Leadership, Service, Action: Alumni Confront the COVID-19 Crisis

As attorneys, advocates, CEOs, nonprofit executives, and public servants, Columbia Law School graduates are focused on safeguarding communities, the economy, and civil society.

Illustration of scales holding a red coronavirus.

As the COVID-19 crisis roils the globe, Columbia Law School graduates are demonstrating once again that they are a force in the world. “Throughout our history, Columbians have stepped forward to solve the world’s most urgent problems,” says Gillian Lester, Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law. “This moment is no different. Columbians are using their legal ingenuity to confront the enormous challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis.” 

Explore the sections below to see the ways in which Columbia Law alumni have responded to COVID-19 in business, law firms, government, nonprofit, and health care. 

Alumni in Businesses and Law Firms

Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher

Mylan L. Denerstein ’93

Mylan Denerstein, former counsel to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was appointed in April to the COVID-19 Recovery Task Force of the New York State Bar Association. The 17-member task force oversees lawyers working pro bono for people affected by COVID-19. One of the task force’s top priorities is to recruit lawyers to help jobless workers file for unemployment benefits.

Denerstein, a former federal prosecutor who also worked for Cuomo in the State Attorney General’s Office, co-wrote a Law360.com article in April arguing that President Donald Trump did not have the authority to overrule state governors and order businesses to reopen. She also co-authored an analysis holding that Cuomo could overrule New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on whether businesses could open during the pandemic. “This may be surprising to some, as New York’s Constitution provides local governments with protections from State-level encroachments in the form of the home rule doctrine, but these protections do not likely limit the governor’s executive orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Partner, Duane Morris

Delphine O’Rourke ’01 

Civil immunity. Crisis of care standards. Supply chain issues. These are just some of the challenges Delphine O’Rourke is grappling with as she helps her health care clients navigate the unique legal issues brought on by COVID-19. Bringing previous experience as associate general counsel at Ascension, one of the largest nonprofit health systems in the United States, O’Rourke now advises health care organizations on compliance and emergency preparedness.

In February, she wrote the toolkit “What Hospitals Need to Do to Prepare for a Coronavirus Outbreak: Overview and Checklist” published by the American Health Law Association (AHLA). She is also drafting state bills to provide civil immunity to health care providers, advising hospital associations on crisis of care standards, and guiding entities eligible for funding under the CARES Act. She has been quoted in Talking Points Memo about topics such as hospitals racing to train staff in ventilator use, the shortage in needed medical supplies, and the crisis in fragile rural communities. Hear more from O’Rourke in this AHLA podcast on navigating supply chain issues during the coronavirus pandemic.

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Travelers

Alan Schnitzer ’91

As the leader of a large property-casualty insurance provider, Alan Schnitzer is steeped in the world of natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and wildfires. But COVID-19 is proving to be a catastrophe like nothing the industry—or the world—has ever encountered. “Our customers and communities are facing an unprecedented challenge,” Schnitzer said on March 31 when announcing a $5 million commitment to assist families and communities affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in North America, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.

Schnitzer quickly rallied the Travelers leadership team to adapt the company’s practices to the new needs of its customers, agents, brokers, employees, and communities. For example, the company is providing billing relief for all U.S. customers through June 15; temporarily suspending cancellation and nonrenewal of coverage due to nonpayment; and waiving all interest, late fees, and penalties during this period. Closer to home, Schnitzer arranged for the kitchens at his company’s dormant Hartford headquarters to make and donate 1,200 hot meals per week, delivered by two local nonprofits to those in need.

“Helping in a crisis is what we do, and the commitments we’re making today to take care of the communities in which we live and work are an extension of the fundamental role we play,” he said.


CEO, Accenture

Julie Sweet ’92

As record numbers of people become unemployed around the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fortune Global 500 consulting firm Accenture, led by Julie Sweet, responded by creating innovative software to connect companies laying off employees with companies looking to fill positions. The business-to-business platform, People + Work Connect, is a collaboration among Accenture, Lincoln Financial Group, ServiceNow, and Verizon. “People + Work Connect is an analytics-driven platform that matches companies on both sides of the job equation and can put hundreds of thousands of people back to work around the globe,” Sweet told the Society for Human Resource Management in April, when the platform was launched. “People can move from one industry to another, based on skills and competencies.”

Since taking the helm as CEO last summer, Sweet has expanded the firm’s focus on technological and digital transformation, encouraging clients to rethink business models and operations, as it has done in partnership with Microsoft. (All 500,000 Accenture employees now use Microsoft Teams, an integrated communication and collaboration platform.) “The upside for [all companies] is really the opportunity to accelerate the cultural change and the digital transformation,” Sweet told Diginomica.



