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The Producers: Robin Cohen

Photo by Dave Cross.

Lawdragon is presenting a series looking at lawyers who produce vast amounts of business for their firms, typically $20M and up per year. Rare air. We had a chance to talk to Robin Cohen, who pairs a personality that will not be denied with a business savvy seeded by her father and elevated by her to a level of success that is all her own.

It takes roughly 0.1 seconds after meeting McKool Smith partner Robin Cohen to understand she is a force of nature.

Her effusive focus on whatever is before her that moment – her firm, her family, and often as not her world-class insurance recovery practice – packs a wallop. She is regarded as one of the most brilliant insurance recovery lawyers in the world – with more than $5B in insurer assets to her credit for clients including Verizon, Cushman & Wakefield, New Jersey Transit and Givaudan Fragrance in claims ranging from asbestos to Superstorm Sandy to employee dishonesty.

She is one of the most successful female rainmakers anywhere – which is to say she’s one of the most successful producers period. But for Cohen, it’s worth talking a bit about women in these times. Like many of the world’s most successful women lawyers, the discussion of them as a separate species is more than a little demeaning. However, with the curtain so recently ripped back on the path women have traveled, Cohen wants to add her powerful voice to the discussion.

Her journey has been atypical in that she learned early to be comfortable with her path, no matter how much that varied from perceived wisdom. The Philadelphia-area native earned her undergrad and law degrees at University of Pennsylvania, where she caught on quick that the best practicing lawyers are often not those with straight As. She began practicing with Anderson Kill, which was unusual because every attorney there was a partner. She has never practiced as an associate, which in her estimation was probably a good thing.

She crafted her entire career her way, and stayed true to form when she moved her practice to McKool Smith a few years back. She researched the best firms for her group, and picked up the phone and cold-called Mike McKool.

“Hi, this is Robin Cohen,” she said in a message for McKool. “You may not know me, but I’d like to talk to you about an opportunity.” And talk they did.

She’s been mentored by men and practiced with brilliant women, and no mentor has been more profound than her father, the 85-year old and only recently retired CFO of Penske Corp. Yes, she has been to an auto race or 300.

And perhaps that’s really at the heart of her overdrive. Because when she’s behind the wheel, there’s no question who’s in charge.

Lawdragon: What are your earliest memories of becoming interested in being a lawyer?

Robin Cohen: Before high school, I was incredibly shy. But I still took advantage of a fifth-grade program in my Philadelphia-area school that allowed students with high enough grades to design a creative-studies course in which we could pursue a particular passion. I persuaded my father to drive me into the city where I knocked on the doors of judges’ offices until one agreed to let me join law students observing court proceedings.

For someone who was shy, I was sort of intense and tenacious. I watched murder trials, rape trials, I  got exposed to the court system and got  passionate about the law. I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a lawyer.

LD:  Do you carry any memories from those early courtroom experiences with you today?

RC: I was blown away by the court system. I was also blown away by how fair my judge was, and how the system seemed to work. You had  talented people on both sides. I was particularly impressed with the prosecutors. I remember one case that definitely affected me in which a girl around 18 had been raped and it was her word against the defendant’s. He was convicted, and it just seemed to me that the law was a fair way of proceeding and that our system was a pretty dynamic and amazing one.

My impression of it was it was  interactive. I was  impressed with the quality of the lawyering and the quality of my judge. It really drew me in.

LD: Did the victim testify?

RC: Yes, and it was very traumatic. I remember that she was crying, and that she was incredibly believable. That was just one of many cases that I saw, but that definitely affected me. The program was such a great program because it  allowed you to tap into things that you thought you might be interested in. As you get older, you’re never happy every day, but I  love what I do. I think if you can figure out what you want to do and actually go for it, it’s great.  I got a taste of it, and it just fit well with me. It was a great program and a lot of schools should consider it, frankly.

I was in the program for two years. Later, when I went to college, I was a sociology  major. I took a lot of criminal law and psychology classes about the law. I always knew I wanted to become a lawyer at the end of the day.

LD: Tell me more about your early years. What was your childhood like? What were your other interests?

