Diversity in Practice: Navigating Pandemic & Protest, Episode 4

MoFo Perspectives Podcast

20 Jan 2021

In the fourth episode of the Wetmore Fellow subseries, San Francisco Litigation Associate and Fellow alumnus Tom Davidson hosts a discussion with New York Litigation partner and Women’s Strategy Committee Co-Chair Carrie H. Cohen, and Firm Chair Larren Nashelsky about how crucial transparency, responsibility and accountability are to any diversity and inclusion endeavors, and the impact of those factors on their decision to galvanize over 30 law firms to support their effort to encourage Governor Andrew Cuomo to repeal Section 50a of the Civil Rights Law.


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 specialist at MoFo, and I manage and coordinate our inclusive recruiting initiatives. In my role, I oversee the Wetmore Fellowship for Excellence, Diversity, and Inclusion. In this episode of the fellow subseries Navigating Pandemic and Protests, fellow alumnus Tom Davidson welcomes Carrie Cohen, a litigation partner in our New York office and co-chair of the Women’s Strategy Committee, and firm Chair Larren Nashelsky to discuss the firm’s role in urging New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to repeal section 50A of the state’s civil rights law.

Tom Davidson: Hi, my name is Tom Davidson. I’m a litigation associate in our San Francisco office, and I’m happy to be hosting the fourth episode of the five-part series Navigating Pandemic and Protests. By way of background, I’m a former Wetmore fellow who joined the firm in 2019. 2020 has certainly presented its challenges. However, when I reflect on this past year, there many positive moments that stand out to me. I was fortunate to participate in part of the 21-day racial equity habit building challenge last summer. I’ll never forget the conversations I had with colleagues from offices all across the country, many of whom I’d never met before. It can be difficult to find the time and space for long overdue conversations to take place, but I was so encouraged by how open my colleagues were to listening and trying to understand the experience of others. It was also a great opportunity to connect with the whole firm ecosystem, including staff, paralegals, secretaries, and all the folks who were so critical to the success of the firm.

Tom Davidson: As a continuation of the important conversations here at MoFo, we have with us today Carrie Cohen, a litigation partner in our New York office, and Larren Nashelsky, Chair of Morrison & Foerster. Carrie, Larren, welcome to the podcast. Carrie, let’s start with you. In addition to becoming a litigation partner, you also served as co-chair of the Women’s Strategy Committee. I know that you actually started at MoFo as an associate early on and rejoined the firm in 2016, following an illustrious career in public service. During that time you served as chief of the Public Integrity Unit in the New York Attorney General’s office, before becoming a federal prosecutor. Can you tell us a little bit about what initially brought you to MoFo and how you transition from public service to private practice?

Carrie Cohen: So, Tom, I was so glad to hear you talk about the 21-day racial equity habit challenge this summer, because one of the reasons I came back home to Morrison & Foerster was exactly for the reasons that you talked about regarding that challenge, which is the attorneys and the staff at Morrison & Foerster care so much about each other, care so much about the communities in which we live, about the world in general, and about providing excellent service to our clients. I had two stints in government, as you mentioned, one at the New York state Attorney General’s office and one as a federal prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, and one of the primary things I enjoyed the most about my government service was working with attorneys and support staff who all had one goal in mind, which was to do the right thing for the right reason.

Carrie Cohen: And I have to say the attorneys at Morrison & Foerster have that similar goal in mind, both in the way that they practice law and a way they treat each other and the way they approach their obligations as lawyers and to their communities. And so the reason I came back to Morrison & Foerster was really to continue working with top notch attorneys, which I had worked with at the government and I have found are across all offices and all practice groups to be true, that our attorneys here are just absolutely supreme and experts in their field, but they’re also wonderful people who are committed to doing the right thing for the right reason and committed to making our profession and our world a better place.

Tom Davidson: Thank you, Carrie. Larren, like Carrie, you also joined the firm as a lateral attorney, but you’ve spent a majority of your career here at MoFo, serving in numerous leadership roles, including leading the Business Restructuring and Insolvency Group and serving as one of the firm’s managing partners, all before being elected the firm’s Chair. Would you tell us a bit about what made you choose to come to MoFo, your career trajectory, and how your priorities for the firm have evolved over time?

