Best Law Firm in Town Proves There’s No Free Lunch

With free lunch every day for associates, great health and pension benefits and challenging work for its 28 lawyers, Cohen, Weiss and Simon earned a reputation as one of the better firms to work for in the city. Harcourt Brace even included it in its 1998 guidebook listing, “The 100 Greatest Places to Work With a Law Degree.”

But the election of James Hoffa Jr. as president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters last December has meant big changes at Cohen Weiss. Anticipating the loss of the teamsters’ union as its biggest client, Cohen Weiss notified five well-credentialed lawyers they were out of a job.

The bad news came the week before Christmas, when most law firm associates were planning how to spend their “boom year” bonuses. Two of the five were there at least five years.

Associates who got to stay also got bad news. Health care and pension payments were downgraded. And the free lunch policy, in effect for as long as most people could remember, ended.

Associates at Cohen Weiss said the firm’s reputation as legal nirvana had been grossly overstated to begin with. “I would venture that they did not interview a single associate who worked there,” one said, laughing, about the Harcourt Brace laurel.

What Cohen Weiss did have, however, was a national reputation as a premier firm for union work. And it had the big kahuna client of them all, the teamsters’ union–at least as long as Ron Carey was president.

Cohen Weiss, however, soon found itself caught up in the investigation of Mr. Carey’s election fund-raising activities. In 1997, three of the firm’s lawyers were investigated over campaign finance improprieties that led to the disqualification of Mr. Carey. One associate resigned after allegations of misleading a judicial investigator surfaced. He later pleaded guilty to lying to investigations. The mood at Cohen Weiss was dark.

“Everybody was talking about leaving,” said a former associate. The junior lawyers passed around a list of headhunters who were interested in placing Cohen Weiss associates (starting salary: $50,000).

Things got so bad, even the partners caught on and scheduled a rare, all-firm meeting, lawyers said. “All they said was, ‘You have to be working even harder, you have to be even more professional. This is a difficult time for the firm,'” one recalled. Afterward, one partner divulged to the associates that the senior partners had discussed but ultimately decided against boosting spirits by offering praise; in their view, the group still included a few slackers.

The firm’s rainmaker, Bruce Simon, said he remembered it differently. “I can’t imagine saying that we need to be more professional at that meeting. I say that at every meeting.” He denied that the partners discussed the question of whether to praise or not to praise.

Cohen Weiss, which has offices on West 42nd Street, was started in 1943. In the mid-1980’s, Mr. Simon established himself as a national authority on union finances and was often hired in the heartland as a “special bankruptcy counsel.” The profile of the firm, longtime counsel to teamster locals, was boosted in 1991 with the election of Mr. Carey to the teamsters post. Once the union hired them, more union locals signed on.

The firm’s reputation was to be daring and aggressive–almost a job qualification in that line of work, a rival lawyer said with admiration. “Bruce Simon has balls. You have to if you’re a union-side lawyer.”

But the firm’s demeanor carried over inside the shop, too, said associates. “There were no associate reviews for the entire [time] I was there; there was no communication at all,” recalled one.

Women lawyers, in particular, have passed in and out of the firm. Survivors point out that four of the five associates canned in December were women: Michelle

Guerra, Anne-Miriam Hart, Dorothy Hill, Jennifer Matis. (The fifth associate was Samuel Brezel; Ms. Hill has since been asked back to the firm.) The same week, four senior associates, all men, were promoted to partner.

For both women and men, the working conditions were rough, associates said. “I didn’t want to sell out to a big corporate firm,” recalled one associate, “and I thought Cohen Weiss would be a good medium, I’d be doing union work and employment law. Those were causes I thought I believed in. I was told the hours were going to be O.K. They were a nightmare. The working culture, that was a nightmare.”

Mr. Simon dismissed the grousing. “Everyone in this firm has an open door,” said Mr. Simon. “It’s a very informal place … there’s a high level of collegiality.”

Though Cohen Weiss continues to do some work for the teamsters’ union, the bulk is expected to shift to Baptiste & Wilder in Washington, D.C. The firm continues to represent mail carriers and airline pilots.