RC: I grew up in the suburbs. I was the third child, and by far the one who was babied the most. I have a sister who’s two years older who is now a lawyer, a public-interest lawyer in Philadelphia. She started a not-for-profit called the Legal Help Center that helps underprivileged women keep their homes and advocates in court every day in Philadelphia. I am, I guess, the financier of the not-for-profit. I tell everyone I’m going to heaven on her coattails.

LD: Were you involved in any sports?

RC: I did track, I did swimming, I played volleyball, I did gymnastics, I did everything.  I was the fastest kid in the school, both boys and girls, OK? I thought I was the cat’s meow. Then I got to seventh grade, and my seventh grade had a much larger student body. At my first track meet, I came in last place. Last. I learned early that it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond.

LD: What did you parents do?

RC: My father was the CFO of Penske Corp., the transportation company run by racing legend Roger Penske that fields an auto-racing team. I used to work at the race tracks in Michigan and in the Poconos, when they would have a race. He retired at about 85. He’s a workaholic like me; he’s worked his whole life.

My mother was a housewife, which by the way probably was, in hindsight, the worst thing for her, because she had so much energy that she really needed to work outside the home. If she were in our generation, she would have done so.

LD:  I can imagine – I think there are many women like that. When you were deciding what law school to go to, was Penn just the obvious choice? Did you think of others?

RC: I went to the best one I could get into. I loved law school, and in fact probably most of my closest friends today are from law school and my first year at Anderson Kill, because that’s when you’re working the hardest, and you’re sort of in the trenches with other attorneys. I didn’t find law school as much of a pressure cooker as a lot of other people. As a child, I wasn’t really impacted by what people thought of me, and when I was in law school, I found it intellectually interesting and challenging. I felt I was lucky to get in, so I didn’t feel the intensity of getting straight As.

You always hear the story that the people who got the straight As, they actually became professors. The middle didn’t really do that well, and the people on the bottom, basically, were the most successful. I’m probably a very good candidate for that. I did fine, I wasn’t on  law review, but I did fine.  And I loved it. My thought process was much more scattered before law school, and it trained me to think in a much more logical, coherent, more linear way.

LD:  Did you clerk for Anderson Kill during the summer, or did you look at some other firms also?

RC: I was in Philadelphia at a firm called Saul Ewing. After getting married, I moved to New York, and it was the late ’80s, and you really could pick your firm. What was interesting – and this sort of clued me in a little bit about how I could stand out and make my mark – is that if I was interviewed, I rarely did not get the job. My friends who were law review, top 5%, they didn’t get the job offers that I received.

I learned at an early age that your emotional intelligence was as important as your raw intelligence. Because I was a little bit shy when I was kid, I didn’t realize how important your personality was, and your ability to read audiences and be receptive to people. I learned that through the interview process at the various law firms.

The reason I picked Anderson Kill was that everybody was a partner. I realized pretty early that I’d probably make a lousy associate but a great partner. My whole career, I’ve been a partner. Anderson Kill was full of very eclectic, interesting, dynamic people.  I gravitated to Anderson Kill because I found them more interesting than all the other firms that I had interviewed. I loved Gene Anderson, I love Jerry Oshinsky. To give Jerry and Gene their due, they recognized that no one is great at everything. They saw pretty early on that I was good in a courtroom or in a deposition. I was doing things that my friends at other firms and my colleagues from law school were not doing.

In fact, I brought three or four friends from other firms into Anderson Kill. They thought, “If they’re going to let RC do it, they’re going to let me do it.” My friends were basically reviewing documents, and I was arguing in the Southern District of New York. I instinctively picked Anderson Kill because I loved the people and I just thought it was a great firm. It turned out to be probably the best professional decision I made.

LD: Understanding so early that your emotional intelligence was what was going to set you apart is a realization about something that I think derails a lot of lawyers. They think it’s all about the academics. Just by choosing a firm where you were going to be a partner, because you knew that maybe you wouldn’t be the best associate, you took a very smart approach.

RC: And when I got to Anderson Kill, who did I share an office with? Liz Sherwin, the best brief writer in the country, in my view. I teamed up with her immediately, and we’ve been together ever since. What’s great about the firm is that they encourage you to work with people you get along with well. There are a lot of leaders who came out of Anderson Kill. It was a place that honored who you were.

