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Vicki Blanton: Working on Benefits to Keep American Airlines Flying High

Since 2008, Vicki Blanton has served as American Airlines’ Senior Benefits Counsel reporting to the Associate General Counsel of Employment.  In this role, Vicki is responsible for ERISA legal compliance of the company’s employee benefits plan, which includes advising the company’s officers of their fiduciary obligations with respect to the administration of the plan.   Vicki also, occasionally, provides advice for executive compensation. 


Vicki is currently working on the implementation of the new health care reform act to ensure that American Airlines, although already ahead of the curve in offering its employees comprehensive benefits, remains compliant with the new rules.  Her advisory responsibilities for health care benefits sometimes requires overseeing compliance in Europe, Asia and Canada. 


Describe your typical workday?

I start my day off with a neat to do list.  Then, even before I settle in the phone rings and the list is no longer the priority.  But, typically much of my time is spent keeping current on the various laws and regulations impacting health benefits and retirement planning.   I also spend a lot of my day reviewing proposed bills and providing comments on behalf of American Airlines about what the final law and regulations should look like in order to achieve the government’s policy goals without unfairly hindering the operation of a business such as ours.   


What do you enjoy most about your job?

I like the fact that it is dispassionate.  Everything is written down.  Although there are nuances about the laws governing employee benefits and executive compensation, your obligations under the law are fairly straightforward.  The policy may not be intuitive, but the application has a certain level of certainty.


Where do you see yourself five to ten years from now?

I find working in government relations intriguing.  I would like to be in a position where I can provide an experienced outsider’s perspective on the policy reasons behind a law or regulation and its practical application.    


What advice would you give to a young attorney or law student who is interested in working in this area of practice?

Show your interest.  Ask an ERISA attorney to work on a project.  They will be happy to get some help.  I have never met an ERISA attorney who didn’t need an extra set of hands.  This kind of work is often tagged as complex, challenging, counter intuitive, but there is always steady workflow.  The laws are constantly changing so I expect that for years to come this will continue to be an area of practice where lawyers will be in demand. 


What would you be doing now if you didn’t become a lawyer?

In my younger years I used to fantasize about being a chef.  You have to be really creative to be a chef.  You also have the flexibility to always do something different and interesting.  More importantly, you get to eat what you make (smile).  I’m not in the kitchen as much as I would like, but I do try to sharpen my culinary skills once a year at our family Thanksgiving dinner.   


Can you name one mentor who has significantly impacted your life?

Judge Sam A. Lindsay of the United States District Court, Northern District of Texas.   Judge Lindsay assigned me to a major project on voter redistricting, during my first-year clerkship when he was the First Assistant at the Dallas City Attorney’s office.  He always had a lot more faith in me than I had in myself very early in my career.  President Bill Clinton appointed him to the bench in 1998, which is an awesome responsibility, but we still manage to find ways to stay in touch. 


I understand that Corporate Counsel Women of Color (CCWC) recently awarded American Airlines the Diversity Award of Excellence.  Can you tell me what this award means to your company?

The award is recognition of how our company is implementing programs that advance diversity.  I was very honored to be able to accept this award on behalf of American Airlines.  Our legal team is a very diverse group.  We have representation from various minority groups, LGBT.  The department is almost fifty percent women, six of which are women of color.  American Airlines has acted on its commitment to diversity.  This is something to really be proud of.


If you could have dinner with someone in history (no longer living), who would it be?

My great-great grandmother who crossed from Georgia into Texas.  I would like to know more about her and where she got the courage to make such a bold move. 


Describe yourself in three words or less?

Focused.  Loyal. Balanced (with a disclaimer).  I appreciate how difficult it is to achieve true balance as a working professional, but I have committed to working as hard at maintaining my personal relationships and outside interests as much as I do practicing law.


Describe your perfect vacation?

I am a beach person.  I love hearing waves crashing on the shore.  I prefer an ocean with a sandy beach.  This resets my clock.  My shoulders fall and I am automatically relaxed.   It reconnects and reconfirms that there is a higher power than myself.

 Written by Marsha Henry


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