Diversity in Practice: Navigating Pandemic & Protest, Episode 2

MoFo Perspectives Podcast

12 Nov 2020

In the second episode of the Wetmore Fellow subseries, San Francisco Litigation Associate and Fellow alumni Ryan Romain hosts a discussion with MoFo Director of Associate Development and Women’s Initiatives Janet Herman and Boston Finance partner Joe O’Donnell about how the firm quickly developed multiple resources in support of working parents during the shelter-in-place mandates and in the wake of the George Floyd killing.


Speaker: Welcome to MoFo Perspectives, a podcast by Morrison & Foerster, where we share the perspectives of our clients, colleagues, subject matter experts, and lawyers.

Ayanna Ryans-Holder: Welcome to the Diversity in Practice Podcast, a part of MoFo Perspectives. My name is Ayanna Ryans-Holder, and I am the Attorney Diversity and Inclusion Specialists at MoFo, and I manage and coordinate our inclusive recruiting initiatives. I oversee the Wetmore Fellowship for Excellence, Diversity, and Inclusion. In this episode of the fellow subseries Navigating Pandemic and Protest, fellow alumnus, Ryan Romain, a litigation associate in our San Francisco office welcomes Janet Herman, Director of Attorney Development and Women’s Initiatives, and Joe O’Donnell, a finance partner in our Boston office, to discuss how the firm quickly responded in support of working parents during the shelter in place mandates and in response to the racial injustices we’ve seen over the course of the past several months.

Ryan Romain: Hello, my name is Ryan Romain. I’m an associate in our San Francisco office and part of MoFo’s trademark practice group. I’m happy to be hosting the second episode of the five part series, Navigating Pandemic and Protest. By way of background, I’m a former Wetmore fellow who joined the firm back in 2017. I don’t have children myself, but have colleagues with children and know how the pandemic has presented unique challenges for working parents and caregivers. I’m really excited the firm has gathered resources and initiated programs to help out with these challenges and to talk about them today. We have with us today Janet Herman, MoFo’s director of Attorney Development and Women’s Initiatives, and Joe O’Donnell, a finance partner in our Boston office. Janet, Joe, welcome to the podcast.

Janet Herman: Happy to be here.

Ryan Romain: Janet, let’s start with you. In addition to your role as director of Attorney Development, you are also director of Women Initiatives for the firm. I know that you initially started here at MoFo as a practicing attorney. Can you tell us a little bit about what initially brought you to MoFo and how you transitioned from practice to your current role?

Janet Herman: Sure. So as you said, I was a practicing attorney. I worked as an associate in a law firm for about 10 years, and one of the partners who I had worked with came to Morrison & Foerster, and eventually I followed him to MoFo. I will say that at my prior firm, I was the first woman to get pregnant and have a child at my former firm. And they said, well, we don’t have a maternity leave policy here because we’ve never needed one, so you draft one. So I said, okay. And what I did was, like any good lawyer, I did some research and I called firms in the San Francisco bay area to find out what other firms have done in this area. And at the time, which was a long time ago in the eighties, found out that Morrison & Foerster had the most robust maternity leave policy of any firm and the one that had been around the longest. And I ended up actually crafting my firm’s maternity leave policy after Morrison & Foerster’s. So when I was asked to come to Morrison & Foerster many years later, I knew it was a great place for women.

Ryan Romain: Janet, could you also let us know how in your current role, you partner with Diversity and Inclusion to support the work of the Women’s Strategy Committee and execute on women’s initiatives?

Janet Herman: Sure. So my group supports D&I by working really closely with the Women’s Strategy Committee and the Diversity Strategy Committee, the Women’s Strategy Committee is co-chaired by two partners, Carrie Cohen, who is a litigation partner in our New York office, and Stacey Sprenkel, who is a SLEW lawyer in our San Francisco office, and has the steering committee, which consist of those two partners, me, and Natalie Kernisant, who is the director of D&I. And we have parallel structure on the broader diversity side with our diversity strategy committee. And those two committees work on many projects together where there is intersectionality around D&I issues that affect women at the firm.