“Helping in a crisis is what we do, and the commitments we’re making today to take care of the communities in which we live and work are an extension of the fundamental role we play.”
Alan Schnitzer ’91, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Travelers

Alumni in Government

Montana Governor

Steve Bullock ’94

Gov. Steve Bullock moved to shut down Montana two days after the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in the state on March 12. Bullock, a second-term Democratic governor who recently announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate, was also vocal about needing federal help for sufficient testing capability. “The idea pushed down from the [federal] administration is that this must be locally executed, state-managed, and federally supported. But governors need that federal support if we’re going to manage this,” he told The New York Times in April. Bullock also required a temporary two-week quarantine for those arriving to Montana and instituted mail-in voting for the state’s June primary. 

On April 22, Bullock announced the first stage of the plan to begin lifting restrictions. “Our new normal is going to look different. This virus isn’t gone from Montana,” he said. “As we turn to support our Main Street businesses and get more families back to work . . . we must also be sure to continue looking out for those around us.”  In mid-May, Bullock outlined phase 2 of the Reopening the Big Sky plan, which eliminates the quarantine requirement for out-of-state visitors.



Director, New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice

Elizabeth Glazer ’86

The criminal justice system is being tested by the COVID-19 crisis. As the senior criminal justice policy adviser to the mayor and first deputy mayor, Elizabeth Glazer oversees New York City–wide criminal justice policy and develops and implements strategies across city agencies and partners to enhance public safety, reduce unnecessary incarceration, and increase fairness. Beginning in mid-March, the city ramped up its efforts to reduce the jail population focusing in part on those most in danger of contracting the virus. As of late April, there were fewer than 4,000 people in city jails, the lowest number since 1946. “We are mindful of the tragic circumstances that have resulted in the historic drop in the number of New Yorkers in city jails over the past few weeks,” said Glazer in a press release in April. “But we are hopeful that the pathways we are creating now may further the sea change underway for the past few years, demonstrating that parsimonious use of jail and deliberate investment in supports can create a safer New York with a lighter touch from the justice system.”

Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison

Jeh Johnson ’82

As the former Secretary of Homeland Security, who served under President Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017, Jeh Johnson understood by early March that COVID-19 would have a severe impact on his corporate clients and the United States. “None of us can afford to take a wait-and-see attitude in the hope that this thing will eventually pass,” he warned in a video posted on his law firm’s website. Now Johnson is troubleshooting as a member of the New Jersey Governor’s Restart and Recovery Commission. A resident of Montclair, New Jersey, Johnson was also named by Gov. Phil Murphy to the seven-state regional task force coordinating the post-COVID-19 reopening of the economy in the Northeast.

Johnson, however, worries about the entire country. “I’m very concerned that because Homeland Security is facing a national crisis, as opposed to a regional natural disaster, it may not be prepared to deal with the next hurricane, tornado, border surge, or even another virus,” he said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “The diversion of resources that are going to dealing with this problem may be at the cost of the next natural disaster. That’s my concern.”

Utah Congressman

Ben McAdams ’03

U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams battled and overcame a severe case of the coronavirus. Now he’s fighting for small businesses decimated by the economic shutdown. He has publicly urged that U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the Small Business Administration fix what he calls the “failed” Payment Protection Program and for Congress to be given the information it needs to ensure transparent oversight.  

McAdams, a former mayor of Salt Lake County who also served as a Utah state senator, has been helping small-business owners in his state who are still waiting for their loans. “Unfortunately, I have heard from many Utahns about their small-business loan applications being pushed to the back of the line while big, multinational corporations are approved first,” he wrote in a blog post on his website. 

McAdams has also urged the public to act responsibly to protect themselves and others from the virus. “I’m young, I’m 45 years old, I’m healthy, I exercise every day, and it hit me really hard,” he told The Hill in April. “Please take this seriously, and follow the guidance of our public health officials. If not for your sake, do it for your friends or your loved ones who you might expose, or just be a part of slowing the spread of this dangerous virus—flattening the curve, so we can treat those people who it does hit hard. Because it could happen to anyone,” he said during an interview with ABC News.


Commissioner, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection

Catherine R. McCabe ’77

As New Jersey’s top environmental official, Catherine McCabe is working to ensure the state’s environmental priorities and policies are aligned with its larger response to the COVID-19 virus.