I will tell you, because I know this is a hot issue, that it was a great place for women. Because you did not feel any of the subtle forms of discrimination that my friends felt at the top firms. Not at all. In fact, if anything, it was to your advantage, because Gene and Jerry loved working with women. They loved promoting women.  I felt supported by the firm, and I didn’t feel like I wasn’t getting the court assignments or the great cases because I was a woman.

LD:  Do you remember what your first big trial was, or the first big legal matter that you handled at Anderson Kill?

RC: I do. I got assigned to Randy Paar and Jerry Oshinsky because they were handling an appeal to the Fifth Circuit for W.R. Grace. My job was to basically write the brief. We had won below, and I was going to prepare Jerry for the argument. It went along seamlessly, I loved working with Jerry and Randy; it was a terrific process. We got to the argument, and the Fifth Circuit was hostile to our position. Jerry basically couldn’t get out a word. I had spent six months preparing him, so this was a big deal for me. The plane ride home was not nearly as good as the plane ride going there. We ended up losing, and one thing I learned from this experience is I am a terrible loser. I was home for four days. I was devastated, to the point where the client had to call me to let me know it was OK. Many successful litigators, they hate losing. That’s what pushes them so hard. I realized through that experience – it was a tough experience – that I really hated losing.

Probably my most seminal experience was working for Phillip’s Electronics on a major coverage case. One of the in-house attorneys at Phillip’s was going on maternity leave, and they asked if I could come and fill her place for three months while keeping my salary at Anderson Kill.

I remember the first day I was there, everyone left at 5 o’clock, so I went outside and literally, I had no idea what to do with myself. It was like I had another day within a day. I took a cooking class, and I tried all sorts of stuff. I was terrible at all of it. The day I was leaving, they took me out to lunch and instead of making a send-off, they started to talk to me about a $300 million case that Anderson Kill was handling for them. The next thing I knew, they had the amazing idea, or terrible idea, that I should now lead the charge for the case.  I was six or seven years out of law school.

LD:  Wow. Those are the kind of opportunities you can never see coming.

RC: I mean, it was crazy. We had an amazing local counsel at Potter Anderson and I basically used him as my co-counsel. What happened in that case was, when I took it over, I sat down with the general counsel, and I asked him what he would consider a successful year, what three things he would need. One of them was that he wanted to settle with a carrier. There were more than three-dozen carriers, and no one had settled. I ended up settling with one carrier that year; by the time of trial, we ended up settling with 32 of the 40 before trial. Our case was one of the first cases that ever went to trial for a policyholder. We ended up settling with the other eight in the middle of the trial because we were kicking ass. The client gave us a party at the Rainbow Room.

It was an unbelievable experience. The reason I’m bringing it up is that’s how I really started producing business: The general counsel and the head of litigation from Phillip’s promoted us and told everybody about what had happened. As a result of that, as a result of what I would consider a pretty significant win, I started building a real practice.

LD: That’s incredible. It strikes me that there are several important points in that narrative, one of which is that, when you were given the task of turning things around, you sat down and asked, “What’s the successful outcome here?”

RC: I’d love to take the credit for that idea, but it was my dad’s idea. I’m close with him, so I told him what had happened. He said, “If you want to be a business lawyer, you want to sit down and figure out what the business people need to accomplish.” I took his advice. It turned out to be great advice.

LD: That’s so smart. From then on, not only did you have validation of your dad’s wisdom, but you had a client as a cheerleader.

RC: In those days, you didn’t market your wins. It was really word of mouth. Winning sells. It was so funny, because right before the trial, everyone said, “Oh, it’s going to settle, because these coverage cases always settle.”

Well, I got a sense that it might not settle. I was the only one from both sides that brought in a real trial lawyer to help me try the case. The other side didn’t really have that many trial lawyers. You had a real trial judge, and the trial judge was shaking his head, like “What’s going on?” So I’m in the courtroom and my co-counsel said, “Look, the first time you go up for sidebar, I’ll go up with you,” because I had never put on a witness. I went up to the sidebar, and this was a couple of days into the trial, and no one was laughing, everyone was taking it very seriously, including the jury.