Ryan Romain: Joe, you joined MoFo in February of 2019 as one of the founding partners of our Boston office. Would you tell us a bit about your practice area, specialty, your career trajectory prior to joining the firm, and what made you choose MoFo?

Joe O’Donnell: Sure. Yeah, it seems like it was just yesterday, especially in light of the past six months, but I am in the finance group, so I primarily represent lenders lending to private equity funds and venture capital funds with a variety of financing products. My career trajectory prior to joining MoFo, I was at the same midsize boutique lending law firm in Boston for my entire career. And the reason why MoFo was such a good option is I think twofold. So the first was the MoFo platform. It allows us to leverage MoFo’s really preeminent tax Arissa, in sanctions expertise, which was key to growing a practice group. And the second thing is culture. I’ve never viewed myself as kind of a gun-for-hire lawyer. Its cultural fit is a huge thing for me. That’s why I didn’t jump around. I stayed in one place for my whole career. So all of the positive things that you hear about MoFo coming in with a culture of collaboration and mutual support and programs like this, frankly, we had heard that going in and it’s been it’s played out exactly that way. So, I couldn’t be happier with the decision.

Ryan Romain: It’s great to hear about your experiences at the firm. You’re a working parent, who, like many, had to suddenly adjust to juggling a challenging career with childcare and child education. Could you tell us a little bit of about your family and what it was like for you as your family tried to create a new sense of normal under shelter-in-place?

Joe O’Donnell: Sure. Yeah. I have a pretty small crew. It’s me, my wife, Amy, who works full time. We have a 10-year-old son named James, and we have a pretty aging [inaudible] cat with us at the household here. So yeah, it was looking back at the initial kind of stay-at-home order. It was a shock. Again, with two working parents and school being in session, we immediately lost our afterschool childcare, school stopped and we had to both transition to remote work. So I think that first week, if I had describe it, would be damage control, frankly, just kind of absorbing it and doing the best that we could to pivot. We had the best intentions. My wife is awesome. She came up with this color-coded chart. We put it on the fridge, we put it everywhere, and it had little like blocks for James’s schedule.

Joe O’Donnell: This is a reading time, and this two hours of outside time, and there’s your school time, and then some video game time or whatever. Great intentions that quickly devolved into more of a free for all, right? And actually, as the stay-at-home situation continued, we kind of settled into a, hey, we’re doing the best we can here to keep him doing his schoolwork, give him some fresh air and keep him off a PlayStation, you know, minimum of 10 hours a day or whatever was the goal. So, I don’t think we were didn’t win any best parent of the year awards or whatever, but it was a doing the best we can. Then we kind of settled into that rhythm, I think, until the summer hit, school got out.

Ryan Romain: I know the adjustment period just was very challenging. So I’m glad that you were able to settle into that rhythm. Now, Janet, I know that during your tenure at the firm, you’ve seen many changes in terms of initiatives and programs for working parents. Can you talk a little about some of those changes and how they came about?

Janet Herman: Sure. When I came to the firm many years ago, I was pregnant with my third child, and I can say that, at the time, all of the working parent benefits were directed at women. So we had maternity leave policies. We had a reduced hours policy that was for women returning from having children. All of those things were great and they were necessary at the time. But in order to help women advance in a professional world, working parents issues should not be solely directed at women. And so the thing that I have seen change over time, and I’m interested in Joe’s opinion on this as well, is including men in the conversation. So the fathers now also can work reduced hours. And we no longer call it maternity leave; we call it parental leave. And I think the focus of caregiving as related to all of the parents at the firm is a really important change that I’ve seen.

