By Caleb Simpson
Travis Torrence currently serves as Global Litigation Bankruptcy & Credit Team Lead at Shell USA, Inc., managing a team of attorneys and legal support professionals who handle all bankruptcy and credit legal issues for all of Shell’s business units in the United States and Canada. Within Shell he serves as a member of the Board of Directors of Premium Velocity Auto LLC, a subsidiary of Shell, and Chair of Shell’s Legal Global Racial Equity & Inclusion Plan. Torrence is a long-standing board member of the National LGBTQ+ Bar and was recently appointed as President of the National LGBTQ+ Bar Foundation. Additionally, he was elected as a Grand Marshal of the 2022 Houston LGBT Pride Celebration.
Q: What drew you to the law as a profession?
Torrence: I’m a first-generation lawyer. But, my aunt, Betty Cooper-Coleman, who was the first woman and Black person elected as an Alderman in the small town of Gramercy, Louisiana, which is where my mom’s side of my family is from, triggered my interest in attending law school. After running two or more unsuccessful campaigns, she became a plaintiff in litigation under the Voting Rights Act to challenge the “at-large” election process in her town. She won! That was the first time I noticed the law being used to effectuate societal change; change that, for that community, was historic. I remember thinking that the law was the key to justice, fairness, equity, and equality. And, if I wanted to be an agent of change, I had to understand the law and the policy issues that informed it.
When my parents saw that my double major at Tulane was in Communication and Political Science, my mom, who was a math teacher, said that she was going to teach me an important equation that I needed to memorize: “communication + political science = unemployed.” Lots of people don’t realize that, while I was in college, I was hired as an on-air radio personality for a pop radio station in New Orleans, where I introduced Britney Spears and N ’sync songs. Although I loved that job, the combination of my parents’ influence, my experiences with my Aunt Betty, and learning more about the life of radio DJs convinced me that I needed to at least try law school on for size. I never intended to enjoy the practice of law. But, after my first summer as a summer associate, I thought more seriously about the opportunities associated with working in Big Law.
Q: How did you begin working at Shell?
Torrence: Although I truly loved private practice and especially loved my Norton Rose Fulbright family, by 2013, in-house lawyers at Shell were sending me a good bit of work. In that same year, I got a call from a Managing Counsel at Shell asking me if I’d consider joining the team and doing a secondment at Shell until my start date. I was extremely apprehensive about leaving the firm that had been my home for over 6 years. However, I was also keenly aware that there are very few in-house roles in which lawyers get to work exclusively on bankruptcy issues. I figured that if I didn’t like being in-house, I could always go back to private practice and didn’t want to regret missing out on what ended up being a life-changing experience.
Q: What are you passionate about in the law and how do you drive these passions at work?
Torrence: I’m much more captivated by the experiences and opportunities associated with practicing law in the legal department of a global energy company than I am about any particular practice area. Being a corporate counsel entails gaining a firm understanding of a company’s businesses and the markets in which they operate to efficiently and effectively create legally compliant, practical solutions aimed at minimizing risks, reducing exposure to litigation and other liabilities, identifying weaknesses, and managing vulnerabilities. Whether a corporate counsel is facilitating a transaction or managing litigation, it is imperative to do so with a commercial mindset and a meaningful relationship with internal business partners to understand the organization’s risk tolerance and to provide professional, timely, cost-effective and practical legal advice and support. At its best, being a corporate counsel can also become an opportunity to motivate, coach, mentor and sponsor other attorneys and legal support professionals within the organization while serving, engaging and leading in the community in which the businesses operate and the legal community at-large.
At work, I focus on adopting a learner mindset in my interactions with my colleagues and counterparties, being curious about people, transactions and the world around me, and seeking to understand versus being understood. Those characteristics provide me with the basic framework to grow trust, engage and inspire others around me, and build a rapport with people at all levels of the organization so that we can collectively and collaboratively deliver our organization’s strategy.
Q: How has your experience as an LGBTQ+ person been in the legal profession?
