Conversation with Natalie Kernisant, Chief D&I Officer, Morrison & Foerster

Diverse and inclusive workplaces have proven to earn deeper trust and more commitment from their employees and clients. With research showing the many benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace (including higher revenue growth, greater readiness to innovate, increased ability to attract talent, higher employee retention), law firms now more than ever are prioritizing diversity and inclusion best practices. To learn more about this topic, we are delighted to invite Natalie Kernisant, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Morrison & Foerster, to share her views and experience. Natalie moved into the newly created C-level leadership role in December 2020, after having most recently served as Mofo’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Director, leading the firm’s D+I team to provide outstanding programming, training, and educational opportunities, as well as spearheading the development of four engagement committees focused on legal services, charitable donations, community action, and education. Natalie’s elevated role, (which includes providing strategic leadership to advance recruiting and retention of diverse talent, as well as supporting client development in the area of D+I), reflects the increasing importance placed on diversity and inclusion initiatives by the firm.

Since 2017, under her supervision, guidance and leadership, Morrison & Foerster has achieved Diversity Lab’s Mansfield Rule Certification three years running, acknowledging that the firm has affirmatively considered at least 30 percent women, attorneys of color, LGBTQ+ and lawyers with disabilities for leadership and governance roles, equity partner promotions, formal client pitch opportunities, and senior lateral positions. This February, the influential periodical Crain’s New York Business named Natalie to its list of Notable Black Leaders & Executives 2021, which recognizes black men and women who have impacted New York City in major ways and sets out to honor their professional, civic, and philanthropic achievements.

KF: Katherine Fan (Managing Director, Hughes-Castell)

Natalie: Natalie Kernisant (Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Morrison & Foerster)

Diversity and Inclusion

KF: In the drive towards greater diversity and inclusion within the legal industry, what do you see as the main challenges and opportunities going forward in the legal industry? Where have you seen greatest progress and most notable positive change in this area?

Natalie: The greatest progress I have seen over the last year is the spike in genuine and intense interest in allyship and learning about the black experience in America in particular.  For the first time in my career, people were making space for diverse voices, were legitimizing their experiences and were passionately looking for ways to engage and do better.  2020 created a foundation upon which meaningful progress could be made – people were eager to listen and learn, without the shield of defensiveness and/or denial.  People were open to learning about how inaction often made them inadvertently complicit in maintaining the status quo – this heightened awareness and willingness to learn is – I think – imperative if we are to make any progress on these issues.

The main challenges I see in the immediate term are (1) sustaining the level of engagement and enthusiasm the tragedies and challenges of 2020 brought about.  Diversity, equity and inclusion aren’t issues that can be sporadically attended to but rather require constant attention and consistent effort.  (2) Equally challenging from my point of view is trying to ensure that we don’t collectively lose sight of what lies at the heart of DE&I work – the real world experiences of diverse people in our organizations and communities.  With all the attention on diversity, many well intended allies are rushing to try to find quick solutions and push for results, without understanding the nuance behind the issues we face.  Those “quick fixes” often bring about unintended consequences and can – at worst – lead diverse people to feel like interchangeable cogs in a machine or build unspoken resentments between groups that lead to more deeply entrenched biases.

KF: How do we integrate diversity and inclusion into talent acquisition strategies in the legal industry? Do you feel that quota systems are a practical way forward or is it possible to create a greater balance in a more holistic fashion?

Natalie: I think it’s important to ensure we have diverse pools of talent from which we select individual talent.  We have to be mindful of where we are sourcing talent and the biases we assume from the processes those sources rely on (i.e. top tier schools)  I also think its important to educate those participating in talent acquisition to the implicit biases within our recruiting systems and how to recognize and interrupt those biases.  For example,  how unstructured interviews and relying on “cultural fit” lead to faulty decision making; How the lack of diverse interviewers impact your hires, or how things like confirmation and recall biases – which we all suffer from – impact our memory when recalling interviews.  I’m not a huge fan of “quotas” per se because I feel they reduce the full person to a statistic and teach us to think about diversity in superficial and transactional ways rather than looking at a person for all they bring to the table and understanding the many benefits diversity brings to teams, including fostering more innovative and creative problem solving.