Joe O’Donnell: Yeah. Yeah. I would second that for sure. And so I’ve only been practicing since the early 2000s, right? So not forever ago, but that kind of the culture or the atmosphere back then, and this is after talking to a lot of my colleagues and a bunch of other firms at the time, was some like 1950s model of gendered, this is, you’re a male attorney, you’re supposed to keep working. And the quote unquote fraternity policy was you put your Blackberry down for a couple hours, like in the delivery room or something—I’m exaggerating—but that’s kind of what it was, again, across the board. So since then, yeah, there’s been a much needed kind of decoupling of gender from the idea of parental leave and kind of focusing more on the family, right? Focusing more on the needs of the family unit.

Joe O’Donnell: So, yep. Going from maternity policies to paternity policies to parental leave is a good example. And just the verbiage, just like the nomenclature of it, I think, it sends kind of a powerful signal. And for childcare, too. I put that in the same category. It affects both parents. And there’s, you know, if a junior skins his or her knee at the playground at school, it could be Mom or Dad’s obligation to say, hey, I have to leave quickly and go handle this. And there should be a de-stigmatization of that process. So I think we’ve—we’re getting—we’re certainly improved over what it was, but a long way to go, too.

Janet Herman: Yeah. I have to say the example about the skinned knee is a really good one. And you used to hear dads, when they needed to go home early, say I need to go babysit, and you never heard a mom say she had to quote babysit, right? Because you’re just parenting. And I think you’re exactly right, that the stigma around taking care of your children gets removed when it’s just about parent responsibility and it applies to everyone across the board so that there isn’t a preconceived notion about one’s commitment to their career, if they’re in fact taking care of their child, because that’s just what parents do. And we’re normalizing it by these changes.

Ryan Romain: On that note, let’s switch gears and delve more squarely into the topic of today’s episode. In the first episode of this series, David Newman, who is a partner in our D.C. office and co-chair of both the firm’s global risk and crisis management practice group and the firm’s coronavirus task force, and Nicole Bonzer, director of attorney recruiting, discussed the impact of COVID-19 on our clients and summer associates. More specifically, they discussed how the shelter-in-place orders in several states required a fairly swift transition from in-person to remote work for all lawyers and staff. Janet, in addition to supporting our clients and summer associates, MoFo also had to immediately begin creating and offering resources to our entire staff, many of whom had never previously worked remotely. The diversity and inclusion in women’s teams were integral in this process, which I’m sure was a tremendous undertaking. Can you give us some insight into that?

Janet Herman: Sure. So we were asked by firm leadership to help the staff and the attorneys work remotely. We had about 48 hours’ notice, and we got to work with reaching out to all of our various administrative departments to put together a work-from-home resources site on our portal that would provide folks information that they needed and all of the resources in one place in order to work efficiently from their home offices.

Ryan Romain: It’s wonderful to hear how quickly you were able to put together those resources. And thank you to everyone who was involved in that effort. The shelter-in-place order also meant that many families no longer had access to childcare and were now working fulltime with children who were now in the home with them 24 hours a day. When did the firm realize that this was going to pose an additional challenge for the MoFo family, and what solutions were proposed and implemented?

Janet Herman: We realized it right away. I’m a parent, and I know that it’s extremely challenging to try to do the kind of work that we do with children who also need our attention. The first thing that we did was we called a meeting of our working parent affinity groups and we asked them what would help you. And the first thing that they said was just advice. And we wanted to figure out what kind of advice would be helpful and what they needed was strategies. So, actually, I turned to my sister, Elizabeth Stone, and she’s an educational consultant. She runs a company called Campanelli, and I asked her if she had any suggestions on where we might go to help parents who are both trying to work at home and also trying to help their children with their own learning at home, and through Dr. Stone, we retained a therapist and educator who did a series of programs to give us strategies for kids at different ages.