Larren Nashelsky: Unlike Carrie, I didn’t have a preview of MoFo as a firm before I joined in 1999 from a New York City firm. I found a pretty unique opportunity to build a bankruptcy and restructuring group at MoFo, and that was what drew me. I was under the naive impression that all big firms were the same and didn’t realize what a special, different place MoFo is. So coming here, I decided to put my hand up early and often, learn about the firm, learn about the unique culture and what made MoFo different and to engage with as many people in as many roles as I could. And that included building and running the restructuring practice, a number of other committees, and then when Keith Wetmore asked me to join his team as one of the worldwide managing partners, which gave me a unique opportunity to travel around the world and meet partners and attorneys and staff from all different walks of life, with all different backgrounds and experiences, but who share a common goal and a common set of values.

Larren Nashelsky: And that was incredibly enriching. When Keith decided not to run again in 2012, I was asked to throw my hat in the ring. I believe then, as I believe now, that I could lead the firm into the future, that I could help the firm face its challenges while doubling down on its strength. And I’m incredibly proud of what the firm has accomplished. My focus has been to take the values that MoFo has always had and do everything I could to enhance them, to enrich them and to make sure that they are the bedrock of everything else we do as a firm. And that has been one of the driving forces behind my leadership over the last eight plus years.

Tom Davidson: So for those who may not know, in addition to Larren being the firm’s Chair and Carrie managing a very busy litigation practice, both play integral roles in the firm’s D&I and women’s efforts. Larren, as an active and engaged member of the firm’s Diversity and Strategy Committee, whom I’m told, never misses a meeting, which is quite impressive. And Carrie is co-chair of the Women’s Strategy Committee. You’re both extraordinarily busy partners with a whole host of client and other non-billable commitments. So why is it important for you both to not only be engaged, but to lead the firm’s D&I and women’s initiatives? And perhaps we start with Larren.

Larren Nashelsky: For me, there are two reasons. One is personal, and the other is institutional. On a personal level, diversity matters to me, it just does. Equality, racial justice, gender equity. These issues are ones that I hold close to my heart. Those are my values. It was how I was raised. Where you see injustice, you speak up. When you can make things better, you do everything you can to do that. And so from an institutional perspective, diversity is an essential core value here. It’s a critical component of our culture. It’s also a business imperative, diversity of experience, backgrounds, thought, culture. That all brings more ideas to our clients’ pressing problems and therefore better solutions. And as with everything related to culture, it starts at the top. What I say, and more importantly, what I do when it comes to our culture and our values are really important. One of the most important responsibilities I have as Chair.

Carrie Cohen: I would add like Lauren, I was brought up with the same core values and the importance of diversity, inclusion, and equality. And so I brought that with me when I came back to Morrison & Foerster, of course. I also, throughout my career, whether in private practice or in the government, have always been very active in helping to advance women in the profession. So I was thrilled when I came back from the firm and was asked by firm leadership to co-chair the Women’s Strategy Committee, because the advancement of women in our profession is something near and dear to my heart. And I spent a lot of years as an attorney working on those issues. And the firm is so amazingly committed to women advancing women in the profession, but advancing all our diverse attorneys in the profession. And as Larren said, the tone does come from the top.

Carrie Cohen: And there is no better leader, especially during the difficult times we have found ourself in this past year, both because of the pandemic and because of the racial injustice issues that have come to light and become forefront in our national dialogue, there’s really no better person to be at the top than Larren, who has shown such tremendous leadership and has worked so tirelessly on these issues for our firm. And so it’s been a real privilege and honor from where I sit as a partner of the firm, but also as co-chair of our Women’s Strategy Committee to be working through these issues with Larren leading the firm and leading our way.

Tom Davidson: Now, Larren, on Monday, June 1st, 2020, you wrote to all MoFo attorneys and staff about the horrific killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. It was a powerful statement promoting allyship and action, and perhaps even more important, sustained long-term engagement. I wonder if you both might take a minute to reflect on the importance of moral leadership in times of crisis. What guides you as you seek to connect and comfort so many different communities with different experiences and perspectives, all looking to you for direction when you yourself may not have all the answers?