KF: How do you utilize employee resource groups to foster inclusion at the firm?

Natalie: ERGs are a great way to build a sense of community and belonging for diverse professional.  They can serve to enhance and support associate or employee development, providing a forum to share business development tips, network, and facilitate cross-selling and profile raising.  We also leverage them to help educate allies about the issues and concerns of a particular affinity and what its like to navigate the organization as a diverse professional.  Often times our ERGs collaborate with ERGs at peer organizations and/or clients – in furtherance of community building, external networking and professional development.

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Leadership

KF: When and why did you decide to pursue this area of work?

Natalie: I don’t know if I chose to pursue the work or if the work found me.  You see, I identify as a Black American of French Caribbean descent.  My parents were both born and raised for much of their lives in Haiti.  My first language was French, then Haitian Creole, and finally English.  I myself was born in Brooklyn, NY then moved to Roslyn, Long Island where I spent most of my young life.  I was fortunate to spend many summers visiting Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  As an adult I’ve lived in seven different states and two countries and spent a lot of time traveling internationally.  I think growing up the way I did at the intersection of two cultures, seeing and adapting to two worlds that were in many ways vastly different from one other – especially socio-economically – providing me a cultural fluency, empathy and respect for difference that has I think positioned me well for a role like this.  I also am and always have been fascinated by the human condition, human interactions and psychology, how we communicate, miscommunicate and struggle for acceptance and belonging.  That fascination led me to study quite a few things – psychology, politics, the law, human capital, organizational development, diversity, and change management.  Again, scholarly pursuits that serve as a foundation for the work that I do every day.  Once I decided to leave the law, I just followed these passions – first working on diversity policy issues at Harvard Medical School, then Strategic HR at an Investment Bank that had quite a lot of diversity related work embedded in it, and then back to a law firm where I have been for the last 7+ years.

KF: What words of wisdom as a female leader can you offer to aspiring female leaders in overcoming obstacles that you have experienced in the past?

Natalie: To always believe in yourself.  Adversity comes with advancement – it’s a natural part of the growth process; don’t ever let it discourage you – use it as a tool for improvement.  That is the only lesson challenges should teach you – they aren’t a reflection of your capability or belonging – they are a constructive part of the process of growth and development.

KF: How do you define the terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion in your work, and how do you communicate this internally?

Natalie: Diversity is largely about the presence of diverse people, its about representation while equity and inclusion are – to me – about the experience one has in an organization or environment.  They are about the interactions you have in the hall way, the mentors and sponsors who take interest in you, they are about the sense of belonging and fairness you feel.  Equity and inclusion are by far more important to me in the work that I do – because I support and serve individuals – whole human beings.  I truly believe that diversity is often either a premature or lagging indicator of how well you are doing on equity and inclusion – so I try to focus more on the latter two.  That isn’t to say that diversity – or achieving a critical mass within an environment – isn’t important but rather that representation is not necessarily inclusion and DE&I work is far deeper and more nuanced than just having a certain number of diverse faces in the building.

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Asia

KF: What can employers in Asia do to better practice diversity and inclusion?

Natalie: I don’t know that I have specific advice for employers in Asia – but I will say we can all do better by seeking to educate ourselves about other people’s experiences; we ought to truly engage people who are different from ourselves and actively listening to their stories. I also think its always important to understand that there is a difference between intent and impact while we engage in these difficult conversations – we can intend no harm but still impact someone else negatively with what and how we speak to one another.  So lead with empathy and make room for different voices. Seek to learn and support your colleagues as whole human beings with different but legitimate experiences.  Only then will you inspire loyalty and empower your people to bring their best to the work they do for you everyday.  That’s my advice for employers everywhere.

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