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Jessie Kornberg

President/ceo bet tzedek | lawyer

Jessie Kornberg joined Bet Tzedek as President & CEO in 2014. Kornberg’s tenure has seen the agency grow to address the most pressing legal issues facing low-income families, including the nation’s first transgender medical-legal partnership, Los Angeles’ first low-income tax and small business start-up clinics, and a family preparedness program to respond to growing concerns surrounding the deportation of undocumented parents.

Prior to taking the helm at Bet Tzedek, Kornberg distinguished herself as a trial attorney at Los Angeles-based litigation boutique Bird Marella. Among her achievements there, she lead the trial team that prevailed in one of the 10 largest intellectual property verdicts of 2013, served as pro bono counsel in ground-breaking inmate-safety litigation on behalf of the inmates of the Angola death-row facility in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and chaired the firm’s pro bono program.

Prior to joining Bird Marella, Kornberg served as the first executive director of Ms. JD, which she established as a national voice on issues concerning women and law. Kornberg’s earliest exposure to impact litigation and strategic policy work – which intersect with two of Bet Tzedek’s core strengths – came while serving as a legal fellow with the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (now known as Legal Momentum). Other economic justice work included projects with the Los Angeles Community Action Network, Homes for the Homeless, and the Institute for Children and Poverty.

Following graduation from law school, Kornberg was a clerk to Chief Judge Jon P. McCalla of the U.S. District Court in Memphis, Tenn. She earned her J.D. from the UCLA School of Law, where she was editor in chief of the Women’s Law Journal. Kornberg holds a bachelor’s degree in American history from Columbia College of Columbia University.

Kornberg is frequently sought as a speaker, panelist and commentator on non-profit management, anti-poverty topics, Jewish life, and gender inequality, and has been recognized by The Recorder and Super Lawyers as a “Lawyer on the Fast Track” and “Rising Star,” respectively. In 2016, she was named to the American Bar Association’s inaugural list of “40 Under 40,” and in 2017, she joined the UCLA School of Law Board of Advisors.


Transcription

Drew Kugler: So I actually met Jessie in a very very professional setting where I was doing some assessment and coaching work in a law firm that she was part of. But we had a very brief set of interactions because the work was designed, as you may remember Jessie, it was going to be to enhance the culture and more specifically the partnership that was going on. We will leave that work far beyond, far back in the history of where it lies, but there's a much better story about you that I wanted to start with. After Jessie left that firm, as you'll know by looking at her biography, she left that law firm and was appointed to be the C.E.O. of a very, very important nonprofit here in Los Angeles called Bet Tzedek. And as is you can see in the show notes, or look up on Bet Tzedek, and I’ll obviously let Jesse talk about it too, the very important work they do of providing legal services, and help to people who need it and can't afford it around L.A. in all sorts of ways. So a mutual friend of ours was a previous C.E.O. and he invited me to come to a banquet—you know the fundraisers for Bet Tzedek—and I, at that point, hadn't pieced together that this was the Jessie who I had met at the law firm. But I'm sitting there—

Jessie Kornberg: It was a whole new Jessie.

D: A whole new person completely fabricated and rebuilt. But the story goes at least clearly in my mind that frankly it was an OK evening. I was saying that to Jessie because most of these things are just OK. And it was an OK evening until Jessie got up to speak. And Jessie, to use the popular term, especially as someone who is as hyper-critical of public speaking as I am, Jesse crushed it, as I have rarely, if ever, seen at one of these events. It was so crushed that they were very smart that as soon as Jesse stopped talking, they did an extra little fundraise. And I have never grabbed my phone so fast as to add to the amount of money which I had already given to get in the door, and was happy to do that. Then said, "I need to get to know her better," and somehow build a working good relationship there. So today is another extension of that and I'm excited to be here and talk to you not only to remind everybody what an incredible speech that was, but to have you in essence help the listeners—I'm very selfish about this—it's all about helping listeners—think about connecting with people. Connecting with people in important settings. So thank you.