Janet Herman: And Joe, you had said that your wife created this calendar with color coding. And that was one of the things that the educator suggested for one of the age groups is to really do that, to get organized. So we had a series of programs like that to give parents strategies. And then we started thinking about what else could we provide? Not only provide things for the parents, but could we provide things for the children to keep them engaged while their parents were trying to work? The two of the programs we came up with were a storytelling series delivered by Jim Weiss, who is a renowned storyteller. And that was a program for the, maybe younger children, frankly, all the way up to adults. He’s super engaging. And we did a children’s camp series, which engaged children more in the elementary school, middle school, age group. And we had four programs on that. So we tried to think about supporting the parents and giving them advice and then also supporting the children of our MoFo family.

Ryan Romain: Joe, I know that you and your family participated in several of the remote programs, including the summer camp and the storytelling programs. Could you tell us about you and your child’s experience with these programs and speak to the impact these resources had on your family?

Joe O’Donnell: Yeah, sure. It was a struggle to fill up James’s day on a day-in, day-out basis with, like I said before, not just, video game time or what have you. So those two programs in particular were, I would say, a godsend, frankly. So the Campanelli program that Janet mentioned, in particular, was the standout, just a quick kind of description of that. It was a two-week program, four days a week. I know 10 or 12 children of MoFo attorneys and employees. James’ program was based on oral histories and kind of Chronicling or Narrating the Moment I think was the title. So the structure was, they had a kind of a morning meeting earlier in the day where they all got together as a group, and they Zoomed in with a great educator who was running James’s module to kind of talk about what they’re learning and techniques for recording and kind of chronicling oral histories.

Joe O’Donnell: Then they’d have time apart individually, and then it would all reconnect as a group later on in the evening, which coincidentally enough is what his James’ remote learning structure is at school. So that model was new to us at that time. It really worked well. And lo and behold, it’s being replicated here for actual schoolwork. He was really engaged in it. The educator instructor was fantastic and very patient. She got the kids motivated. The end result was this really cool project where kids had to interview two different people about what their experiences were during COVID during the shelter‑in‑place or the work-from-home experience. He interviewed a friend of his from school and that friend’s mom, and it was just really nice to see him have the confidence to engage in a back and forth and ask relatively probing questions for a then nine year old, and then present that to the team and present that to the group in front of all the other kids and the parents we got [inaudible].

Joe O’Donnell: It was just awesome. One particularly cool thing was, the first week to get the kids comfortable about talking about or asking questions of other persons, the assignment was talk to your parents about music that they enjoyed when they were your age. So, if there’s any your parents with school-aged kids out there, if you need a kind of a real poignant reminder of how old and uncool you have become, play examples of songs to your kids from when you were the same age. So we did it with my wife. It was like Duran, Adam Ant, and the Gogos. And it just could—it completely went over James’ head, couldn’t understand why anyone would listen to this. But it was like a nice family moment, you know? So it was that’s a huge part of what the resources did was sure it’s stuff for James to do, but it brought us together as a family, as well. Same thing with Jim Weiss and the storytelling module, that became our family time for those four weeks. And you put the laptops away, you put the phones down, sit down as a family, listen to some really cool stories from Jim and talk about them afterwards. So it’s a struggle as work-from-home continues to creep along. It’s a struggle to prioritize those nice little moments of family connection time. And the storytelling series was a great way to schedule that time during the day.

Janet Herman: I love that you listened to them together because we called the storytelling program Gather ‘Round, because the idea was, yeah, to take that time to be together. I’m so pleased to hear that.

Ryan Romain: In the midst of the pandemic, we also had issues of racial injustice that culminated in protests all around the country. The firm’s response to that was also immediate and encompassed external and internal efforts, including a racial injustice site, allyship trainings, and an Allyship is Action campaign. This podcast series and the larger Diversity in Practice podcast series. The diversity and inclusion in women’s teams also offered a webinar series on talking to your children about race. Having difficult conversations with other adults is challenging enough, but I certainly understand that talking to your children about these things can be anxiety inducing. I’d love to get both your perspectives on this particular resource. Janet, let’s start with you. How was this series conceptualized, and how did you work with the inclusion team to move it from conception to completion?