McCabe is a national figure in the fight to protect the environment and leads a team that safeguards New Jersey’s natural and historic resources and protects public health from the effects of environmental pollution. Since the crisis struck, she has been working in tandem with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on decisions around a number of issues, most notably the closing and subsequent re-opening of state parks and beaches. 

“While the COVID-19 public health emergency has changed how we work, learn, and live, it does not change the importance of public participation in protecting New Jersey’s environment,” McCabe said in a May 9 statement. “We will continue to evaluate how we can adjust our administrative procedures and remain attentive to the needs of businesses and residents without sacrificing New Jersey’s environmental protections.”


Head of the Los Angeles County Chief Executive Office’s Strategic Integration Branch

Tiana Murillo ’07

To provide humanitarian assistance and curb the spread of COVID-19, Los Angeles County named Tiana Murillo responsible for overseeing its efforts to temporarily house people experiencing homelessness. Initiatives include providing medical sheltering for those exposed to the virus and Project Roomkey, which secures hotel and motel rooms for high-risk groups. 

“This assignment is a big challenge—not just for me personally but for all of the hardworking County staff and partners who are already making a profound difference under difficult circumstances,” Murillo said. “I look forward to harnessing our collective efforts and bringing people together to make sure we are accomplishing together what no one entity could accomplish alone.”

Commissioner, New York State Department of Health 

Howard A. Zucker ’01 LL.M.

When the COVID-19 outbreak began in New York in March, Dr. Howard Zucker was, as Newsday put it, “the most important person in New York who most New Yorkers never heard of.” For viewers of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefing, Zucker—the state’s chief physician—has become one of the most familiar faces of the pandemic. He’s responsible for advising the governor on the state’s response to the outbreak, including testing, contact tracing, and regulations for nursing homes caring for coronavirus patients. 

As COVID-19 cases stretched some hospitals’ capacity, Zucker created an information-sharing system that required public and private hospitals to report on patient numbers, available beds, and supplies, so patients could be moved to hospitals with the ability to care for them. “I always felt if you can improve the life of others—whether an individual or many—you should,” he told Newsday. He calls the solution to coronavirus “a puzzle. It mixes medicine and forensics, and I like trying to figure out what is happening.” Last year Zucker worked to control measles outbreaks exacerbated by declining vaccination rates. “I don’t think most people realize the role that ‘public health’ plays in their lives,” Zucker told The New Yorker last August.

“We are hopeful that the pathways we are creating now may further the sea change underway for the past few years, demonstrating that parsimonious use of jail and deliberate investment in supports can create a safer New York with a lighter touch from the justice system.”
Elizabeth Glazer ’86, Director, New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice 

Alumni in Nonprofit and Health Care

Associate, CMS Grau

Marirosalyn Barrenachea ’19 LL.M.

Abogadas Pro Bono, a project launched by Marirosalyn Barrenachea and other female lawyers in Peru, provides free legal services to Peruvians navigating the new provisions set out in the country’s state of emergency declaration. “We decided to create Pro Bono Lawyers in the face of the great misinformation and confusion that the situation is causing in the population,” Barrenachea recently told Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. “We constantly saw inaccurate explanations in the media for the application of the new provisions being issued by the executive branch, so we decided to act.” The lawyers advise people in practice areas including criminal law, civil litigation, public law, contracts, labor law, tax law, and corporate law. Barrenachea and the others juggle the project with their day jobs as practicing lawyers, addressing pro bono inquiries submitted through a designated email address within 48 hours. 

@abogadasprobono (Instagram)

President and Executive Director, National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

Kristen Clarke ’00 

A leading nonprofit organization focused on securing equal justice for all, the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is looking for new ways to protect voters and vulnerable communities feeling the effects of COVID-19. “Much work remains to be done to ensure that all states are fully addressing the barriers voters are up against as a result of COVID-19,” Kristen Clarke said in an April press release in response to the Ohio primary election. “Ohio provides an example of all things that can go wrong when states move to an election built largely around vote-by-mail but fail to automatically provide ballots to every voter like other vote-by-mail states.” 

The organization also launched the COVID-19 Racial Justice Initiative to ensure “the well-being and security of communities most vulnerable” and joined 400 medical professionals in April calling for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies to release racial and ethnic demographic data on COVID-19 testing and patient outcomes. “Civil rights laws prohibit federally funded health care providers from administering services in a discriminatory manner,” said Clarke in an interview with NBC News. “Our ability to fully understand and confront this pandemic requires and demands that we obtain racial data now.” 