J: Thank you. That is very nice of you to remember it that way. And I love that Bet Tzedek dinner. I love the whole thing from start to finish and I just feel privileged to be a part of it.

D: Yeah, and that came across in the speech; that's what was so nice about it. You know as you watch speeches, one of the distinguishing factors that night for Jessie and for other people that I—that I’m either  hired to help do that—or just get to see do that—there is a certain both in things like authenticity and ingenuineness— I can make up a word—but there's also a humility. And Jessie, in a very competitive world of nonprofits, manages both in this interesting way. But let's talk about how you got to that. The question that I that I promise everybody I'm going to ask first is to begin at the very beginning of occupational life, and that is, what's your first recollection of what you wanted to be when you grew up?

J: I should say that I have been asked this question from time to time and I have a joke now that I usually tell when someone says, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I usually answer a philanthropist. Because that sounds really fun. But I didn't know what a philanthropist was, I think, when I first conceived of a professional life. And I wanted to be a professional dancer. I wanted to be a ballerina, like so many girls my age at that time. And I think that reflects both just some fun that I was having in the dance studio, and how far away and mystical and impressive the dancers that I got to see growing up, because we went to the ballet, appeared to me. And I did get to dance on a professional stage with professional dancers for a time, and actually live the dream ever so briefly. And can say that it was a good dream, and I was very lucky to get to do that.

DK: So then walk us forward a little bit eventually we will end up sitting here. The dream went on and what happened that moved you off the stage and eventually into the kind of work, which I hope in the answer, you'll describe a little bit about. Walk us down the path a little further.

J: Yeah you know I mean my dance career ended in injury, as most dancers do. But I went to college. I went to Columbia undergrad. I was in New York when the World Trade Center was attacked in 2001, and started looking at ways to contribute to the rebuilding effort. I mean, you know, it was an all-consuming and overwhelming experience to be there at that time, and I think most people I knew were looking for ways to feel engaged in the aftermath. So I worked for the Bloomberg administration on the rebuilding effort in lower Manhattan, and that was my first exposure to public service, really of any kind. But it was great work and it exposed me to a pretty essential truth about working in public interest, whether you're talking private or public sector, which is they usually can't afford the person who has experience doing the thing that they need someone to do. And so they get a discount someone with passion and energy but really very few qualifications whatsoever. And so if you are you know a young person starting a career, and you are weighing various options, you can trade money for opportunity, and get to do really interesting work, really early in life. And so at a couple of junctures, I made what I always thought was a very selfish choice to do something that was just wildly interesting and exciting. Because I was going to work for a nonprofit or for government, and not take a higher paying job in a for-profit sector. And so people are always telling me how much good I'm doing, and how it's God's work, and I have to say it's almost always been motivated by, well, it's just the most interesting opportunity that's going to be offered to me. And why is it interesting, after working for the rebuilding effort, my next position was working with homeless families. Mostly homeless mothers with young kids. And that was deeply compelling.

D: What did you do with what was your charter, your remit, with those families?

J: I worked with the largest provider of transitional housing in New York City, initially. And I did a number of things, one of which was looking at the data about who we were serving. Where they were coming from? What was the cause of their homelessness? What helped them transition out of homelessness? And whether or not their homelessness would be repeated. So you know there was some data and sort of social science there. But another aspect of my job was working on afterschool and recreation programming for homeless youth. And my very limited experience there was that the homeless kids that I got to work, who were sponges for attention and opportunity. And it was so easy to see how you could have a positive impact on someone in a very short period of time. And the satisfaction of seeing someone who has a problem and helping them resolve it, is hard to match. It's kind of a high, you know, and I was hooked, you know? And I've been really working in poverty work ever since, in one way or another.

D: And then you went to law school? Because you did go into the lawyering world there, right, so out of the homeless work and into the legal work...