Torrence: Generally, I’ve had very positive experiences as a gay man in the legal profession. There are a myriad of things that people at work have done that have made me feel included, valued and supported. Countless people ask about my partner on a regular basis. Lots of my co-workers extend invitations to both of us to attend gatherings in their homes and elsewhere. Many of my colleagues’ children refer to me as Uncle Travis, which gets very expensive during the festive season. And, all kidding aside, I have been afforded numerous opportunities to lead legal projects, commercial endeavors, and community engagements while in private practice and at Shell such that I have felt like a part of the social fabric and the community of all organizations where I have worked. In the same breath, my experiences have not always been perfect. Outside of the comforting and affirming walls of my employers, among other things, I have been told I don’t belong, that I’m not good enough, and that I’ll never measure up to my peers. But, Maya Angelou’s sage words continue to remind me that “hate has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet.” I believe the same to be true of bigotry, jealousy, and divisiveness. In spite of the difficult circumstances I’ve faced, I have worked to create some remarkable opportunities for myself and others and have been the gracious recipient of immense generosity. So, although I’m often tempted to focus on hardship, disadvantages, and inequality, instead, I choose to be guided by my personal and professional values – courage, compassion, and civility. I’ve developed the courage to bring my true and authentic self to work, the compassion to be good to myself, my community, and the bar, and the civility to demonstrate respect for others and value differences. After all, what we do means a lot, but who we are means more.
Q: What is the biggest issue facing LGBTQ+ people today?
Torrence: Regardless of how much momentum our movement has garnered, many LGBTQ+ people continue to face discrimination in their personal lives, at work, and in their pursuit of access to health care. In the United States, our basic rights—ones that have been fought for and won over a period of several decades—are under attack in state and federal courts and state legislatures across the country. So, as much as we owe to the brave individuals who started our movement for the progress that has been achieved, we are still fighting to hold on to the same fundamental rights that have always been elusive. Moreover, outside of the United States, there are still Draconian, discriminatory laws on the books that criminalize our very existence. We also need to ensure that we are not leaving anyone (e.g., our trans family, queer people of color, etc.) in our community behind as we make marginal gains for certain groups within our community.
Q: What is the biggest issue facing LGBTQ+ people in the legal profession?
Torrence: Representation, inclusion and equity. First, we have to ensure that we have a strong pipeline of LGBTQ+ people who graduate from law school and enter our profession. That’s going to take a collaborative effort of for-profit and nonprofit organizations who work in a steadfast manner to ensure representation is there. We also have to ensure that top-tier law firms and legal departments are hiring from our community. And, of equal importance, those employers need to understand the issues that face our community, and they need to be employing the best practices for fostering a sense of belonging and inclusion for their LGBTQ+ attorneys. I remember avoiding lunches, dinners, and other events so that my colleagues wouldn’t find out I was gay. I remember leaving out details about the time I spent away from work so that I could remain safely in the closet. All of it was exhausting and required more effort than the legal issues I was charged with tackling. No one should have to go through that. One of the reasons I’m so excited about the LGBTQ+ Bar’s DEI Consulting Practice is because it arms legal employers with the tools to ensure that equity and inclusion are at the heart of everything they do.
Q: What does it mean to you to be recognized as a Grand Marshal for the 2022 Houston LGBT Pride Celebration?
Torrence: Being Grand Marshal of the Houston LGBT Pride Celebration is the most humbling honor I have ever received. From my vantage, Pride is an opportunity to celebrate our ability to love and live authentically and unapologetically. It’s also an opportunity to honor those who fought so hard for equality and equity for all LGBTQ+ people and those who we have lost due to HIV and AIDS. Pride is a chance to show the world our multifaceted strengths, gifts, talents, and intersectional diversity, and to demand what we need to thrive in our respective communities. To lead that celebration in the 4th largest city in the U.S. means the world to me, especially because I have so much respect and adoration for so many of the previous Grand Marshals. The fact that the community, my community, thinks that I have made contributions significant enough to be mentioned along with theirs is the highest honor I could ever imagine.
Q: What will be your area of focus as President of The National LGBTQ+ Bar Foundation?
Torrence: The mission of any organization I serve is always my North Star. I’m fortunate enough to be taking the reins of the Foundation when the world appears to be emerging from the pandemic. So, I’d like to focus on fostering those interpersonal connections that we’ve missed so much over the past two years while not forgetting about the benefits we’ve gained from learning how to connect with our friends and colleagues virtually. Our Foundation makes a ton of extremely significant contributions to the LGBTQ+ community and the legal profession. But, there’s always room to grow. Instead of imposing my desires on the organization, I intend to make a few targeted suggestions to my colleagues on the Board with the hopes of building consensus to work on a project that we all believe will move the needle forward.
The National LGBTQ+ Bar Association thanks Travis for his leadership presence in the LGBTQ+ community and congratulates him for being named Grand Marshal of the 2022 Houston LGBT Pride Celebration. We are thrilled that he will continue his involvement within the Bar as President of the National LGBTQ+ Bar Foundation.