Rising Star: Sanford Heisler’s Russell Kornblith

Posted July 10th, 2020.

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Law360 (July 10, 2020, 4:13 PM EDT) — Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP’s Russell Kornblith represents a group of female attorneys who charge white shoe firm Jones Day with pay discrimination, forcing Big Law to reckon with its own gender inequality in the “black box” compensation model and earning him a spot among the five employment law practitioners under age 40 honored as Law360 Rising Stars.

What motivates him:
Kornblith identified two things that guide him. First were principles, crediting his time at Harvard’s International Human Rights Clinic with cementing his interest in public interest work. He worked on a Supreme Court amicus brief arguing that the Alien Torts Claims Act should apply outside the U.S. to hold energy companies accountable for their role in the Nigerian government’s arrests, torture and killing of its own citizens who lawfully protested oil exploration in the 1990s.

“I realized then that it was a lot more motivating to learn [about] issues and look for creative angles when the cause for which we were litigating was one in which I deeply believed,” he said. “I think that the analogy to the kind of discrimination and retaliation claims that we prosecute is very similar. Civil rights and human rights, there’s certainly a correspondence between the two.

“A society that treats people based on merit — not based on who they are or what they believe, their race, religion, national origin, or gender — it’s fundamental to who we are and to human dignity.”

The second factor was people. Both Kornblith’s clients and colleagues are sources of inspiration, he said. “In the best case, the resolution helps the client get out from shouldering discrimination or improve their life. But also, I have great colleagues,” he said, adding that he is grateful to work with people who share his commitment to fair workplaces and dedicate themselves to working together to help their clients.

Why he’s an employment attorney:
Kornblith tied his inspiration to his experience in law school, where he learned the value of pursuing work that he can pour his heart into and the principles that motivate him.

“I consider myself an employment attorney, but also a civil rights attorney, because the work that we do on behalf of employees is vindicating the right to be free from discrimination,” he said. He also sees whistleblower protections as an important area of employment law because they ensure “the right to speak the truth when the truth is hard and the right to speak out against fraud,” he said. “Those, to me, are fundamental to who we are as an American people.”

“We have set the workplace as one of the areas in which we will try to fulfill the promise of America as a country committed to all people regardless of the historical prejudices that we are still, in many cases, fighting,” Kornblith said. “And so, obviously, employment isn’t the only way to fulfill that promise and to vindicate those principles, but it is, for me, a very meaningful one because people spend a lot of their lives at work.

“To be able to assist individual people but also assist America writ large in fulfilling the promises that were made but never fulfilled to be free from discrimination, I find incredibly rewarding.”

His proudest moment as an attorney:
Representing the group of women attorneys suing Jones Day for paycheck discrimination has been one vehicle by which Kornblith helps people eradicate discrimination in the legal industry. It isn’t always easy when scrutiny comes close to home, he said.

“I’m sure that nobody likes to be told that the call is coming from within the house, but at the same time we as civil rights lawyers should be able to speak up and say that it is,” he said. In cases involving sex discrimination in other workplaces, he said he’s sat across attorneys who quietly told him the civiil rights violations he fights feel familiar to them.

“I had a conversation with a defense counsel who said to me, ‘Putting aside the case we’re talking about now, I hope that you all get after those big law firms because this was exactly my experience,'” he recalled. “And so, as long as I believe that we are on the right side, I don’t see a problem with raising discrimination claims, even if we’re raising them to a law firm.

“For a very long time, the legal industry did not look inward and ask whether, as a profession, we were practicing what we preached. I think our firm has been instrumental in shining a light on some of the shortcoming in the legal profession,” he said, citing Sanford Heisler’s sex and race discrimination litigation. “Why should the legal industry be the one that doesn’t have to ask the hard questions about whether we’ve truly done what we can to achieve equality?”

How he thinks the legal industry and his practice will change in the next 10 years:
“I think that we are in the process of a reinvigoration of employment law, and I think that is a great thing,” Kornblith said, pointing to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that found Title VII bars sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. He also cited state and local rules that go further than federal law in groups they protect, and noted that New York recently changed its bias law to bring it more in line with New York City’s, which had a low bar for making a discrimination case.

The #MeToo movement has shined a light on workplace discrimination, harassment and assault, Kornblith said. And he hoped that renewed attention on the Black Lives Matter movement will force people to examine prejudices and bring long needed changes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resurfaced employers’ role in providing safe workplaces, Kornblith said. It also has rekindled an old idea that employment law is a countercyclical practice.

“When the economy is doing worse, there tends to be an uptick in employment litigation,” he said. That adds to employment lawyers’ duty to make sure that people who are already facing challenges don’t bear the added burden of discrimination in the middle of a pandemic, Kornblith said. “We want to make sure that if there are layoffs as a result of a recession or a downturn, that they do not disproportionately affect women, people of color, older workers, and people with disabilities.”

Eyeing his own practice, Kornblith recalled something a CEO client told him: “Maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses.” That canon “is so simple, but it’s so true,” and it’s something a manager should think about for all the different ways employees work together, whether that’s who’s assigned to a particular case or thinking about everyone in the office as a whole, he said.

Kornblith acknowledged that the pandemic has spawned new questions for him as the New York office managing partner about whether, when and how to bring people back on site after working remotely for an extended period. “We want to make sure, obviously, that our staff is safe, and we want to make sure that our staff is put into a position to do their best work and do it free from any unreasonable risk, and continue to serve our clients,” he said.

“All things being equal and all things being safe — which is not the current environment — I love being in the office with my colleagues. Until we can do that safely, I don’t think it’s worth putting them in harm’s way,” Kornblith said.

— As told to Jon Steingart

Law360’s Rising Stars are attorneys under 40 whose legal accomplishments belie their age. A team of Law360 editors selected the 2020 Rising Stars winners after reviewing more than 1,300 submissions. Attorneys had to be under 40 as of April 30, 2020, to be eligible for this year’s award. This interview has been edited and condensed.