Janet Herman: Well, Ryan, like a lot of things that we do, it was definitely a joint effort. And a lot of the conversations came from the allyship meetings that we had after the George Floyd murder, where many of the people participating in the allyship program talked about how they were raised to quote “not see race” and that even talking about race or acknowledging that you notice people’s races was taboo in their upbringing. So we thought it was really important to reopen the conversation in a different way. So Natalie Kernisant and I, Natalie again, is the director of diversity inclusion, talked quite a bit about who the right speaker would be for this. We discussed whether it should be an educator or whether it should be somebody like a professor who has lots of information through studies and so on. But what we settled on was working with the organization called Raising Compassionate Leaders.

Janet Herman: And we chose Danica Gordon Mandel because she’s a person who’s involved in the education of these kinds of things, but she’s also a therapist and she works with families directly. She works with children and she works with parents. So she has a real practical, on-the-ground view of the way these conversations can go. And so that’s what we settled on doing was having a conversation to really give us practical advice. Something else that was very important to me and Natalie when we were conceptualizing this program was to ensure that we included all parents in the conversation because white parents and also parents of color need to be able to be supported in speaking to their children about race and racism. So when we were choosing a speaker, we wanted to make sure that that person would be reaching out and helping all of our parents.

Ryan Romain: Yeah. I took part in those workshops as well. I can definitely say that approaching it from that perspective was really helpful. Joe, as the parent of a younger child, can you talk a bit about the challenges involved in not just the thought of having this conversation with your son, but in helping him learn to navigate a world where these issues are at the forefront of society?

Joe O’Donnell: Sure. It’s not easy, right. And just for context, I am a white male and have benefited from white privilege my whole life. So it’s important to me to have the conversation with James, but it’s not easy. A couple things: I was concerned about where I’m coming from and what kind of value assumptions I’m bringing to the table, recognizing that I’m still learning. And like what Janet mentioned earlier, that kind of the paradigm of being color blind. That’s one that I grew up in. So, I needed to obviously realize that that’s an incorrect paradigm so I’m not perpetuating that going forward with James, and I needed to keep in mind where he’s coming from. We’re living in an extremely—not proud of it—but extremely homogenous community.

Joe O’Donnell: It’s not socioeconomically diverse. It’s not racially diverse. So, where is he when he’s growing up in that environment? Where is he at with his thinking about race? And then he plays a lot of video games online—again, not super proud of it—but you have your headphones on, you have a mic and news flash, online communities where I can largely just a cesspool of potential hate. So I didn’t know where he was at, and I needed a starting point to have that conversation. And again, full disclosure, we’re all friends here in podcast land. That was the Sesame Street town hall on talking to your kids about race on CNN, plus MoFo series on talking to your kids about race, to kind of get grounded, get me grounded, focused on the right issues so that I could have a productive, constructive conversation with James.

Joe O’Donnell: And I think it went well. One of the big things I learned from it is he had a pretty good sense already of where someone is making racial epithets or speaking in racist terms. He understood that that was wrong. But what he didn’t understand was that’s not good enough, right? It’s not just understanding it’s wrong, but taking the next step to be anti-racist and taking steps to be an effective ally. So it’s not just hearing it and letting it go by, but confronting the kid who said it or telling a grownup, telling a teacher, telling a person of authority so that there’s more chance for actual improvement here.

Ryan Romain: I’m so glad to hear that those series were helpful and that you were able to have some productive conversations with him. I’m also a white male who came from a similar background of not being talked to about these issues. So it’s great to hear that you’re able to have these conversations with your son, and hopefully more people are able to have these conversations with their kids at younger age, moving forward. Janet, what was the feedback from the program? And are there additional resources for parents on this topic?