Ed Koch: Lost to History

On Jan. 26, Judge Philip Straniere of City Civil Court’s Staten Island branch made a landmark decision. He ruled that John Gunn, a plaintiff on the People’s Court television show, unhappy with the administration of justice in its East 37th Street studio, could not sue the television program for the outcome.

In a 12-page decision that read like a bid for his own TV deal, Judge Straniere wrote that, “just as Jack traded his milk cow for some magic beans,” Mr. Gunn gave up his right to seek redress in a real courtroom when he signed an agreement to have Judge Edward Koch decide the case.

That means, you choose Judge Koch, you’re stuck with him. So how does one decide whether to sign a case away to him?

Logic would say research. But there’s nowhere for potential People’s Court litigants to find the records of how the former New York City mayor and distinguished New York University School of Law alumnus has ruled. Unless, of course, you’ve been a compulsive taper who has every one of the judge’s cases on your video shelves.

“Remember,” said Harvey Levin, the former CBS newsman who’s behind the show, “it’s like small claims court. You could never find a record of these decisions in small claims … Most of them are one sheet of paper. You’ll never know why the judge did what he did. Here, they get a much longer hearing, much longer, ten times longer than they would get in a traditional small claims court. So in many ways you get more bang for the buck.” Not to mention that the producers pay your debt, even when Mr. Koch rules against you.

Back to the videotape. Surely there must be some, somewhere. There are, but People’s Court won’t give them to you. Mr. Levin said: “Our cases are not binding precedent on anybody, so to that extent, [the videotapes] are more for us than anything else.”

Only one judicial television show, in fact, offers any kind of legal archive. Judge Mills Lane, who presides in syndication, has a Web site that lists cases under headings like “Boyfriend’s Underwear,” “Donnybrook in Brooklyn” and “Cockroaches.” That last one involved a woman who asked her dead sister’s boyfriend to pay the charges the couple ran up on her credit card. He sent along cockroaches instead of cash.

In the end, though, Judge Lane’s archive is pretty useless for the amateur law clerk: In many cases, the site doesn’t say what the judge’s ruling was and it never explains how the judge arrived at his decision. The site, however, does solicit a viewers’ vote. Seventy-seven percent of the audience voted for the cockroach-mailer, 23 percent for the woman grieving for her sister.

Another Bad Day for Legal Aid

Apparently, it is cosmically predetermined that Legal Aid Society lawyers must always get shortchanged. On Jan. 28, at a state bar awards ceremony for prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys at the Marriott Marquis hotel, a Legal Aid veteran named Stephen Pittari was standing at the podium accepting an award for “Outstanding Delivery of Defense Services.” Reacting to the Governor’s day-earlier announcement that funds for Legal Aid are slashed in his new budget, Mr. Pittari attempted to ask the assembled worthies (Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, sex shop defense lawyer Herald Price Fahringer, state criminal justice commissioner Katherine Lapp) to lobby for more funds. He had barely gotten a couple sentences into his plea before loud beeps sounded from overhead. The host leaned into the mike: “I’m sorry, but we have the Senator on the line.” And then the voice of Senator Charles Schumer came over the loudspeaker, direct from the Senate cloak room, to thank the assembled for giving him its Outstanding Criminal Justice Legislation award for sponsoring his now-famous crime bill. His jokes about skipping out on impeachment-trial jury duty knocked Mr. Pittari off the dais. If the Senator really wants to prove himself, he should try to deliver some Federal funds to Legal Aid.

Legal Animal Tricks

What is, far and away, the best-selling legal tome issued by the stodgy Association of the Bar of the City of New York? Providing for Your Pet in Case of Your Death or Hospitalization . That cash cow has sold 25,000 copies since it was introduced three years ago. Why is it so successful? “We get a lot of requests from the elderly,” said public relations coordinator Kristen Ruckdeschel. Also, it is the only City Bar publication that gets advertised widely–in outlets as varied as the New York Daily News and an animal-lovers’ favorite, the Doris Duke Magazine –and thus the only one that carries a fee, $2 for 17 pages. If you’re interested in this title, you might also read Animal Fighting and Cruelty Cases in New York and Keeping Spot and Fluffy Home: Pets in New York City Housing .

You can reach N.Y. Law at mfleischer@observer.com.