J: Yeah, I got to a place where the jobs that looked really interesting, most of the people who had them had JDs. And I always thought that maybe, you know, to pursue a career in public service, that was probably in the mix. I remember talking to a professor from college for advice. I was looking at you could get a master's in public administration or in public policy, or you could get a law degree. And, I was trying to figure out which one, you know, really made more sense. And he said, "Well, do you want a job? Or do you want to be fascinated in school?" And I said, "I don't know, but I definitely need a job." But he said, “Then you have to go to law school.” So that was a professional degree for me.

...And so came to U.C.L.A. for law school. I wanted to get back to California, where I had been raised. And, you know, kept toes in the waters of that anti-poverty work. Here in Los Angeles, housing is always front of mind for folks working on poverty issues. And so, in law school, worked on our skid row housing clinic, and got introduced to what poverty looks like in Los Angeles. And was always certain that I would be engaged in some kind of public service. I clerked for a federal judge after law school, and then traveled for a while with some savings, which was a good decision. And while I was traveling the United States economy collapsed, the global economy collapsed,was 2008. And the jobs that I anticipated applying for in government were frozen. And so I got a little bit more creative and re assessed what my options were. And a fledgling nonprofit that I had helped start when I was in law school, called Ms J.D., which focuses on gender bias in the legal profession, and advancing women in law school and in law. They were sort of ready to hire their first executive director. And again, I mean I go back to what I said initially, I had no business being the executive director of anything. But nobody else was going to take the job, because they had no money in the bank, and no prospects really. And so that marriage of convenience was my first nonprofit management job. And I was at MS J.D. for three years and built it into a permanent lasting entity, about which I care very much, and had a lot of great first experiences there thinking about how to run and grow a cause-based organization.

D: So when it came down to—since we started this whole thing off talking about communicating things that are important to you—and I got to witness that one. As you were doing the work you said there was no money right it sounds like a pretty straight-forward, challenging situation. Do you recall at all some key moments, a key moment, a key conversation, whether it's a public—I define conversation in many ways, right? It really is the exchange of feeling and emotion and all the rest through conversation. Do you remember in the Ms. J.D. work to get underway, do you remember some of these conversations? I imagine you do.

J: You know I'm actually headed next week to a conference in Texas that I went to my first week on the job at Ms. J.D. eight years ago. They held the conference every couple of years. And imagine a ballroom full of five hundred women. Only all of those women were either general counsels or managing partners of law firms or legal departments. Really high-powered, high-achieving folks. And here I was a couple of years out of school, one week on the job, and just not a clue. And I so, I sort of sat quietly in the back you know; I mean I really was observing. But I had two formative conversations or experiences at that conference that have shaped that shaped a lot for me, at Ms. J.D.. And the first was spending three or four days listening to folks describe what could easily be the opening paragraph of any employment discrimination lawsuit that I read in law school . You know, just like that classic discrimination pattern in practice, disparate; it was all there, and none of them were suing, ever. None of them were suing ever. And so it was important for me to see the problem, to understand the business dynamics that were keeping the status quo in place. But also to come in with a fresh perspective as a recent grad who only knew the law in the law books and not the law as it then got practiced in the real world. And I think I was able to provide a little infusion of that fresh perspective to that group and say I don't understand why isn't anybody suing. And I got a little education when people answered that. But I still, eight years later, I'll go to this conference next week and some woman at this conference will say, “I remember eight years ago when you asked us why we never sue.” Right? Because you have to have those disruptive moments to make change. And it doesn't mean that I was right and they were wrong, but you need to give yourself opportunities where someone can bring new perspective and new input. And potentially disruptive thought to whatever it is you're doing.

D: Yeah.

J: And that was very helpful for me to see that dynamic and see that I could have a positive impact as a new, though inexperienced, voice.

D: This is, if I may, this is one of those—it's a cliché term—one of those teachable moments for anybody that's listening to this story. So I take the prerogative interrupting it, right. Because what it sounds like, and correct me, what it sounds like, is you made a very deliberate choice of choreography, back to dance choreography, there. You went from from walking in with the intention of listening first, of as you said I was going to go in and gain understanding, before you ever opened your mouth, right? And that positioned you to be the credible disruptor. So when anyone goes into an organization, or to any sort of place that matters to them, it really, if I'm correct, it starts, because everybody says this, but your story starts by settling in first, not blasting in. So is that...

