Victoria Lazar’s parents escaped communist Romania in 1960 to make a new life for themselves and their daughter, ultimately landing in Houston, Texas. They came to North America equipped only with education, and the success of two immigrants in America fostered “a lifelong interest in diversity and advancement of people from different backgrounds,” she says.
After studying Russian and government at Cornell University, Lazar earned a JD from the University of Chicago. Though scheduled to work at the US Department of the Treasury, she decided to look for a job in Houston to be closer to her father, who was seriously ill. She had clerked at Baker Botts and joined the firm in 1990. During her six years there, she specialized in mergers and acquisitions, securities and corporate finance, working primarily with clients in the oil and gas industry.
Did she encounter prejudice in what many would describe as two patriarchal worlds—Big Law and the Texas petroleum business? “I’m sure there was some, but I chose to ignore it,” she says. “My father raised me to believe there was nothing I couldn’t do and instilled me with lots of confidence. If you’re smart and capable and encounter people who throw obstacles in your way, you need to trust that you know what you’re doing and that you’re not the one who needs to change. You can’t eliminate bias; you can only control your response to it.”
She advanced quickly and was given increasingly crucial roles, including in the 1996 split-off of Electronic Data Systems from General Motors, a $25 billion transaction. “EDS was an important client of ours and, at the time, this was the biggest corporate split in US history. It was a highly complex deal that ended up greatly benefiting EDS,” Lazar says.
EDS awarded her with a job in their mergers and acquisitions group. She helped complete $4 billion in domestic and global deals during her eight years there. “We had ventures all over, including in Israel, France, and Russia. I got to combine my love of deal-making and international business,” she says. In 2008, she joined General Electric’s oil and gas division as associate general counsel, which meant she needed a much deeper understanding of the industry. So, she started visiting workers in the field. “I asked them to explain things to me and show me schematics,” she says. “They were shocked because no one had ever been interested in what they do.”
This led to considerable bridge building between the legal department and the rest of the company. “I established some fabulous relationships and gained a level of expertise that proved invaluable to my ability to represent the business.”
This expertise has not gone unnoticed by outside counsel. “Victoria has a broad yet deep expertise with an exceptional insight and ability to draw on that knowledge in all situations,” says Andrew L. Fabens, partner at Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher. “She is super-effective and highly skilled when engaging in complex transactions.”
“You can’t eliminate bias; you can only control your response to it.”
When GE’s oil and gas division merged with Baker Hughes, one of the largest mergers in GE’s history, Lazar was appointed integration manager. This meant she oversaw the combination of the two legal departments, involving 250-plus people and a $90 million budget. “The GE-Baker Hughes deal was huge,” she admits. “It required that we harmonize over thirty legal policies and 200 implementing regulations.” Lazar’s work was honored with the Texas General Counsel Forum’s Magna Stella Award for Best Major Transaction of 2018.
As Lazar’s stature continues to rise—in May 2018, she was promoted to executive counsel for mergers and acquisitions for GE corporate—she is often asked to write and speak about what women attorneys should do to succeed. “Don’t ever let gender be the biggest issue in the room,” she says. “You are there for your professional expertise, so that is what needs to be emphasized.”
For women who want to be corporate attorneys, Lazar recommends gaining business experience and admits that if she had it to do over again, she would have combined her JD with an MBA. “You need to understand how a company works, what the various departments do, and how to read financial statements. If you work for a public company, you need to familiarize yourself with the cadence—i.e., the timing of required reports,” she explains.
She says lawyers also need to know how to make things simple. “There’s really nothing CEOs and other busy executives dislike more than complicated legal theories and long memos,” she says. “You need to explain things in a way that helps their decision-making process. List options, provide pros and cons. Yours is not the only input they’ll be receiving.”
Lazar advises those just starting out to introduce themselves and be friendly to everyone they meet. “Too often, I see younger attorneys hanging out together in the back of the room, not interacting. You need to put yourself out there, to meet people and let them get to know you and see what you’re capable of.”
As proof that she walks the talk, Lazar established GE’s Law Student Internship Program in Houston; has been an executive sponsor of the company’s Women’s Network, which encourages the hiring, retention and promotion of women; and is active in the Houston chapter of the Women’s Energy Network, which promotes the advancement of women in the energy industry. GE also sponsors STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs for high school girls.
“To get in the door, you have to have the technical qualifications, so I am incredibly proud of GE’s involvement in the STEM program,” Lazar says. “But it takes more than smarts. There will always be smart people around. You also need drive, discipline, focus, and to know how to sell yourself. And to really distinguish yourself, you need to be able to get along with others and to show sincere interest in them. In all this time, I’ve found very few people who don’t like it when you ask about their life and work, and it helps you build personal and professional connections.”