General Counsel and Executive Vice President, Mount Sinai Health System 

Beth Essig ’78

While New York City’s health care systems geared up for the anticipated surge of COVID-19 patients, Beth Essig worked to ensure that the Mount Sinai Health System—a regional network that includes a medical school, eight hospitals, an ambulatory care network, and more than 7,200 physicians—could be nimble, responsive, and unencumbered by technical compliance issues that might slow critical patient care. 

“I have confidence that the lawyers are doing everything they can, and that nothing legal is going to get in the way of this hospital, or any hospital, doing the best it can,” she said in a conversation with Law360.com in late March. “The people who are taking care of these patients, they have to know that they have to do what’s right, and we will have their back. That’s our job.”

In early April, she co-wrote an opinion piece published in The New York Times urging the Supreme Court not to overturn the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—which affects 29,000 frontline medical workers. “If the Supreme Court allows the termination of DACA during this pandemic, the work of our hospitals will suffer a critical blow at exactly the moment when we can least afford it. . . . Neither our institutions nor the nation can afford a disruption to the health care workforce. We desperately need all hands on deck for this fight.”

Founder and Executive Director, National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty 

Maria Foscarinis ’81

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty is the legal arm of the national movement to end homelessness and is providing guidance and resources regarding COVID-19 protections for homeless populations. In her March op-ed in Street Sense Media, Maria Foscarinis wrote that temporary housing is the best approach for our public health to protect homeless people from COVID-19. In April, the virus began to spread more widely in homeless shelters in large cities. “We call on hotel owners—and especially those who have been helped with our public dollars through the federal relief package—to act in the public good and make it easy for communities to follow the CDC guidance to quickly place people experiencing homelessness into their vacant rooms for the duration of the pandemic,” Foscarinis said in New York Amsterdam News. “We also urge elected officials to use vacant federal, state, and local properties for emergency housing and as a space to help transition people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing after COVID-19.” 


Chairman, National Democratic Redistricting Committee

Eric H. Holder Jr. ’76 

Eric H. Holder Jr., who served as attorney general under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2015, now heads a Democratic political action committee that is spending money in state races to gain Democratic advantage in the upcoming congressional redistricting process. He has also spoken out on the need for safe, accessible voting in November despite the COVID-19 crisis, including by calling for expanded voting by mail and holding in-person voting over several days to reduce crowding at polls. “We have to make sure that we’re being sensitive to the needs of poor communities and communities of color by doing things like having prepaid postage on envelopes,” he told Time. “Construct a system so that you’ve got expanded in-person voting [and] you’ve got expanded at-home voting.” Holder also has said COVID-19 and the social-distancing laws and mask requirements that have been imposed will make more difficult the task of building trust between law enforcement and young men of color. 


Principal, Bloomberg Associates, and Chair, National Association of City Transportation Officials

Janette Sadik-Khan ’87

As a global expert tasked with imagining what the world’s post-pandemic cities will look like, Janette Sadik-Khan wrote in ForeignPolicy.com, “This challenge we’re faced with isn’t whether cities will survive as we know them. The question is whether we will have the imagination and vision to transform streets and bring about the safer, more accessible, and more resilient cities we’ve needed all along.” 

Sadik-Khan, an authority on transportation and urban transformation who served as commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2013 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is working with cities like Milan on their COVID-19 transportation recovery programs. She says that the Strade Aperte (Open Streets) plan could provide a roadmap for others. 

In an interview with the BBC, Sadik-Khan suggested cars should take a back seat to pedestrians post-lockdown. “Cities that seize this moment to reallocate space on their streets to make it easier for people to walk, bike, and take public transport will prosper after this pandemic and not simply recover from it.” Hear more in this podcast.


Executive Director, Advocates for Children of New York

Kim Sweet ’92

Protecting every student’s right to learn has been Kim Sweet’s mission since taking the helm of Advocates for Children of New York in 2007. But the COVID-19 crisis has forced her into overdrive. Recognized by City and State Magazine as “one of the 100 most powerful education leaders in New York,” Sweet is fighting for enhanced academic and social-emotional support to make up for the months of in-class instructional time that have been lost to the pandemic.

“Even in our darkest days, we have to continue to invest in the future, and our schools are our best hope,” Sweet said in a recent statement. “That is absolutely key to full recovery.” She and her team of education specialists and attorneys provide free legal advice and representation to children and families throughout New York City. Since COVID-19 struck, they have been holding webinars and workshops for parents and professionals, as well as producing an array of useful resources

The granddaughter, daughter, and sister of teachers, Sweet is passionate about giving a voice to children and families who are most likely to fall through the cracks, particularly immigrants, low-income students, and those with special needs.

