Vania Wit puts her best foot forward, no matter what. It’s a mind-set her father impressed upon her all throughout her childhood, and it is what has driven Wit and her teams to success at United Airlines.
Wit’s parents immigrated to the United States from Bolivia in the 1960s, eventually settling in the greater Chicago area. Wit remained quite close to home for college, majoring in political science at Northwestern University.
“When I was accepted at Harvard Law School, that was a big deal,” Wit recalls. “My father passed away in the fall of last year, but that was probably one of the proudest moments of his life. He had very much instilled in me the importance of not only pursuing your passion but also of excelling and always doing your best.”
Following her graduation from Harvard, Wit returned to the Chicago area, soon making a name for herself at local law firms as an experienced litigator as well as a talented labor and employment attorney. But then, about twenty-one years ago, a position opened up in the legal department at United Airlines’ headquarters. For Wit, there was never even a question of whether she would accept.
“Growing up, I was always traveling to Latin America to visit family and friends,” Wit explains. “I looked forward to those trips so much, and I always associated airplane travel with great memories. So I was fascinated by the idea of working in aviation at United.”
Working at one of the most prominent companies in the aerospace industry certainly keeps Wit busy. The company connects hundreds of thousands of people around the United States and the world every year.
As vice president and deputy general counsel, Wit primarily works in litigation with teams responsible for intellectual property, labor, employment and benefits, international, and antitrust and global competition. Last year, she also had the legal operations group under her purview. Reflecting on it all, Wit says, “Really, I’m just trying to protect our passengers, protect the brand, and protect our employees so that the company can put its best foot forward and drive the customer experience.”
“Vania’s unwavering commitment to excellence is inspiring,” says Atif Khawaja, a litigation partner at Kirkland & Ellis. “A thoughtful strategist, she thinks ahead and around corners with creative and practical judgment. She is always a pleasure to work with—calm, collected, and on top of everything. On top of it all, Vania is an exemplary leader who cares about her team, United, and the larger community.”
Helping the company put its best foot forward is not always perfectly straightforward, Wit notes. And in her two-plus decades with United, Wit has seen a lot of ups and downs.
One of the major milestones was the company’s merger with Continental Airlines at the end of 2010. “That was a tremendous point in time for both companies because we were trying to integrate both workforces, both cultures, and create one, united company,” she says. “And that was very challenging, but we laid a really solid foundation for the company moving forward.”
Indeed, the company as it stands today is one of the strongest in the industry, renowned for the welcoming and inclusive environment it fosters in its offices and stations across the globe.
“No matter what you’re working on, there is always value in putting your best foot forward. You just never know where it’s going to lead you.”
“I am really proud of the attention that United places on diversity and inclusion. The company goes to great efforts to make sure that it is not a standalone subject or department but rather integrated in everything we do,” Wit remarks. “We have operationalized diversity and inclusion, in a sense; it is embedded in each and every one of our business objectives, policies, and training programs.”
Wit is the executive sponsor of the women’s employee business resource group and a member of UNITE, a multicultural business resource group designed to give every employee a voice for their ideas and concerns. “And we’re listening,” Wit notes. “Our leaders are listening to those thoughts and concerns, and they definitely want to leverage them.”
Leveraging those ideas has helped Wit and the other leaders of the legal department set a tone that she hopes influences other departments across United. “When I look across the legal department, I see a lot of intent when it comes to representation and inclusion,” Wit says. “Our leadership is very passionate about bringing this into the conversation, and I do think we’ve set a high bar.”
Of course, Wit aims to have the legal department and its attorneys and legal professionals serve as role models. And in her experience, that only happens when people focus on working as a team and not getting too caught up with the kinds of projects they’re assigned to, or how they measure up against their colleagues.
“It’s easy to fixate on those things, especially early in your career,” Wit acknowledges. “But in my experience, you can’t be so worried about your next step that you lose focus on what you’re doing in the moment. No matter what you’re working on, there is always value in putting your best foot forward. You just never know where it’s going to lead you.”
United We Stand
According to Vania Wit, the merger between United Airlines and Continental Airlines made the company stronger and more impactful than it’s ever been—and not just in terms of its business. “We started the legal department’s pro bono program about a year after the merger,” Wit explains. “Our leaders called on us to think about how we could make a difference. As lawyers, we have a unique set of skills, and this program is a way to really leverage those skills.”
Through United’s pro bono program, attorneys can support any organization they wish to, Wit says. She herself is heavily involved with the National Immigrant Justice Center.
“Everyone has a different passion,” Wit notes, “and we felt that that passion would only increase participation across the department.” Indeed, more than 70 percent of United’s attorneys participate in some type of pro bono activity, Wit reports. “It is truly something to be proud of.”
Kirkland & Ellis is an international law firm representing clients in restructuring; M&A, private equity, and other corporate transactions; complex litigation, dispute resolution, and arbitration; and intellectual property matters across multiple industries, including consumer and retail, energy, healthcare, industrials, media, real estate, transportation, and technology. The firm has fifteen offices around the world, in Beijing, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Hong Kong, Houston, London, Los Angeles, Munich, New York, Palo Alto, Paris, San Francisco, Shanghai, and Washington, D.C.
Kirkland offers the highest-quality legal advice coupled with extraordinary, tailored service to deliver exceptional results to clients and help their businesses succeed. The firm invests in the brightest legal talent and builds dynamic teams that operate at the pinnacle of their respective areas. Kirkland prides itself on having lawyers across all practice areas who work together as an integrated, multidisciplinary team to provide seamless service, with a focus on innovative, pragmatic problem-solving. We also aim to make a difference in our clients’ businesses and communities and are committed to providing top-notch pro bono legal services. We believe in empowering our lawyers, encouraging entrepreneurialism, operating ethically and with integrity, and collaborating to bring our best to every engagement.