Carrie Cohen: So I think it is often in times of crisis that leadership is even more important than in times of calm. And I think the work that the firm did this summer in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the other incidents of police misconduct have been really extraordinary. They’re very difficult issues. They’re very complex, but we at the firm, we’re a firm made up of lawyers and lawyers historically have helped to solve and work through a lot of our country’s largest civil rights issues. And I think the same is no different here. And the firm really grabbed the mantle, so to speak, on issues related to racial injustice. There are various ways in which the firm has engaged to help combat issues of racial injustice throughout our country.

Tom Davidson: On that note, let’s jump more squarely into today’s topic. Your efforts this summer in New York, around section 50A of the state’s civil rights law. Now by way of background, according to mappingpoliceviolence.org, a research collaborative that collects comprehensive data on police killings nationwide to quantify the impact of police violence and communities, to date police have killed 1,039 people in 2020 alone, 28% of whom were black, despite black people being only 13% of the total population. Larren, immediately following the murder of George Floyd and while protests were erupting all over the world, not only did you share the personal statement we talked about earlier, both internally and externally, but you also led the firm in taking an immediate and active stance against racial violence and injustice by organizing an effort that led to over 30 law firms writing to New York governor Andrew Cuomo, encouraging the repeal of section 50A of the state’s civil rights law. Can you talk a bit about what section 50A was, why it was important to you to advocate for its repeal, and how you went about getting the other firms to join you in that effort?

Larren Nashelsky: Sure. With a lot of help from Carrie and also from Jennifer Brown in our pro bono group, I wrote in June to Governor Cuomo and the leaders of the New York state legislature to urge the repeal of section 50A of the state civil rights law. Section 50A shielded police disciplinary records from public disclosure. And one of the things that I learned early on as a restructuring lawyer is you really need sunshine and light shined on things for there to be transparency and responsibility and accountability. And so it seemed that 50A was doing just the opposite. It was shielding the police disciplinary records from public disclosure and not allowing any accountability. So as it is with really anything that’s important to you, you do everything you can. And one of the advantages of being the Chair of an international law firm as large and well known as MoFo is that it gives me a platform to discuss issues that are critically important to our firm, the people of our firm, and our profession.

Larren Nashelsky: So when Jennifer Brown brought the issue of section 50A and that the state legislature was going to take up looking at whether it should be repealed, I reached out to the leaders of a number of about 50 law firms on a Friday night into Saturday morning and asked if they would join a letter asking the governor to repeal section 50A. We had probably 48 hours, Carrie, Jennifer and I got busy. We reached out to these law firms, and really we were heartened by the response. People not only joined happily, but they did so over a weekend, as I said, with very little opportunity. And I think it was that the profession saw a situation where we had a voice that could be expressed and an important voice to let the legislature know what 30 firms representing thousands and thousands of lawyers and others felt about section 50A. And so we jumped at the chance to get involved. It would’ve been an important opportunity at any time, but in June it really felt like we all needed and desire to do something, to take action, to be helpful.

Tom Davidson: Carrie, can you talk about why you felt it important for the firm to be at the forefront of such an effort?

Carrie Cohen: So Larren is exactly right in that it was definitely a group effort with Jennifer Brown and the other firms. I think why it was so important for the legislator to hear from the law firms was reflected best when we got a call from assemblyman Dan O’Donnell, who reached out to Larren to thank Larren for his letter and to talk about how it was so important for him, as well as his fellow assembly members, to hear from major law firms and how rare it was for them to hear from major law firms on issues, particularly related to criminal justice issues. Elected officials often hear from sort of the typical group of people on an issue. So in this case, they would hear from defense lawyers from legal aid, from prosecutors’ offices, but to hear from the law firms were seen as a neutral voice in the debate, and it carried great weight.

Carrie Cohen: And I think it was really important for us as lawyers, for us as a firm, to stand up. As a former federal prosecutor, I feel very strongly about issues of criminal justice reform, but also have a great understanding of the critical role the police play and the real dangers they are in and the dangers of certain information getting out to the public and as a former public corruption prosecutor, I know firsthand how important transparency is, but I think the balancing of public safety with those issues, we struck exactly the right note with our letter and with the governor signed into law the repeal of 50A, and I just thought it was extraordinary to have our law firm and Larren leading the way on a criminal justice issue.