J: I certainly have taken that approach. I think I had to learn that the hard way. A little bit, you know, my first couple professional experiences I was maybe a little bit more hard-charging right out the gate. You feel you have to prove yourself. But if you don't understand who you're proving yourself to, and what actually matters to them, it's really difficult to be successful. And I do think I've learned that along the way and now try to be a better listener, and try to understand who my audience is, for a bit.

D: Yeah, good. So there you were able to, eight years ago, create that moment not only for yourself, but for the organization.

J: Yeah. I said there were two moments at that conference, and I'll go back to the other, which I also carry with me. You can't see me because this is an audio program, but I am 5'6", slender, you know, medium build, medium hair, medium everything, you know? I don't stand out in a crowd, one way or the other. And dressed for this conference, mostly in suits, maybe I would take my jacket off. Sometimes I had my hair up. Sometimes I didn’t. I don't wear a lot of makeup. And so I was one of the only young women at the conference. And I had so many of the other conference attendees strike up conversation, get to know a little bit about me, and then tell me something I could do to make myself more professional in my appearance. If my hair was up it, could be down. If my hair was down, it could be up. If I was in flats, I could wear heels. If I was in heels, I could wear flats. And so the other thing that I took away was that too many people mistake judgment for mentorship. And none of that is all that helpful. And that's really easy to say when you're on the receiving end, but I want to admit that over the years, as I have become a more senior person in the organizations that I work in, there are these moments where you become tempted to fall into that pattern. I think it's more frequent that you feel that temptation, with respect to young women, I think there is a gender difference there. And I just felt grateful so many times over the years that I had that ridiculous experience at that conference so that I knew not to do it to anybody, ever. And I make it a point to remind myself to just judge the work, product, every single time, and I don't care what you wear to an interview, and I don't care what you wear to the office, I care how you serve the client. And if dress and appearance affects how you serve the client, I guess we could get there, but it's pretty hard to name the circumstances where that's really the case. And that has been one of the few things that I just kind of am proud of as a manager. Like that too every two weeks we issue payroll and it's an opportunity to be radically equal. That like the all of the change we talk about seeing in the world, I get to ensure we're doing every two weeks when I make sure that we're hiring in a fair way, that we're giving opportunity in a fair way, and that we're rewarding and promoting in a fair way. You know the more senior you get, sometimes it feels like the more and more hemmed in you are by establishment and the status quo. And remembering that that's one thing that I can do to really live a set of values that I care about, I took away from that conference, and I continue to value very much.

D: And it certainly affects what I'm assuming—I love this dichotomy between judgment and mentorship—and I'll remember that one a long time. But let me ask you this; you are likely inundated with women who see how you approach things, see how you say present yourself. And I mean that in all the ways. And if they're doing their job of following their ambition with their initiative, they're going to find a way to ask you questions. Maybe you've gone through Ms. J.D. or onward even to this day. So what are you telling women? Because it's honestly—it's hard for me. I get a lot of questions but it it obviously comes across in a different way. So I want to learn from you. And what are you telling me that young women, or women who are portraying their challenges because of their gender as to how to approach their professional world, their personal world, so that it's not judgey but it is of mentoring value?