I walked up to the sidebar and there was a bookcase, and by accident I knocked over the bookcase. All of the books were falling and I was picking up the books. After I picked up the books, I sat down right next to the judge. The judge said to me, “I’m sorry, Ms. Cohen, but I think that seat is for the court reporter.” I said to the judge in a soft voice, “I’m so sorry, Your Honor, you probably don’t know, but this is my first sidebar.” He goes, “Oh, we know.”

The jury overheard and everyone started laughing. One thing I did learn through that trial was, again, using the force of your personality is really important in a courtroom. Being likable, being prepared, having integrity, having a rapport with the judge, is as important as being the smartest person in the room.

LD: And being real, right? I mean, you were just you. They got it. You weren’t trying to be like, “Oh, I know everything in the universe.” That’s a huge thing that you, because of who you are and the path you’ve taken, found the ability to be you and to not feel that in order to be successful as a lawyer, like, “Oh, I need to learn to act like a guy,” or “I need to be somebody that I’m not.”

RC: I totally agree with that. And I believe it applies in all walks of life, but particularly in the practice of law. The more authentic you are, the more people are going to be able to relate to you.

You can’t change who you are. I tell people, “Don’t be me at trial, be you.” Everybody has to work within their own style. I try cases across the country and I will do mock exercises in Louisiana or Texas to see how I’ll play, because the one thing I have learned in life and in trials is that if you’re not authentic in who you are, then it’s very hard to win.

LD: As long as I’ve known you, and from some of these early experiences you’ve recounted, you’ve been very authentic. It’s great advice to other lawyers who are figuring out how to find their own success.

RC: I have never really felt like a woman lawyer. I felt like a lawyer. Part of it was because I was at Anderson Kill, a place where individualism was valued. I grew up there. I felt none of the subtleties that everybody else was feeling. Then when I got in front of a court, in front of a judge, I didn’t feel that I was looked at any differently because of being young or a woman. If anything, especially when I was younger, I would get a benefit because the other side would feel bad, it would look bad that they were beating up on me. I lived a very charmed life for a very long time, professionally. I didn’t experience some of the stuff that others experienced.

LD: Tell me a little bit about leaving Anderson Kill. How long were you there, and why did you leave?

RC: I was there for 10 years, and it wasn’t my decision to leave. It was Jerry Oshinsky’s. He wanted to leave, and I was part of his group. It was his play, but it was a great opportunity for me because part of the deal was that I was going to be the managing partner of Dickstein Shapiro’s New York office. When I got there, again, just like when I got to McKool, they really tried to get to know me and my group.

LD: Did you enjoy it?

RC: Oh, I loved it. I love building things, so I loved building the office, and I loved knowing everybody. I loved building a team. One of the things that I tell people when I’m pitching them is, “You will find other attorneys, coverage attorneys or other trial lawyers, that are as talented as me, but I don’t think you’re going to find a better team.” My team is deeper, we’re more cohesive, we’re more supportive. When you’re on one of these billion-dollar cases, it’s as important for the client to know that my lieutenant, or the person right below the lieutenant, is as good as me or at least part of me.

One thing that many people don’t do, and that’s why they can’t produce, is that they don’t know how to delegate, and they have not built a great team. The secret to success is to have a great team and be supportive of them and give them credit when they do something great.

LD: That’s good advice. With the business background that you picked up from your dad, then having the opportunity to join Anderson Kill, by the time you got to build a team at Dickstein, it probably just felt like it all came together for you.

RC: It did. You know, I had an interesting experience that crystallizes how I approach things a little differently. I had an important meeting with a client’s board. They were mostly business people, and they were peppering me with very significant questions. I don’t have a lot of caveats when I answer questions. I pretty much answer the question. I tend to be very direct, so at the end of the board meeting, the most senior person there said, “I just have one last question.” He asked, “Are you sure you’re a lawyer?” I said to him, “What do you mean?” I wasn’t sure if it was that I was a woman, or what, I wasn’t sure what he meant. He said, “I have never been around a lawyer who had so few caveats and actually answered the questions that we posed.”

I thought that was interesting. That comes partly from watching my dad, and partly from being who I am, but you know what? The more direct and honest you are, the more you answer the questions, the better off you are. I’m more a business lawyer than a lawyer’s lawyer. I’m more practical, I’m more strategic. I tend to talk in terms of the bottom line and maximizing the dollars. If you put me in a room with a bunch of business people, like the chief financial officer, I tend to do better than most lawyers that I compete with.