Janet Herman: The feedback was great. Piggybacking off what Joe said, we had separate sessions depending on the age of the child. So we had one for the zero to five year olds, which I call the littles. Then we had one for elementary school kids, and one for teens. And we did talk about what to do the gaming world, just in the same way that Joe said, that is where a lot of the kids encounter these messages. Danica was really great. And I heard a lot of good feedback, again, about the practical nature of her advice. So one thing she said that I heard feedback from our folks about was, for example, if your child is in school and that child’s friend is a person of color and says to the child, hey, I noticed a teacher never calls on me, really bothers me.

Janet Herman: Most kids would say, oh, no one noticed that. Don’t worry about it. But actually, she talked us through how you would coach your child to support that friend of color, to say, you know what, you’re right. That’s really not cool, and we should figure out a way for that not to happen. And so the feedback that I got again was how much people appreciated the age-appropriate advice. Some people reached out to me afterwards and said, how can I learn more? So we created a list with Danica’s input on different readings that people can access, both for yourself, but also different books and materials that you can provide to your child or read to your child to raise conversations around these issues. And then also, if folks go to Raising Compassionate Leaders, there’s a self-assessment there for the parents to take, which is a really good first step for folks to kind of understand where you are as a parent in this whole journey. And then, with that grounding, that helps you launch into the conversations with your children. Last thing I would say is it was so well received that we are doing the same series for our clients. And for those listeners who are interested in hearing more about the conversation, we have a podcast with the founders of Raising Compassionate Leaders, and you can find it, as well as all the other podcasts in this series, on the website by going to mofo.com/podcasts.

Ryan Romain: Thanks, Janet. That’s really fantastic to hear about all those resources and exciting that it was so well received. We’re going to be rolling it out for clients, too. Janet and Joe, this last question is for both of you. How important do you think it is for organizations to begin encouraging and empowering men to actively take part in conversations about work-life balance and childcare, and how do you think that doing so ultimately allows organizations to create or support more fair and equitable workplace environments for women? Janet, let’s start with you.

Janet Herman: As I mentioned earlier, it is really critical for organizations to include men in these conversations. And I’ll say it’s not only to help the women, it’s obviously to create a more equitable workplace for all of our working parents. And to get the male perspective on these issues is critical to expand our offerings and to ensure that we’re really meeting the needs of everyone in our organizations.

Joe O’Donnell: Yeah, I’d agree. Absolutely critical, from my view, among the kind of systemic challenges that women attorneys face on a day-to-day basis. Childcare is one that could be significantly improved by decoupling the idea from gender, like we talked about before, and kind of destigmatizing it and understanding that it affects the family unit, in general, which is a genderless idea. I think the work‑from‑home environment has been helpful in that way, right? Because we’re seeing, from my own personal experience, I’m getting a sense of what it is like to be more of a care provider to James and having my two worlds, which, prior to this, were very separate. You have your work world and you have your home world, and those have been conflated, right?

Joe O’Donnell: And it’s, I think, a good lesson for me and other working dads out there to learn from it, right? And we can, I think, move beyond the funny memes and the funny videos of kids interrupting conference calls, right? Like we can kind of appreciate that for what it is, move beyond it, and try to capitalize on it and have this be something that we can learn from and realize that, like I said, it’s a family unit concern, it’s a family unit issue, should not be limited to Mom has to deal with these things anymore. It just doesn’t make sense. And I think the work-from-home environment has been a good, poignant way of showing that to everybody.

Ryan Romain: Yeah. It’s really interesting to hear that you’re taking more away from the work‑from‑home environment, and I’m glad that there are lessons there other than we’re all stuck in our houses, so that’s fantastic to hear. Thank you so much for joining me today. I invite everyone to join us for the next episode in this series where we’ll be discussing the many ways the firm continues to address these issues through our pro bono efforts and the work of the MoFo foundation.

Speaker: Please make sure to subscribe to the MoFo Perspectives podcast so you don’t miss an episode. If you have any questions about what you heard today, or like more information on this topic, please visit mofo.com/podcasts. Again, that’s MoFo, M-O-F-O.com/podcasts.



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