On April 14, in New York City, Cornell Law School hosted its inaugural summit on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Hosted by Debevoise and Plimpton and made possible by the Law School’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Alumni Leadership Council, the event convened thought leaders among and beyond the school’s alumni, administrators, and current students to discuss DEI efforts at Cornell Law—ranked one of the most diverse law schools in the country —as well as the DEI landscape of the legal profession at large.
The event kicked off with a lunch program, introduced by Deborah Enix-Ross, senior advisor to the International Dispute Resolution Group of Debevoise & Plimpton and current president of the American Bar Association. Enix-Ross is the second African American woman to serve as president of the ABA; the first, Paulette Brown, was also in attendance.
Enix-Ross was followed at the podium by Natalya Johnson AB ‘07, JD ’10, senior counsel of Johnson & Johnson, president of the Garden State Bar Association, and a member of Cornell’s DEI Alumni Leadership Council, who then introduced Jens David Ohlin, Allan R. Tessler Dean and professor of law.
Ohlin, Cornell Law’s seventeenth dean, appointed the school’s first associate dean for DEI and founded its first DEI Alumni Leadership Council, of which he said, “I can’t imagine a stronger, more active, more engaged group of alumni.”
He noted, “I’m really excited about all of the work that everyone is doing with our alumni, with our students, with our faculty. I’m especially excited about the bridges between those various groups at the Law School.”
After lunch, attendees heard from Marihug Cedeno, BS ’07, JD ‘13, a trial attorney with the United States Department of Justice, Criminal Division, who introduced a short video featuring leaders from the Alumni Association’s several alumni-of-color and affinity-based networks.
Appearing were Cornell Black Lawyers Alumni Network President Victoria Clark ’14, and president and co-founder Ernest Eric Elmore, AB ’86, JD ‘89; Latino Lawyers of Cornell co-leaders Sasha Belinkie ’15 and Maria Fernandez ’92; Cornell Alumni Network of Asian Lawyers President Andrew Thomas Hahn Sr., AB ’83, JD ‘86; Native American Lawyers Alumni Network President Leslie Wheelock, J.D./M.B.A. ’84; Mary Kennedy Brown Society President Jacquie Duval ’92; and DEI Alumni Leadership Council member Maithili Pradhan ’10.
This presentation was followed by the panel “Investing in DEI: Shaping the Legal Landscape through Sustainable Strategies,” with panelists Paulette Brown, past president of the American and National Bar Associations; Diego Carvejal, a consultant at VallotKarp Consulting; Andrew Thomas Hahn Sr. ’86, general counsel at Hawkins Delafield & Wood LLP; and Geoff Young ’06, a partner at Katten Muchin Rosenman. The panel was moderated by Michelle M. Duguid, MS ’06, Ph.D ‘08, associate dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging and associate professor of Management and Organizations at Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.
Next was a fireside chat with Michelle Whelan, clinical professor and the Law School’s first associate dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, a role she took on in the fall of 2022. She was joined by DEI Alumni Leadership Council co-chair Leslie Richards Yellen ’84, director of Global Diversity & Inclusion at Debevoise & Plimpton (her fellow co-chair, Crystal Deazle ’01, director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, was unable to attend due to illness).
Whelan described this first year in her new role as a “listening tour” whose observations will allow her to collaborate with Ohlin on creating a structure for the deanship, which is a three-year rotating position. She invited members of the Cornell Law community to reach out to her with their input. “What I’m really hoping for,” she said, “is a deepening and strengthening of the trust between students, faculty, and administration.”
Richards-Yellen told her, “DEI is a journey and something that always evolves and always needs to be pushed, and we’re glad that you’re going to do some of the pushing at Cornell.”
A final panel turned the discussion over to future leaders, with speakers drawn from the current Cornell Law student body. Sidne Norman ’24, Jacinda Rivas ’23, and Arisa Herman ’23, described various efforts and initiatives to promote DEI at the Law School. They shared their aspirations and fears, as well as what they hoped to accomplish as young professionals training at an educational institution steeped in DEI.