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Q&A: Carrie H. Cohen of Morrison & Foerster LLP

Dec 06, 2020, By WILEF

Earlier this year, WILEF awarded Morrison & Foerster LLP the Gold Standard Certification for the 10th straight year, one of just 12 law firms to earn that distinction.

As Co-Chair of Morrison & Foerster’s Women’s Strategy Committee, Carrie H. Cohen has played a significant role in ensuring women’s advancement remains a priority for the firm. Cohen, a former New York federal and state prosecutor who is a partner in MoFo’s Investigations + White Collar Defense Group and Co-Chair of its Workplace Misconduct Investigations Task Force, recently spoke about the firm’s responses to the twin crises caused by the pandemic and the death of George Floyd while in police custody.

Can you talk about the firm’s diversity and inclusion work since the onset of the global pandemic?

As soon as we realized that COVID-19 was not limited to a two to three-week work-from-home time-period, the firm immediately committed to doubling down on our D&I efforts. History has taught us that disruption and economic uncertainty tends to have a greater adverse effect on our women and diverse attorneys. Redoubling our efforts at the onset of the pandemic was not only the right thing to do, it also was part of our continued commitment to our firm’s core values.

 What’s one of the concrete steps the firm took at the beginning of the pandemic? 

One of the first things we did was reach out to each of our diverse attorneys. Members of our Diversity Strategy Committee led the effort, writing and calling associate colleagues to offer support and see how they were adjusting to the new normal.  Similarly, we also increased our outreach to our women attorneys.  It was important to do all we could to try to ease concerns or just provide a friendly ear. In some cases, we facilitated and supported the relocation of associates suffering from isolation to be closer to family.

Our firm chair, Larren Nashelsky also brought attention to the rise in anti-Asian discrimination due, in large part, to the labeling of the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus.” In consultation with the D&I Group, he issued an internal statement highlighting the connection between this misinformation campaign and the rise in acts of hate and discrimination. Many of my colleagues subsequently joined others across the country in taking further action on a pro bono basis to help combat that issue.

 Morrison & Foerster also signed the “Invest in Parents Pledge” this year. Can you explain what that is?

The Invest in Parents Pledge is a movement initiated by working family advocates and family-forward organizations committed to supporting, protecting, and investing in working parents, especially during this uncertain period. Employers and individuals who sign the Invest in Parents Pledge commit to advocating for and supporting working parents to help them participate and thrive in the workforce. I believe we are the only law firm participating in the Pledge.

Women, who studies have shown have borne an even greater burden at home during the pandemic, have also received extra support from the firm, right? 

Absolutely, as have all working parents.  As the pandemic began to grow in the spring, we launched a webinar series on navigating the challenges of working remotely with children. We broke up the series to address the particular needs of attorneys, with separate sessions for remote working with children under five, elementary school children, middle and high school children, as well as living alone or parenting children with special needs. An educational consultant that we partnered with hosted each webinar and afterward, the firm facilitated support groups among attendees to continue the discussions.

The firm also offered emergency care benefit enhancements so that lawyers and staff could use an unlimited amount of back-up childcare and be reimbursed for providers with whom they have a personal relationship rather than needing to use caregivers through the network. 

In addition to the pandemic, the firm has also devoted a tremendous amount of resources to fighting racial injustice. Can you tell us more about that?   

MoFo has long been committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion but the events of this past summer were a call to action to work even harder to combat racial injustice in our country. In keeping with our core values, we felt compelled to speak up and take meaningful action where possible. But it starts at the top. As our chair Larren Nashelsky said shortly after the death of George Floyd, we cannot be casual observers of injustice. I would add that as lawyers, we have a special responsibility to protect our colleagues and communities. The law is not the only way to bring about change, but it is a crucial component and one that history has shown often is the greatest tool.

Our efforts to help combat racial injustice have been systematic, structural, and are continuing. We are focused on four core areas—legal services to support racial justice, charitable donations, community action, and education.

What’s been the firm’s focus in the area of legal services?

Earlier this year, it was Section 50-a of New York’s Civil Rights Law, which shielded police disciplinary records from public disclosure. Our firm chair rallied 30 other major law firms to sign a letter to the State Legislature and the Governor urging the passage of a law that would repeal 50-a. One of the bill’s sponsors credited our letter in helping to pass that bill, which was signed into law by Governor Cuomo in June.

Our pro bono leadership team also has been busy executing a plan to develop and expand opportunities to advance racial justice through the key areas of criminal justice and voting rights. Some examples of our work include the Three Strikes Project led by the Southern Poverty Law Center to help nonviolent incarcerated individuals in Mississippi apply for clemency and the Healthy Election Project.

Following the death of George Floyd while in police custody, you were appointed to the New York State Bar Association Task Force on Racial Injustice and Police Reform to analyze the criminal justice system and to recommend reforms. What’s that experience been like? 

It is an honor to have been chosen for the Task Force and in some ways is a continuation of my work as Chair of the NYSBA’s Domestic Terrorism and Hate Crimes Task Force. The Racial Injustice and Police Reform Task Force has brought together a wide cross-section of our criminal justice community to brainstorm and recommend innovative solutions to complex problems. I serve on the Task Force’s subcommittee on prosecutorial solutions and am particularly encouraged by the innovative ideas surrounding how to make our prosecutors’ offices part of the solution.

Morrison & Foerster developed something called the Allyship Tip Sheet. Can you explain what that is? 

The firm wanted to provide members of our community tools to help them more effectively support their colleagues. The tipsheet was part of a larger allyship campaign that aimed to both help raise awareness around the Black American experience including by amplifying the numerous and varied contributions diverse people continue to make to our professional spaces and society and provide tools for supporting our diverse colleagues in the workplace.

Some of the tips are directly applicable to effecting change in the workplace, like “join one of the firm’s committees to engage on racial injustice or attend a local affinity network event” or “call a colleague of color this week to check in.” While others highlight the importance of thinking more broadly about creating equity, for example, tips on how to talk to your kids about race.

It’s all about raising our consciousness and engaging in dialogue on tough issues.

The firm launched a “21-Day Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge” earlier this year to raise awareness around the Black experience in America.  The challenge included readings, videos, and podcasts on Black history, identity, and culture. What has stayed with you from that experience?

The sense of community within our firm always has struck me as particularly strong but I was blown away by the depth of it. This challenge provoked meaningful discussions across offices, between attorneys and staff, and among individuals with diverse backgrounds. The discussions we had during our breakout groups were heartfelt and thought-provoking and helped me work through the multitude of feelings that arose during the protests this summer.

2020 was a dark year for so many, but there were pockets of inspiration. What gives you hope as we head into a new year?

Our firm and our MoFo family have shown tremendous compassion and capacity to adapt under beyond trying circumstances while maintaining the highest levels of client service. What gives me hope is that our demonstrated collective firm values can carry us through the toughest times.