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An Interview with Jessie Kornberg—First Female CEO of Bet Tzedek

Jessie Kornberg, who previously served as Ms. JD’s executive director, recently was named the first female CEO of legal services nonprofit Bet Tzedek. Ms. Kornberg will leave her position with Los Angeles-based firm Bird Marella in December 2014 to begin her tenure at Bet Tzedek. I recently spoke with Ms. Kornberg about her new position, what drives her pro bono service, and what advice she’d give to law students and young lawyers.

You don’t come from a family of lawyers. What inspired you to attend law school?

I started thinking I would go to law school in the 5th grade when I studied American history and learned that Thomas Jefferson was a lawyer. Those early instincts were confirmed later in life while working on housing policy in New York City - I would look around the table, and all the guys who had the jobs I wanted had JDs.

Which professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

In the last few years, my jury trials have been very rewarding. The trial experience can be an intense one, but the pay-off is equally dramatic. I’ve been fortunate to represent clients I really connected with, admired, and believed in - all of which makes the jury’s vindication of their position and our team’s strategy that much more meaningful.

You’re about to make the big change from working at a law firm to heading a pro bono organization. What initially interested you in the Bet Tzedek position? How do you anticipate your life will change in your new role? 

At Bet Tzedek I have an opportunity to rejoin the frontlines of the fight against poverty. Very few places have a bigger impact on more people. I feel very fortunate to have a chance to support the organization’s great work. And I’m pretty thrilled to have found a use for my dual backgrounds in non-profit management and litigation.

My day-to-day routine will certainly be changing in the transition. Less time in front of the computer in the office, more time out meeting with stakeholders, supporters, and partners in Bet Tzedek’s work.

But one critical thing remains the same: I’ll be working with passionate and experienced lawyers.

You have a long history of pro bono service. Why is this type of work important to you?

I rarely assumed a pro bono role for the sake of pro bono service. More often I was fortunate to learn of an issue or client cause that I found interesting or compelling and became involved for that reason first. That’s consistent with my general take on volunteerism: pursue what’s interesting and engaging to you, and you’ll be more likely to make a meaningful contribution and derive greater personal satisfaction from the experience.

What types of legal services are most needed by those who come to Bet Tzedek for assistance? How can young lawyers get involved in providing those types of services?

Bet Tzedek leverages the pro bono services of more than 2,500 lawyers every year in service of more than 15,000 clients. One thing that makes Bet Tzedek really special is the incredible breadth of the legal services it provides: slum housing relief, advocacy for victims of wage theft, assistance securing government benefits for people with disabilities and the elderly, protecting and delivering reparations for Holocaust survivors, facilitating conservatorships and guardianships to keep families together - these are just a sampling of the incredible types of programs Bet Tzedek maintains. I would love to connect Ms. JD’s readers to our work - there’s something here for everyone!

What do you hope to accomplish as CEO of Bet Tzedek? What are you most looking forward to in your new position?

I’m really excited to get to know the staff better. Bet Tzedek is home to some of the most experienced and accomplished public interest thinkers (and doers) in the country. I definitely want to help spread the word about their incredible work. So right off the bat I will be focusing on communications, outreach, and community awareness. As I become more familiar with current programs, I will also be helping to identify strategic impact litigation and policy goals.

How did your involvement with Ms. JD shape your practice?

In addition to introducing me to innumerable incredible women lawyers, whose good guidance I called upon frequently, running operations for the organization gave me helpful insights into my litigation clients’ businesses. Because of Ms. JD I can read a balance sheet, assess a D&O policy, appreciate HR decision-making processes, and relate to a general counsel’s reporting duties and needs from outside counsel. I would recommend non-profit board service to other young lawyers for all the same reasons (along with many others!).

Work-life balance is important to many Ms. JD readers. Do you think law firms have become better or worse at accommodating the needs of mothers in the workplace? What would you like to see change even more? 

Work-life balance has gotten lots of attention in recent years from many super smart people who have devoted better thinking to the issue than I have. But I think the conversations around work-life balance also serve as a stalking horse for the harder conversations about the bias, harassment, and discrimination that impedes minority attorneys’ progress through the ranks of the profession. I’m really glad Ms. JD regularly tackles all these topics and provides a safe and inclusive forum for women to think through how they intersect.

But none of that answers your question! I think the general trend is to better accommodate personal commitments in most sectors of the legal profession. This is driven by a combination of wanting to recruit the strongest candidates, client pressure, new management best practices, and, frankly, a younger generation of law firm leaders who bring more modern expectations with them.

So yes—firms are better. But I would love to see more widespread adoption of two no-brainers: child care support and workshare. I have some first-hand experience with the former and some exasperation around the latter. My spouse’s firm has in-house day care. It’s a game changer. I cannot overstate how much more productive we are because our son’s day care is on-site and designed to accommodate working parents. So that’s the first thing I’d like to see more firms consider.

With respect to workshare, I should preface this by noting that I come from a family of doctors. I’m always struck that very sophisticated, wealthy, powerful business people have no problem entrusting their health to whoever is on-call but require one specific law firm partner to handle all their deals, no substitutions allowed. I’m not going to try to solve that here, but I do think worksharing is a pretty quick fix: two lawyers are up to speed on the same matter and then let work flow back and forth depending on whose schedule is more reasonable when client needs arise.

What advice would you give young female lawyers getting started in practice? 

Regularly evaluate your short- and long-term professional goals and your progress achieving them. Be strategic - seek out and prioritize assignments and relationships that will help move you in your desired direction.

And build a “kitchen cabinet” of trusted advisors: a diverse group of peers, friends, mentors, and inspirations to whom you can turn when you need a reality check, a brainstorm session, or a hug.

What advice would you give young female law students? What do you wish you knew as a law student that you know now?

Grades matter. Like a lot more than they should. Proceed accordingly.

The only thing that matters more are relationships. Form real relationships with classmates and professors. You will have little hope of success or enjoyment in school or in the profession without them.

This post has been brought to you by the Ms. JD Journalists. If you have suggestions for any topics that you think should be covered on Ms. JD, feel free to email your suggestions to contentdirector@ms-jd.org, and the Ms. JD Journalists will get right on it.

4 Comments

cdc2001

Congratulations!

Courtney Gabbara

So happy for you, Jessie!! What a fantastic opportunity! Couldn’t think of anyone better to fill this role !

KMLW

To a trusted member of my Kitchen Cabinet, thank you for all of your advice, guidance, and help over the years.  More importantly, congratulations on your new adventure!  Bet Tzedek is incredibly lucky to be gaining such a visionary and I that you feel very lucky to be working with their formidable staff.  Here’s to real change on the frontlines!

KMLW

To a trusted member of my Kitchen Cabinet, thank you for all of your advice, guidance, and help over the years.  More importantly, congratulations on your new adventure!  Bet Tzedek is incredibly lucky to be gaining such a visionary and I that you feel very lucky to be working with their formidable staff.  Here’s to real change on the frontlines!

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