—and that is absolutely a strength.
Natalia Mercado Violand: I agree. Thank you for sharing that, and also what you said about just naming it so that there's no confusion as to your emotional or your impassioned observation I think is something that a lot of diverse associates can actually take from this and apply to their own toolbox.
Lola Velazquez-Aguilu: Even hearing you say that, I react even to the word “emotion,” because so often I feel like I'm not even bringing emotion to the table, but that's how it gets named. So I challenge all of our allies, when they're working with a woman of color and she's being the zealous and passionate advocate that we are trained to be, I would urge them and caution them around the way that they perceive that.
Natalia Mercado Violand: Lola, in this realm, you've certainly devoted considerable time and effort to advancing diversity in the law, particularly increasing the number of people of color and women on the bench in Minnesota. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about that work and what motivated you to do it?
Lola Velazquez-Aguilu: Early in Governor Dayton's tenure, I had these good friends, very prominent Latino attorneys and Black attorneys who were being named as finalists for various positions in the judiciary, but then weren't getting picked. What stunned me at first is that everyone was celebrating Governor Dayton just because of the diversity of these finalists, and I had to remind them, "But wait a second, he's not actually picking those people." And to your point, you started this by reminding us that only two percent of law firm partners are Hispanic, so when someone is raising their hand for the judiciary, and they're named publicly, there is a professional toll that comes with this. Your partners are then wondering, "Is this someone who's going to lead?" So, folks are raising their hand and coming forward at great personal sacrifice, not getting selected, and the governor receiving all of this great credit. And I said, "Well, hold on a minute, that's not right." Luckily for me, the bench is not something that I aspire to, so I felt like I had the freedom to speak openly about the issue and to advocate on behalf of my community. So, several of us from the Hispanic Bar Association asked for a meeting with the governor's office. We showed them the numbers, and you always get this response of, "Well, the pipeline," or "there aren't people." And I just thought, "That's a myth." Because I knew who was out there, and I knew that there were people out there who were ready and qualified, who would be exceptional judges. And so, I started working with other like-minded individuals who are passionate about these issues to both make sure that those people in the pipeline knew that we saw them and that they got the encouragement they needed to apply, but also to make sure we were educating those stakeholders, to make sure that they were aware of the realities of the pipeline, and that they were also aware of the need to make these decisions.
It's so interesting to see the way that bias can influence judicial selection. That's something we had to be very intentional about, but it's something that for me, I was so lucky. I had clerked for two judges who were diverse: Alan Page, who was the first African American on the Minnesota Supreme Court, and Judge Ann Montgomery, who was one of the first female judges in the state of Minnesota. She actually had a child while she was actively employed as a judge—she was the first to do that before FMLA. They're both breaking glass ceilings, and it was incredibly impactful for me to have them as role models. And so I felt very strongly the importance of having people like them on the bench, of having a diverse bench. But there were these barriers that needed to be addressed.
Natalia Mercado Violand: Taking this further from the bench, what do you think it will take to diversify the legal field? Big Law, in-house, and government sectors alike.
Lola Velazquez-Aguilu: It's interesting—I spoke at a CLE last year that looked at this: Why haven't we made more progress over the last 40 years? I forced myself to look back at all of the work that's been done, going back to the first ABA Commission on Race in the Profession. And it's pretty interesting to see how long we have had the tools that we need to make a difference. What it will take, I think, is the people who stand in positions of power just making the choice, and reforming their organizations to institutionalize bias interrupters. The reason why we were able to diversify the judiciary in Minnesota is, at the end of the day, because Governor Dayton and Governor Walz were willing to make the choice to appoint diverse judges. One of the things that we would see when we would do the due diligence—we'd call around about the candidates in order to vet them before the governor would make his decision—I think folks made more calls. When they're doing a diligence on a diverse candidate, I think they call more people, and I think they receive more feedback. The interesting thing about that is calling more people. Why? Is it because part of us, there's a little bit of a safety bias that we're trying to manage against, so we're saying, "Well, this is potentially an unsafe choice, so let me dig as deep as possible to make myself feel like this is more safe." And so we're holding those individuals to a much higher standard.
Often, what we would see is with diverse candidates, folks bring up stuff from 15 years ago, things that the other people wouldn't be held accountable for, or would not even be remembered. There's research that I think helps us understand this phenomenon. One of the studies I cite all of the time is the study called “Writing in Black & White,” where they took this memo, they gave it to 100 law firm partners, told half of the partners it had been written by a Black associate, and the other half it had been written by a white associate. It was the exact same piece of work product. And consistently, people saw the errors with the Black associate. They ignored them, missed them, didn't flag them or identify them with a white associate. With the white associate, they thought the memo was demonstrative of great potential. With the Black associate, the memo was demonstrative of an inability to make it, a weakness. And so it just goes to show the way that our bias influences who gets to make "mistakes," whether we characterize something as a mistake in and of itself, and who we view as having promise and potential versus who we view as having too many challenges or obstacles. That was I think super important for the commission to understand, so that when they went out and they did their diligence, they could try to manage against this. We have to put practices in place, like, we're going to call the same number of people. If something else comes up, we're going to discuss it and evaluate whether this is something that actually bears on the qualities and characteristics that are relevant to the bench. I think in law firms, it has to be the same thing.
In Medtronic, when we're hiring, one of the things that I recommended, before you hire someone, be very clear about the qualifications and credentials that you're looking for, and understand how they translate to the job. Because you may get feedback or input, or you may have a read on somebody that you might find unsettling, but if it's not related to one of those qualities or characteristics, you have to ask yourself, "How does it actually fit in?" And is it just your brain reacting to that safety bias? So, we have to be willing to understand that this is all human nature. That study, “Writing in Black & White,” it wasn't like all of the reviewers were white—they were diverse as well, so this is something that all of us experience. What we need is to step back and evaluate our practices, our procedures, how we operate as organizations in order to introduce these bias interrupters, in order to ensure we have actually merit-based processes. And then we have to be willing to make the decisions to advance diverse individuals.
Natalia Mercado Violand: Absolutely. Thank you so much for that insight, and also generally, for joining us. I know I've learned so much on this podcast episode. Before we adjourn, we have one more question, given that it is Latinx|Hispanic Heritage Month: What does this month mean to you, and how do you celebrate?
Lola Velazquez-Aguilu: Practically speaking, the month means a lot of speaking opportunities. I might go to the HNBA annual conference, so a plug for the HNBA. I think that these are important opportunities to highlight members of our community. To go back to what I was saying about the pipeline, to remind people that we may only be two percent of law firm partners, but there are still two percent of law firm partners who are Latinx, who have made it, who have stayed with it. Although, of course, there's lots of work left to be done. So, I think that this month is an important opportunity to stand back and reflect on our accomplishments, to take a moment to celebrate our place at the table, and to help educate our allies and our friends about what we continue to carry with us as we try to make it in this profession.
Natalia Mercado Violand: Thank you, Lola, for being with us and celebrating Latinx|Hispanic Heritage Month with us through this podcast episode. Please be on the lookout for future podcast episodes wherever you get your podcasts.
For more information or to contact Lola Velazquez-Aguilu, please visit her LinkedIn profile.
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