J: Well, I first want to say I offer to give help to other women as frequently as they can. I'll do it on this podcast. My personal email is jesse.kornberg@gmail.com, and anyone who thinks they need help and thinks that I could help them, should let me know. But my experience; I talk to big crowds of law students and young professionals all the time. The crowds are frequently majority female, and like the three guys in the audience will email me, and the women never do. So I actually don't get nearly as many questions as you might think from young women. I will say when I talk about asking for help, one of my first pieces of advice is to ask for help. You could try to learn how to do everything by yourself, and only find out that you're doing it wrong, because your failures are so obvious, even you recognize them. Or, you could look to people who have figured the stuff out already, and try to learn from them. And I would suggest the latter approach is way easier. People like to say it's not what you know, it's who you know, like that some horrible thing. I think it's the best news ever because it's so much easier to meet a new person than to learn a new skill . Like it’s so much easier. All you have to do is introduce yourself. So I really encourage folks to get over the inertia of the awkward email, and just just click send, and the test that you I apply for myself when I feel that moment of awkward inertia, because it is awkward to ask for help, sometimes. I ask myself the following question which is, “If this person asked me for help, would I say yes?” And if the answer is yes, I would help them, then like go ahead and click send. If the answer is no, I probably wouldn't help. Them then you have like a whole other set of problems you need to deal with, besides your awkward inertia about the email. Right? I mean this stuff pays itself forward. If you are not constantly making yourself available to champion other great people around you, you should not expect anybody to be doing the same for you. And I gotta say, doing that work of championing other people, and connecting good people with one another, and creating opportunity, it's great. It's rewarding in and of itself, but it will also bring rewards back to you. So that's usually my first piece of advice about how to think about this. We are not in competition with one another, we are each other's best chance for success. And then, you know, I don't give gender-specific advice about how to engage in the workplace. I don't think that the way I approach my work is different because of my gender. And to the extent people perceive my work as different because of my gender, that's on them. And that's my typical advice for women who have those concerns.

D: In the top of your story of going to speak to these various groups, you pass out, obviously very easily, your email. But the men write for insights and the women don't. What's your twenty-five cent pop psychology theory?

J: I have never been a guy so I don't know what that feels like. I know that when I ask for help it totally feels awkward and I have a lot of hesitation before I do it. And my only guess is that for some reason women are feeling that the way—I am to a greater extent—that stops them from asking for help more than men. But I don't know because I've never been the dude.

DK: OK let's go to one other area—the present. And I have a couple questions. First, because it's important for the listener to know it. Let's talk about Bet Tzedek and what it does. And I'm sure you've somewhat got that part down.

J: My elevator pitch?

D: Elevator pitch. Give the elevator pitch as you would want people to hear and then I have a couple important follow ups I hope about that.

J: Bet Tzedek has been around forty-five years. We are community-based legal aid providers. What does that mean it means that we give free legal services to people who can't afford them, and we specialize and focus on the legal needs that the community presents to us. So at any given time, in any given place, there are really urgent problems facing the most vulnerable among us. And we are constantly evolving to try to be the sword and the shield that those communities need in those moments. So forty-five years ago we were a storefront in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles, and it was primarily elderly Jewish women in that neighborhood, who were in affordable housing and being evicted as that neighborhood gentrified and changed. So women in their seventy's who had outlived their spouses or their other families, a lot of Holocaust survivors, who were on fixed incomes, and weren't sure where to turn. Those were the first cases in the door at Bet Tzedek. Over time we have been the place where gay men came in the city of West Hollywood when landlords were discriminating against people with HIV and AIDS. We were the place after the Northridge earthquake where homeowners came to try to understand how to litigate for fair compensation from insurance companies. We are the leading provider of wage theft assistance for low wage workers in the garment industry, at the ports, in restaurant kitchens, and domestic service, who aren't getting paid minimum wage. Or working with survivors of human trafficking to try to change the dynamics of abuse and protect them. We’re working with elder abuse victims whose homes and livelihoods are being stolen from them. We are the leading provider of support and caregiving solutions for disabled adults. We have the first generation of disabled adults outliving their parents. It's a medical miracle, but our social system has not prepared for it. And we don't have caregiving solutions for those folks. We’re are working with them to find solutions. We are right now responding to new needs in particularly vulnerable communities in L.A. We have the first transgender medical legal partnership in the country. We’re helping transgender individuals with name and gender change petitions, helping them protect their freedom of movement with driver's licenses and passports that reflect their gender identity. We’re working with undocumented parents, who are right now terrified about the threat of deportation, and what will happen to their U.S. born children if they are removed. At any given time there are new threats to safety and security for the most vulnerable Los Angelenos. Most of our clients—their entire household income is under a thousand dollars a month. Most of our clients are from another country or speaking another language. Most of our clients have some major barrier to access to the legal system, and at any given time we are prioritizing the urgency of their various needs and trying to help them secure the basic necessities: housing, food, medical care, family care. It's great work. We've got sixty-five people here. We serve about thirty thousand people a year. It’s hard to imagine what I could possibly do that could mean more than this.