LD: I’m sure that accounts for a part of your success: You’re not trying to find what corner to cut here or there. You’re just using your intellect and your judgment and your analysis and you’re saying what you think, which we all need more of.

RC: A lot of lawyers are afraid to take responsibility or to take a position, because if things go south, they’ll be blamed, but that’s exactly what the business people hate. They want to hear what your advice is. You can give them options and give them pros and cons, but at the end of the day, they want to know what you believe is the right course. You can’t say, “Well, I don’t know all the factors and so it’s really your decision.” Business people hate that.

I have been in a lot of beauty contests where I believe we won in large part because my team was much more direct, came in with a very clear strategy and stuck with that strategy.

LD: I think as lawyers, we’re trained and we’re taught – and at some firms, it’s reinforced – to minimize risk. Minimize risk for the lawyer and the law firm by not saying what you actually think, by giving that over to the client. To reverse that is kind of like, “Whoa, my lawyer has an opinion.” And clients appreciate it.

RC: When I was in college and in law school, everyone was bright. It was hard to see how to distinguish yourself. I learned my talent and how I was going to differentiate myself as I started to work. I realized that I approached things a little differently than the people in my class, and I saw what my talents were. A lot of really talented litigators have really great strengths, and succeeding requires focusing on those strengths and using them to distinguish yourself. That’s the advice I would give to all young attorneys. Figure out what makes you different, and then really exploit it in a good way.

LD:  It’s very interesting, that clarity about yourself and what you bring to a law practice and to clients. It sounds like neither of your mentors at Anderson Kill, Jerry and Gene, were typical male law firm mentors, that they had taken a different path and that they probably had pretty high emotional intelligence.

RC: And Randy Paar, who passed away. She was comedian Jack Paar’s daughter. She was, perhaps, the best person I’ve ever seen in a courtroom.

LD: Really?

RC: In the first place, she was more articulate in a courtroom than outside a courtroom. People had a hard time understanding what she wanted outside, but in a courtroom, even before a judge or in front of a jury, she was the best. Partly why I am who I am today is watching her and working with her. She was amazing, really, truly. She was an outside-the-box sort of person. I was assigned to both her and Jerry together at Anderson Kill, so I worked with her for 10 years, and I brought her over to Dickstein. She passed away two months before we were supposed to go to a trial, actually, and she was the lead trial counsel.

We didn’t get an extension on the trial, but that was a very challenging time, between dealing with her death and getting prepared for trial. It turned out to be my biggest win, ever, but it was really a team effort. Actually, the trial was two days after my daughter’s bat mitzvah. My team came in for the bat mitzvah, they went back to Delaware, and then I met them. It was a crazy time.

LD: But you did it, right? That was your job and you just focused and you got it done. You know, talking about the issues women have to deal with in the workplace and with balancing conflicting roles in their lives isn’t that interesting with many women lawyers because they talk around it. I don’t really have any interest in a discussion like that. You talk about it in a way that I think is really helpful.

RC: I think a lot of women have to compartmentalize their lives, because there are so many factors, so many things going on at the same time. And another thing, as men rise, they become more likable. As women rise, they don’t become more likable. They become a little more threatening. I experienced that: I was very well-liked at Anderson Kill, but after moving, I definitely ruffled some feathers. As I moved up the compensation chart and started surpassing the men who were very talented, but weren’t producing the way I was producing, I realized that women’s experience is different than men’s.

I don’t feel that at McKool Smith. When I got here, I told everyone what I thought I had as the business base, and I turned out to be right. So I don’t feel any of that resentment, I think partly because I’m much more senior now, but also because I was honest with what I thought I had. And I had it.

About the Author: Katrina Dewey (katrina@lawdragon.com) is the founder and CEO of Lawdragon, which she and her partners created as the new media company for the world’s lawyers. She has written about lawyers and legal affairs for 30 years, and is a noted legal editor, creator of numerous lawyer recognition guides and expert on lawyer branding. She is based in Venice, Calif., and New York. She is also the founder of Lawdragon Campus, which covers law students and law schools.