Tom Davidson: Thanks Carrie, staying with you for a moment. Over the past several months, we’ve heard the public demand, not only reform, but an actual defunding of police departments all over the country. In July, you were appointed to the New York State Bar Association’s task force on racial injustice and police reform. How, if at all, does the repeal of 50A impact the charge of the task force, and what role do you see the task force playing in helping to bring about police reform?

Carrie Cohen: So the repeal of 50A really did set in motion I think a lot of activity by different bar associations, as well as by different groups within the criminal justice community that real reform via the state legislature was available to them as an avenue for change and could be successful. And I do serve on the New York State Bar Association’s task force on racial injustice and police reform. And we’re looking at a whole host of different proposed recommendations, including recommended legislation changes. And I think the success with repealing 50A really spurred others into action in terms of being able to recommend legislation, support legislation, and really move the needle on much needed reforms to our criminal justice system so that it is fairer for everyone.

Tom Davidson: Larry and Carrie, this is the last question for both of you. As a straight white man and straight white woman who were fairly senior partners at a big law firm, your daily experiences are likely very different from the black, brown, LGBTQ, and other historically marginalized members of our MoFo community. How do you reconcile what some might consider an innate privilege with your goals of promoting diversity, inclusion, and, specifically, racial justice? Additionally, as parents, how do you encourage your children to appreciate the value of perspectives and experiences that differ so greatly from their own?

Carrie Cohen: That’s a great question, Tom. And I work a lot with the Women’s Strategy Committee and with our Diversity Strategy Committee on what is called in the D&I space “sponsorship” and on using your position of privilege and power to make sure that others are able to achieve their goals and advance within the firm. And so I think that concept of sponsorship is how I view sort of my role through the firm through helping other women at the firm, make sure they are getting all the work opportunities they can, that they are being able to navigate through the firm as successfully as they can, and that they can be the best lawyers they can and serve our clients in the best fashion and as our clients expect and demand of our attorneys, which we always deliver. And so I think the concept of sponsorship is how I have dealt with my position of privilege as a white heterosexual woman.

Carrie Cohen: And I would add the second part of your question related as parents, Larren and I share the same amount of children each and that we each have four children. So I think we both have a breadth of experience as parents, and it is, of course, critically important, and I won’t speak for both of us, but Larren and I have shared this opinion with each other. So I know that we both spent a lot of time making sure, and to the extent we can, trying to help our children appreciate both the values of diversity and inclusion and being open to others and being respectful of others and by others, I mean everyone that they come in contact with in their life. And, as a parent, you do that from the very beginning. And I don’t know that that job ever stops. I think my mother still spends time with me making sure that I am espousing the values that I was brought up with.

Larren Nashelsky: Every one of us has to join the fight against inequity, no matter who we are. I can’t change that I’m a white heterosexual male. What I can do is choose to get involved and to try to make a difference, or I can use it as an excuse to sit back and do nothing. I choose the former, and I believe unless we’re all we’re working together in the same direction, we’re not going to get anywhere. Each one of us has the opportunity and the responsibility to make a difference. As a parent, I know my kids pay more attention to what I do than what I say despite me trying to tell them otherwise. So the best thing that I can do is listen to the perspective of others and to learn about their experiences and doing that without defensiveness and without preconceived ideas. As Carrie said, we share having four children, and that is a blessing.

Larren Nashelsky: And it gives us a lot of opportunity and a lot of perspective and voices around the dinner table or sitting around as a family, talking about issues of inequity, racial injustice, privilege, and how to lead your life in a way that tries to make the world a better place, that tries to help treat everybody fairly, and when you see injustice to not stand by idly, but to get involved. I’d also like to say and like to think that I learn at least as much from my kids as they learn from me. And I guess that’s really just a metaphor for life in general, which is often at times you think you’re teaching, you’re learning more than you’re teaching. And so I have learned as much from my MoFo colleagues and family as I could have ever given them. And that I’m grateful for and hope that collectively we’re making a difference.

Carrie Cohen: I would only add amen to what Larren just said. And I think said so eloquently and as a perfect example of leadership and tone at the top that we’ve been talking about.

Tom Davidson: Thank you both for all of your tireless efforts and supportive, meaningful change, both at the firm and in our communities and for joining me on the podcast today. Thanks.

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 would 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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