Since 2018, Kapil Longani ’97 has served as chief counsel to New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio. Since the start of the pandemic, Longani has helped shape the city’s plans for reopening schools, creating outdoor dining protocols, and thinking through legal issues around COVID testing and vaccine distribution.
“Every significant or sensitive legal issue that comes before the mayor stops at my desk first,” Longani says. “I like to consider myself his solutions person, his solutions czar.”
Responding to crisis
In the spring of 2020, New York City became the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Longani’s office of 15 staff members has drafted each of the more than 90 executive orders governing the city’s response to COVID-19. His team has worked 24/7 since the pandemic hit, and has navigated sensitive legal issues nobody could ever have imagined, Longani says.
“In law school, there isn’t a course on how to handle emergency lawyering,” he says. “There’s no ‘Pandemic Response 101.’ But what was immediately clear was that the primary goal of all of our work is to protect public health. That drove every decision we made.”
For example, when a cruise ship arrived in NYC at the beginning of the pandemic, Longani’s office needed to decide how to legally test the passengers before allowing them to enter the city, balancing protecting privacy rights with protecting public health.
“The constitution doesn’t die during a crisis. We have to respect those rights,” he says, while protecting the lives of New Yorkers.
A critical part of Longani’s role as chief counsel to the mayor has been communicating directly with NYC residents to explain what each new law or executive order means for them. His team has created an FAQ page on their website, a Twitter account, a monthly newsletter, and a podcast all aimed at providing easily-digestible information for the public.
“At a time when people were very isolated and the government was more visible than ever—closing businesses and schools, standing up testing, distributing vaccines—I thought it was important they heard from the people making decisions that affected their lives,” Longani explains, noting that these communication efforts have been incredibly successful.
Learning from the pandemic
Longani says there are a number of valuable lessons we can all learn from adapting to life in a pandemic. This has certainly been true for him and his team. Longani feels he has become more comfortable making decisions in a crisis and saying no when necessary.
“Regardless of my job, I’ve always thought to myself, ‘Am I really good enough to do this?’ This job did more to answer that question in my mind than anything else,” he says. “If you can get through this, you can get through anything.”
Time, Longani says, is not your friend in the middle of a crisis. Many decisions that his team would normally have had days to consider needed to be made within hours, or minutes.
“The virus didn’t sleep and neither did we. Being able to act under pressure, make decisions that are both accurate and fair and just in that situation, it’s an experience and a skill set that I will take with me forever,” he says. “You’re having to interpret laws that have no prior precedent. It creates a situation where you have to be very quick on your feet.”
Longani credits his team for their response to these unprecedented challenges. He has encouraged his team members to be confident, take risks, and grow as leaders.
“Their creativity, knowledge, and willingness to take risks is something I’ll never forget,” he says.
Moving from Cornell to NYC
Longani’s career path has been unique, and he credits his Cornell experience for where he’s ended up. The son of immigrants from India, Longani says his parents encouraged him to study medicine. But, he says, seeing the incredible array of available courses and meeting people from all different backgrounds at Cornell—reignited his longtime passion for politics.
A course on world religions, he says, led him to visit the Namgyal Monastery in Ithaca. “Spending time there in order to write my research paper for that class started to open my eyes,” he says. “I realized I had to expand how I viewed life. Even if I became a doctor, this was an extraordinary opportunity to find out more about myself.”
Being accepted into a class taught by Carl Sagan (which Longani’s father, a scientist with NASA, was “on cloud nine” to hear about) and a class with political scientist and professor of government Ted Lowi expanded Longani’s views. “When I took [Lowi’s] class, I began to devour politics again,” he says. “He has had a lifelong influence on my career.”
“Going to a place like Cornell can change dramatically the trajectory of your life,” he adds. “Cornell gave me the freedom to find myself in many ways. That’s a gift I could never repay.”
Longani went on to study law at the University of Florida, Yale Law School, and Oxford University, hoping to “give a voice to people who didn’t have a voice, the most vulnerable.” He wasn’t sure how to combine his law degrees with his passion for politics after graduating, but says a call with his grandmother in India encouraged him.
“She said [of Longani’s degrees], ‘Those papers are only valuable if you use them to make a difference in people’s lives. Otherwise, they are just fancy Latin words on your wall, and what’s the point of that?’”
Longani’s path took him to a federal clerkship; a multinational law firm in New York City; an assistant U.S. attorney position in Washington, D.C., fighting violent crimes; and to a position as senior counsel to the late Congressman Elijah Cummings, who was then the chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“He became a father figure to me in many ways,” Longani says, adding that he felt privileged to work with Cummings on many interesting and fulfilling investigations, including the Flint water crises and the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria. “Elijah Cummings was one of the greatest people I’ve worked with, he was an extraordinary human being,” Longani says. “It was a great honor that he trusted me to lead these investigations.”
That experience led to his current role as chief counsel to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Speaking from experience
“There’s no better feeling than to follow your passion,” Longani says, “and to do so in a way that allows you to serve your neighbors. It is the job of a lifetime. I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to serve my fellow New Yorkers.”
Longani encourages law students and all Cornellians to focus on being true to themselves, to not be afraid of following their passions, and to take risks.
“It’s about fit in life. It’s not about making the most money, the most prestige, it’s not about titles,” he says. “That will never make you happy. It’s about taking risks. You need to be true to yourself, be authentic.”
“We all have self-doubt,” he adds. “I don’t take jobs that I don’t have a little bit of fear about. I take jobs where I have to grow, and where I have a chance to give a voice to people who need to be heard.”