20 Questions with Stephen A. Cozen
1. As the architect of one of the largest and most successful law firms in the United States, what has it been like to watch your firm grow from only four lawyers in 1970 to over 550 presently? What do you feel the key factors are that allow a firm to grow from a boutique operation into a full-service, large-scale, international firm?
To watch the firm grow so rapidly and successfully over the past 30- plus years is awesome and greatly satisfying. I think there are three key factors to any success.
One is having a vision of what it is you want to be. Whether it’s simply to be the best at what you do or expanding into different practice areas, you have to have a vision of what success looks like.
Two is hard work and dedication. You just can’t go anywhere without hard work.
Three is the creation of a culture. That is what differentiates you from all the other institutions out there. At Cozen O’Connor, we have a culture of meritocracy. It is a familial atmosphere where people rely on each other and the strength of their interpersonal relationships. There is a willingness and desire to support and help one another that comes from a culture of fairness and achievement based on merit. Culture is something you must have in order to be an institution that people want to be part of. And, you must actively look for and bring in people of quality.
Cozen O’Connor made its name as an insurance litigation firm, but successfully transitioned into a full-service and commercial litigation firm. How did that transition come about?
We always had that vision of expanding into other areas. It didn’t make a difference what the subject matter was; we knew the experience and knowledge was there.
I think the real transition came when we took part in a few truly high visibility insurance-related cases, such as Enron surety bonds and whether the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center were one occurrence or two. We were coming up against some of the biggest and best law firms in the country, and we were winning. It continued to be clear that we had some of the best trial lawyers in the country. Not only could we handle litigation involving any subject matter and any size, but we could do it better than most others. Those wins, among others led to the same recognition from our clients so that we became the go-to firm for litigation regardless of subject, matter.
2. Academic involvement by seasoned attorneys through avenues such as serving as adjunct professors or authoring treatises or textbooks seems more prevalent than ever. How has your involvement in such activities enriched your experience as a member of the legal community? Do you believe that it is important for attorneys to step back every now and then and remind themselves that practicing law is not only a way to make a living, but an ongoing educational endeavor?
I have served as an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and I’ve authored dozens of treatises and one text book. All of those exercises have enriched my experience. I think it is important that everyone who practices law at a high level be able to listen. You learn a lot more when you listen than when you talk. I think it’s also important to take yourself to the sidelines, away from the crises of the moment. To give yourself time to study, reflect and think is gratifying and fulfilling. It allows you to gain greater perspective on what you want to do and how, and it allows you the luxury of time to think things through rather than react.
Don’t be fooled, however. If you want to write, or serve as adjunct professor, or give seminars on subject matters at a certain level of competency, it is very, very hard work. Again, hard work, dedication and preparation are key.
3. Your roots appear to hold strong with the State of Pennsylvania and, in particular, The City of Brotherly Love. Lawyers with your credentials and talent could practice law anywhere desired. What is it about the Philadelphia area that kept you from heading elsewhere?
Well, the number one reason I’ve stayed in Philadelphia is that this is where I was born and grew up, and this is where my family is. I did have opportunities to go to other cities and practice with other firms early in my career. I chose not to, not only because Philly was my home, but because there is an appreciation for quality lawyers here that goes back to Alexander Hamilton and the “Philadelphia Lawyer.” There is a certain caricature of what a lawyer should be, so it was also the quality of lawyers and opportunities here. In addition, I remained active with the University of Pennsylvania Law School in a variety of ways after my graduation. I’ve served as an adjunct professor and on the Board of Overseers. I’ve lent my name and support to the reconstruction of the law school and the establishment of a chair, so that is another tremendous tie to the city.
4. Throughout their respective years of practice, litigators at your level invariably handle a number of important cases, and some of those cases stick with them more than others, even after many years. What is the toughest case you ever tried, regardless of its outcome? What made the case so difficult? What did you take away from that particular experience that stayed with you as you continued to develop as a professional?
There are so many it’s hard to isolate, but I guess there are two that really stand out for me. One was a huge victory, while the other was a loss, but ultimately turned out to be a victory.
The first is the Connelly Containers fire. That first put us on the map. The fire occurred in 1966 and went to trial in 1970. It was a challenging case because we had to put together substantial circumstantial evidence and expert testimony to convince a jury of the cause and origin of the fire that destroyed a big factory. This was the first case that made people stand up and take notice of the fact that, while we had very a small practice, we did have special expertise and that gave us credibility in the legal community. It was a tough case that taught me a lot about how to put together circumstantial evidence and expert testimony, and it helped me in many cases to come, including the fire at One Meridian Plaza.
The other was part of insurance-backed film financing litigation. We had a trial in New York City that lasted some seven weeks in the New York trial courts in front of a judge who was known to have a short fuse. The particular trial involved hundreds of millions, but the entire matter was worth more than a billion- and-a-half. We approached the case as a long-term strategy to try out various defenses, since we felt we needed a trial record to take on appeal. We didn’t expect to win - even though we almost did. We just wanted to make it clear that we were going to fight every single case. The trial made it clear to the other side that we would and they didn’t want to go to trial again. It resulted in an eventual victory through settlement.
5. What was your childhood ambition, or ambitions?
I vacillated between being a professional baseball player and lawyer. In those days not many people exercised free choice when it came to their profession. It was usually pre-determined by your family. My family always said I had the gift of gab and I oughta be a lawyer.
I was also a very good baseball player, but my father, who was a legendary high school and college basketball coach, said I wasn’t good enough to play professionally. He told me to go to school, and he was right.
6. Who would you say have been your mentors throughout the years? What relatives, friends, colleagues or adversaries have shaped you both as a person and as a lawyer, and how?
