Lawyer Limelight: Robin Cohen
Photo provided by Kasowitz Benson

Robin Cohen, the head of the insurance recovery group at Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman, had an impressive string of trial victories in 2012, starting with a favorable ruling in January for client Visa Inc. in its coverage action against Certain Underwriters at Lloyds of London. Cohen also secured a decisive jury verdict in November on behalf of a pump manufacturer suing more than a dozen insurance companies to hold them liable to provide defense and indemnity coverage for thousands of asbestos-related claims.

She attributes her unusually busy practice to the consolidation in the insurance industry. “Berkshire Hathaway is buying up insurance companies, with the avowed business model of delaying or denying payment as much as possible in order to benefit from the resultant float,” Cohen, a 1986 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, explains. “The insurance industry as a whole has been taking more aggressive positions, risking bad faith damages on the assumption it will cost them less in the end to fight than to pay. Where we used to see settlements, even on the proverbial courthouse steps, we are now seeing a lot more willingness on the part of insurers to test their new theories and more aggressive policy interpretations before a jury.”

But, so far, the strategy has not been successful against Cohen’s clients. Her hot winning streak has continued to 2013. In March, she obtained a major summary judgment victory for client Syracuse University in its fight for coverage of all costs incurred relating to allegations of sexual abuse against the university’s former associate basketball coach. In the same month, she persuaded a federal trial court to reject seven insurance companies' efforts to dismiss a significant coverage case brought by her client, Convergys, which is seeking defense and indemnity coverage relating to California privacy laws.

Cohen also has a hot hand for her law firm. This week, Kasowitz Benson added as partners Jerry Oshinsky, one of her mentors, and Linda Kornfeld (recently part of the Lawyer Limelight series) from Jenner & Block, as reported by the WSJ Law Blog.

Lawdragon: How did you end up focusing on insurance recovery litigation?

Robin Cohen: It was really by accident. I picked a non-traditional litigation firm, which was full of interesting and colorful people. As soon as I got to the firm I was assigned to work with Jerold Oshinsky and Randy Paar, who already were legends in the area of representing policyholders against insurance companies. It just turned out to be a good fit for me since my personality is much more plaintiff oriented and because policyholder coverage presents really complex questions and issues, which of course is what makes the practice of law satisfying in the first place.

Because our clients are often facing a bet-the-company need for insurance, the practice allows – in fact requires – that we find cutting-edge, out-of-the-box solutions to problems. That gives me the best of both worlds: the ability to be creative and the resources usually found only in an insurer-side firm to turn that creativity into reality.

LD: When you are an insurance defense litigator, it is easy to do business development as you have the insurance industry as a target. How different is it from the plaintiffs’ side? How do you get hired and how do you develop business?

RC: I think business development on the plaintiffs’ side is very different from the insurance side. Insurance defense litigators tend to represent the same insurance companies repeatedly and get retained on the same sort of matters because the insurance companies face them over and over again. In contrast, the last thing most of our clients ever expected to face was a dispute with the insurers who promised to protect them – particularly at the same time that they have to defend an underlying action or actions the insurance was supposed to cover.

I initially developed business through the success of Philips Electronics in one of the first large environmental coverage cases in the 1990’s.  I obtained a number of new clients through the contacts the general counsel and others had with prospective clients that were facing similar problems. Today, the sources vary. I often get referrals from opposing counsel who are conflicted out, professional colleagues and partners. The most gratifying way to get business is when your clients either recommend you to someone else, or hire you for their new company when they’ve moved on.

LD: Switching firms has become a necessity these days because of the instability in the legal sector. Based on your own experience of switching in 2010 from Dickstein Shapiro to Kasowitz, what’s the best advice you can give to a fellow attorney contemplating a change of firms?

RC: I think the most important things are: Do you like the leadership of the firm, do you believe in their business model and most importantly, do they litigate similarly to the way you like to litigate. Kasowitz fits the bill for me on each of these points. The firm leadership has set a tone for savvy and aggressive litigation that not only frees you to find creative solutions, but is particularly well suited to clients facing the unique business problems that mass tort insurance coverage disputes involve. I could not have taken the practice to a firm whose fundamental practice style did not emphasize from the outset of every case that we are preparing for and aggressively moving toward trial. My style of litigation – especially using the motion process very aggressively to get issues decided early and focus the trial on real areas of dispute – would not have meshed with every firm. And, of course, you want to be in line with the firm’s strengths, not a supporting player. I would never, for example, have considered bringing the practice to anything other than a first-tier litigation firm, on the theory that we would establish a “beachhead” in a firm whose strengths were in a different area of the law or type of practice. You want to add strength to strength

LD: Can you describe your path to partnership? Is it traditional or untraditional?

RC: I had a very unorthodox path to partnership. I moved to New York during my first year out of law school and picked a large untraditional firm where everyone was a partner. There was no distinction between partners and associates. Therefore, I have been a partner my whole career.

LD: What made you want to become a lawyer?

RC: I watched and read the book “To Kill a Mockingbird” at a young age and that book had a tremendous impact on me. Then in the fifth grade, I participated in a program where I worked downtown for a Philadelphia State Court judges and got to see how the legal system worked on interesting criminal cases. After that I was hooked.

LD: What was your favorite class in law school?

RC: My favorite class was constitutional law – though, of course, I haven’t really had occasion to use much of what I learned there in my practice. As much as I love practicing insurance law today, if you find someone who tells you that insurance law was their favorite course in law school, I guarantee you, they’re lying.

LD: Like many successful women in the legal profession, you’re a prolific writer and speaker on women’s leadership issues. What’s one thing that you think made a difference in your own career that allowed you to achieve what you have achieved so far?

RC: I think the biggest breaks were twofold. First, I was lucky enough to have a mentor, Jerold Oshinsky, who recognized my talents early and was invested in my professional success. Second, I volunteered to do a stint at a client, Philips Electronics, while the in-house counsel was on maternity leave. I got to know the lawyers at Philips well and after my stay, they asked me to run a large environmental coverage case. The success of that case was the single biggest event that led to my ability to grow the practice. Winning sells.

LD: What do you do for fun?

RC: I spend time with my family. Both my children, who are 11 and 13, compete nationally in tennis so our weekends entail travelling all over the East Coast, watching our kids in matches and cheering them on. At the suggestion of one of my partners, I also started doing meditation and yoga, though to say the least, that hasn’t come naturally to me.