November 22, 2017

As a board member, Kotagal will advise the initiative about diversity and inclusion issues in hiring in the entertainment industry.

The wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations that have surfaced in the past few weeks may seem never-ending, but Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll partner Kalpana Kotagal is optimistic the systemic problems that lead to such gross misconduct can be fixed.

Kotagal recently joined the advisory board of an effort seeking to accomplish exactly that. The Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism relaunched last week as the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The initiative, founded and directed by professor Stacy Smith, will now include the music industry in its groundbreaking research on diversity and inclusion.

As a civil rights and employment litigator, Kotagal spends her days fighting systemic discrimination and harassment. She said projects such as the Inclusion Initiative provide real tools to address those issues.

The National Law Journal sat down with Kotagal this week to discuss her role with the initiative, and how lawyers can help eradicate these problems. The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: To start off, how did you get involved in this initiative, and why?

Kotagal: I originally got connected to Stacy Smith through my colleague Anita Hill, who is of counsel at Cohen Milstein, and knows Stacy as a fellow academic working on issues of diversity, inclusion and inequity. They approached me about working on a version of the “Rooney Rule” that addresses issues of inclusion and hiring in the film and television industry.

So I’ve been working with Stacy for the past year to develop legal language for a contract provision that A-listers can take into studio negotiations to foster a more fair and inclusive hiring process. That’s how I got connected to Stacy originally.

What’s quite clear when you look at what’s obviously a bubbling-up crisis of diversity in Hollywood, that has spawned men like Harvey Weinstein, Brett Ratner and others in this wave of sexual harassment allegations, is the industry is lacking genuine diversity in so many dimensions. The work Stacy is doing in the now-rebranded Annenberg Inclusion Initiative puts hard numbers on that lack of diversity, measures it, analyzes it, and also—to Stacy’s credit—really is searching out solutions to the problems.

So that’s why I wanted to get more involved. And, I really think we’ve wrung our hands a lot—we being folks who work on civil rights issues, on issues of inclusion and hiring best practices. I think what’s compelling to me as a litigator here is there often are solutions to these problems, and we have to be willing to ask hard questions and push to see those solutions realized. That is why I am eager to be working with this board.

The complete interview can be accessed here.