Spotlight on Natalia Cortez Burdette of Teach for America
This fall, alumna Natalia Cortez Burdette ('06/NY/Corp) returned to Debevoise as the featured speaker for the firm's Diversity Speaker Series luncheon hosted by the Latin@ Affinity Group. Natalia spoke with Debevoise partner and Diversity & Inclusion co-chair Michael Gillespie about how she found her footing at the firm, the importance of building mutual trust with your colleagues and her current role at Teach for America.
When she first joined Debevoise in 2006, Natalia struggled to find her place. The experience was daunting, not least because it was hard to find commonality with the partners, who were mostly white and male.
She soon met a fellow associate, who would later become her husband, with whom she traded firm experiences. As a white male, his ease in making connections with the partners, both socially and professionally, was a stark contrast to how intimidated and out of place Natalia felt when she tried to engage. Natalia shared, “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.”
But in time Natalia found her footing at the firm, both through the collaboration and team environment she experienced with the partners and other lawyers she worked with, as well as with the support of the two partners who became her mentors—Michael Gillespie and Jack Allen. Once that transformation occurred, she recalled, “I was able to jump into the work and take real leadership, and learn from people who were not only skilled lawyers, but also mentors and examples of how I wanted to operate as a professional.”
Seek out those who are rooting for you and take the opportunities of support when they are offered, which will lead to connections and an ease with others. Work at getting in and getting comfortable.
Natalia leaned in to the support they offered and in time they developed a mutual trust that made her Debevoise experience rewarding and one she remembers fondly. Her advice for young lawyers who may be in a similar position: “Seek out those who are rooting for you and take the opportunities of support when they are offered, which will lead to connections and an ease with others. Work at getting in and getting comfortable.”
Educational equality is a cause that has long been deeply and personally meaningful to Natalia. So in 2010, when an opportunity arose to work for Teach for America—an organization that has introduced over 6,500 promising leaders to schools in underserved communities that have difficulty attracting and retaining qualified teachers—she took it. At the time, Teach for America was only just building their legal infrastructure. Now Natalia is based in Atlanta and leads a legal team that supports the regional field, providing legal and strategic advice to the organization.
To best serve the children they are seeking to help, Teach for America strives for its workforce to be reflective of the communities in which they work. For Natalia that means that many of her colleagues have shared backgrounds and stories. As a result, Natalia observed, “the hurdle of fitting in had been lifted so I got in and got comfortable right away.”