Acting Deputy Director, Human Rights Watch, Americas Division

Tamara Tarachiuk Broner ’05 LL.M. 

Tamara Tarachiuk Broner has been sounding the alarm about human rights abuses related to COVID-19 in articles published by Foreign Policy and Caracas Chronicles. She argued that the United States should grant temporary protected status (TPS)—a type of humanitarian protection granted when people can’t return to their home countries safely because of generalized, temporary conditions—to some 200,000 Venezuelan nationals in the United States who risk deportation. Venezuela, she says, is ill-equipped to handle the COVID-19 crisis. The country “lacks basic X-ray equipment, laboratory tests, ICU beds, and respirators. Without water in outpatient clinics and hospitals, many health care providers can’t even wash their hands, which is vital to limiting the spread of COVID-19,” she wrote in Caracas Chronicles. “Granting TPS to Venezuelans would be an act of mercy in a season of dread.”


Executive Vice President, Legal, Regulatory, and Professional Affairs, Greater New York Hospital Association (GNYHA)

Susan C. Waltman ’77 

Susan C. Waltman is not only responsible for all legal, regulatory, and professional affairs matters involving GNYHA and its 200 affiliated facilities, but she also oversees GNYHA’s emergency preparedness and response activities. For decades, she’s been readying her organization for any number of crises, including terrorist attacks, chemical and biological threats, natural disasters, and pandemics. 

Waltman has worked closely with New York state on COVID-19 response efforts, recently contributing to a report to state health officials about how to roll out antibody testing. When a New York City health official sent an alert in late April that cautioned against relying on antibody testing, Waltman responded with an alert of her own, which, according to The New York Times, “said the tests are valuable for the information they can provide about the virus, and contrasted the city’s ‘absolute, rather dismissive terms’ with what she described as an approach from the state that ‘tries to put the test results in perspective.’”

A Washington Post article on pandemic funding from early May highlights Waltman’s history of advocacy. It cites her 2004 senate testimony, when she said, “Our hospitals take on these additional responsibilities for the benefit of the country at large, and they, in turn, deserve to be supported in their efforts.”

President and CEO, United Way of New York City

Sheena Wright ’94

With her leadership experience and first-hand knowledge of what at-risk populations need, Sheena Wright has valuable insights sought by government leaders as they confront the COVID-19 crisis. In April, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed Wright to the New York Forward Reopening Advisory Board, and in May, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed her to the Education Section Advisory Council.

At the United Way of New York City, which she has led for eight years as the first woman to serve as president and CEO, Wright established a special fund to aid city residents most severely affected by the pandemic. The fund launched in March with initial donations of $250,000 from National Grid and $500,000 from the New York Jets and the Johnson family (owners of the Jets franchise). “Through the COVID-19 Community Fund, we are going to provide a backbone of support to our 600 community-based organization partners who are managing this crisis throughout our great City,” Wright said in a statement to the press. “We fundamentally believe that while fear spreads fast, help spreads faster—and we are the connection for our community to provide and receive help during this time.”


Chairman, Humanity Forward

Andrew Yang ’99

The central idea of Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign, a guaranteed basic income, has taken on new relevance as COVID-19 has created the worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression. Yang is putting his idea into practice through Humanity Forward, the nonprofit he founded after ending his campaign in February. (He also has a super PAC called HumanityFWD.) The nonprofit advocates for universal basic income and is piloting a program to provide monthly grants to people affected by the pandemic. The CARES Act, Yang said, should have provided more direct payments to households rather than business loans. “It’s literally life or death,’’ he said in an interview with Bloomberg. Yang is also supporting another nonprofit effort, Project 100, with the goal of giving grants to families that rely on federal SNAP food aid, and an antidiscrimination campaign, All Americans, which sells celebrity-designed merchandise to raise money for COVID-19 relief. 

In April, Yang and fellow candidate Bernie Sanders successfully sued to get New York’s June presidential primary reinstated after officials sought to cancel it because of the pandemic. 


“This challenge we’re faced with isn’t whether cities will survive as we know them. The question is whether we will have the imagination and vision to transform streets and bring about the safer, more accessible, and more resilient cities we’ve needed all along.”
Janette Sadik-Khan ’87, Principal, Bloomberg Associates, and Chair, NACTO

Do you know of a Columbia Law graduate working on a significant project related to COVID-19? Email [email protected] to let us know.