D: Yeah. So when you are faced with the reality you know along with how well you articulate the challenges. You face the reality, as I've heard someone else who raises money, is there is money out there. The hard part is it's in people's pockets, right? So how do you take this story, this as you know, if you regale the number of challenges that are in Los Angeles. Where in your conversations that you have, because they fall to you, how do you then, transition to helping people support you fundraise.

J: I do a lot of work raising revenue and support to maintain and grow our services. It’s about fifty percent of my portfolio on any given day. I'm talking about money and connection. And you know the basic thing is do—we have a priority in common with a potential donor. And you won't know that until you know the donor. So whether you're talking about a government agency that's going to contract with you, a philanthropic foundation that has a set of strategic priorities, or an individual whose heart sings to one beat, or another you have to understand who they are before you can identify ways in which you could work together. And that for me is the key. When I'm asking for money ultimately I'm doing it with a lot of comfort and confidence that it's the right thing to be doing because I'm talking to someone about an opportunity to engage in something they care deeply about. I care deeply about it too, that's why I'm doing my job. But I'm not going to pitch something to a donor that I don't feel they are going to be really excited about because of something I know and have learned about them. It's an investment in a relationship. If it's successful you grow it over time.

D: So last question. You've been in the job now—we met that was your first dinner if I'm correct—as the C.E.O.. We met soon after and you were still certainly...

J: Finding my sea legs...

D: Finding your sea legs figuring it out. But time has passed it's been how long now?

J: I’m in my third year.

D: Third year. I want to put you on the spot. And have you think back over those three years and in essence reinforce the theme of this show. What's the conversation over the past three years that best exemplifies what you want to accomplish here?

J: So I actually have twin masters in this role. I would say almost everyone else at Bet Tzedek, both on the board and in the company, has a single mission. And that is the mission that serves our clients. But I think I in addition to being guided by that mission, I'm very focused almost to an equal extent on the health and support and satisfaction of our staff. I am an employer in addition to a do-gooder. And so I want to say an answer that it really reflects that second priority more than the first. Because the work is endlessly satisfying and anytime I get to contribute to designing a new program or expanding our impact for a client community, that's a conversation that's incredibly animating. Those are easy to talk about. But in some ways I come home at the end of the day happiest when a conversation goes like this. A member of the team comes in head down with a problem. They know it's a problem; they've identified a failure or a roadblock or a mistake or a challenge and they've been banging their head against it. It’s complex, it's difficult, and it's discouraging. And I get to be the person who says, “OK, I know that this doesn't feel ideal. I know that this isn't what you wanted, but I think we can figure it out. Let's work together and muddle through.” On my best days, I am helping people cope with complexity and cope with change. And when I'm able to do that, and see then like their heads come up and the mood lighten, and them see a way through, it's incredibly satisfying. It feels like I'm doing well here. Because the team is fantastic and when everything's going really well, all I need to do is get out of their way. When things are going differently than they had planned, that's when I can really step in and be helpful.

D: And it's that conversation that seems to mean as much, if not the most, to you. Well, we started today by talking about that speech you gave, and I want to thank you for sharing that same persona, but in a very different way, with the listener and with me. It's what I hunched I'd be able to create in our little conversation here, and why I was so overt in asking you to do this. That night was something I will always remember, and in the spirit of what we're doing here in this program, this was something special. So...

J: Thank you Drew.

D: I thank you for taking the time.