In celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, the Debevoise Latin@ Affinity Group invited firm alumna Natalia Cortez Burdette to be the featured speaker at our recent Diversity Speaker Series luncheon.
Natalia was an associate at Debevoise from 2006 to 2010, and left the firm to join Teach For America (TFA) where she is currently a Senior Associate General Counsel based in Atlanta, Georgia. She provides legal and strategic advice to the organization, which has introduced over 6,500 promising leaders to schools in underserved communities that have difficulty attracting and retaining qualified teachers.
After warning the audience that she might get misty-eyed while reminiscing about her time at Debevoise, Natalia shared a few of the experiences and insights she gained at the firm and TFA.
At first, Natalia told the moderator, Diversity and Inclusion Chair Mike Gillespie, she struggled to find her footing at Debevoise. She had a hard time finding commonality with the partners, who were mostly white and male. The experience was daunting.
She soon met her husband, a white male Debevoise associate, with whom she traded firm experiences. His ease in making connections, both socially and professionally, with the partners was in stark contrast to the intimidation and fear she felt when she engaged.
“I think about how hard it was, how much I had to overcome, to be comfortable just picking up the phone and calling a partner. I don’t think I worked with a partner of color in my time here and early on I didn’t work with any women. So there were always white men and I was just afraid, honestly.”
She found her footing at the firm through the collaborative teamwork she shared with the partners she worked with and the two partners, Michael Gillespie and Jack Allen, who became her mentors.
“I was able to jump in to the work and take real leadership and learn from people who were not only skilled lawyers but also mentors, and were examples of how I wanted to operate as a professional.”
Natalia leaned into the support they offered and built a mutual trust that made her Debevoise experience rewarding and one she remembers fondly.
Her advice to those encountering a similar experience of not connecting is to “seek out those who are rooting for you and take the opportunities of support that are offered, which will lead to connections and an ease with others—work at getting in and getting comfortable.”
During her tenure at Debevoise, Natalia had realized that her pro bono practice in education was so important and deeply personal to her that when the opportunity to work at TFA came up, she took it.
Natalia joined TFA when the organization was first building their legal infrastructure and now she leads a legal team that supports the regional field. To better serve the children they are seeking to help, TFA strives to have its workforce be reflective of the communities in which they work. For Natalia, that meant that many more of her colleagues shared backgrounds, stories and so many unspoken things. “At TFA, the hurdle of fitting in had been lifted so I got in and got comfortable right away.”
We thank Natalia for being a part of our Diversity Speaker Series.