I think there are three people who really shaped my life both professionally and personally. The first is Leo Levin, my favorite professor at Penn Law. He is legendary at Penn. He taught me to love the law, and love everything that surrounded the law and what it did for society.
The second was my friend Howard Gittis. He taught me to be concerned with the business of the practice of law, not just the practice of law, and that you could do both at a high level, but there were few who knew how.
And, the third is my wife Sandy, who has helped me in countless ways over the years. Particularly, there have been many times when I would talk to her about a case and tell her what I thought it was about, she kept me from getting lost on the legal side of a case and emphasized the human side– and that made all the difference.
7. What is your fondest memory involving trial work?
One of the most fun cases I remember was when my good friend and colleague Joe Gerber and I spent three cold, wet months in Connecticut to try a case involving a fire in an old warehouse that also took down our client’s warehouse next door. It was a very difficult case that lasted for years, and when it finally got to trial, no one gave us a chance. But, in the end, we really kicked butt! It was a good story and a good jury. I felt great heading in for the verdict, but when the jury came out with their decision, the foreman said they found for the defendant! My heart just dropped until he continued to say they found for the defendant being guilty of negligence!
We had twelve lawyers in the firm at the time, and I remember coming back and having a big celebratory dinner with everyone sitting around a table in one room. We’ve had many celebrations since, but none as small or as intimate as that one.
8. I've known various lawyers over the years who have employed a variety of arguably superstitious customs during the days leading up to trial and during trial. Is there a habit or ritual, better yet, are there habits or rituals that you tend to repeat the night before a trial begins or during a trial?
I wouldn’t call it a habit or ritual so much as a methodology. The trial of a case is fun. The preparation is tedious. But, there is no substitute for preparation. I spend an inordinate amount of time prepping for voir dire, creating outlines of cross examinations and comparing them with deposition transcripts. I typically narrow everything into a few trial books, and give concentrated effort to outlining voir dire, cross examination and direct examination of witnesses. That’s just my methodology.
9. What is your favorite aesthetic of a trial - voir dire, opening statement, cross examination, closing argument? Has it changed over the years?
It’s never changed. Opening and closing arguments have always been the two most important – and my favorite – parts of any jury trial. An opening can set anchors and filters for the jury. The rest is just a show. You just choreograph it and let it play out. But, you set the psychological anchors in opening and drive them home in the closing.
10. Where do you go to find solace?
At home with my family.
11. Who are your favorite writers?
I like the great story tellers – Daniel Silva, Robert Ludlum, John Forsythe. I love a good story teller.
12. LCA Fellow Patrick O'Connor and you have practiced together for quite a while. What makes the two of you work together so well?
It’s the personal relationship. We’ve been together for almost 40 years now, so we’re more like brothers than anything else. Our families are interwoven, and he’s a best friend. There’s mutual admiration and respect of course, but the personal relationship is the most important thing.
13. Your firm has grown dramatically during the same time, as women and minorities have expanded their numbers within the bar. In that regard, Cozen O'Connor maintains a strong position with respect to diversity. Diversity, along with excellence and integrity, is central to the LCA's mission and plays a fundamental role in our selection of Fellows, growth and goals. We want to quote you on diversity in the next issue of Litigation Commentary & Review. So, in a word, sentence, or paragraph, what is the significance or importance of furthering diversity within the profession of law and throughout our system of justice?
I think America is the ultimate melting pot of people and ideas, and to limit either our staff or clients to a pre-determined set of criteria would defeat what the law is supposed to be –which is justice for all, delivered by all. We want to foster that connection and deliver justice to everyone regardless of race, ethnicity –or background, and have people of every race, ethnicity or background at our firm because it gives strength to our organization.
14. How has your firm addressed training litigation associates in the present environment of diminished trial work?
For us, there really hasn’t been a diminishment of trial work. We continue to try a lot of cases. We have more than 500 attorneys and more than 300 of those are trial lawyers. We’ve formalized what we do in terms of training though a program called COTA - Cozen O’Connor Trial Academy. We have a college each year for all of our up-and-coming talent throughout the country. We give them a week of training through participation in mock trials with judges and other top professionals. We take a lot of time putting the program together and pick the best to participate. This is in addition to our normal encouragement to participate in seminars, symposiums, CLEs and programs through groups like The National Institute for Trial Advocacy, etc.
15. When you began practice in the 1960s, discovery was a growing trend that many today would argue has been a detriment to trial work. Do you miss the days of just saddling up and riding into court on a more expedited time frame?
I do miss the expedition, but I think we’re getting some of that back with good judges that move things along fairly expeditiously. But, discovery is very important. If properly handled, it marshals evidence, pares down issues and resolves cases. Good judges and good lawyers can do whatever discovery needs to be done in a reasonable time, and that discovery has advantages.
16. Given the current shape of the legal landscape and a tough job market, what advice would you give to prospective lawyers who have recently graduated or are about to graduate?
My advice to them is not to close their eyes to any opportunity. Be flexible; don’t try to fit in the norm, because law is not one size fits all. Look at all opportunities, from law firms, to teaching, to public interest, to find the right slot that will give you the training and experience to help you make choices as you go along.
17. Now it's prediction time. Will the Phillies three-peat as National League champs this year?
If their pitching holds up, yes!
18. What do you consider to be your biggest indulgence?
Golf. I try to play a couple of times a week, weather allowing.
19. What trait do you most value in your friends?
20. What is your motto?
I don’t think I have a particular motto. If you ask my kids, they would probably give you a few dozen, but two do come to mind:
It’s not imperative to be the best, but there is no excuse not to do your best.
Life is really all about choices and consequences. You can’t complain. You have to live with the consequences of your choices.