Lawyer Limelight: Samuel J. Cordes

Pittsburgh-based employment lawyer Samuel Cordes works primarily on the plaintiff side, representing employees against firms of all sizes. His wins have set significant precedents for workers in sexual harassment and discrimination cases, including securing the largest-ever pregnancy discrimination verdict in the Western District of Pennsylvania. With a background in journalism that keeps him focused on the storytelling aspects of any litigation, Cordes compares the challenge of representing employees in discrimination cases to "putting together a jigsaw puzzle." The Rothman Gordon partner is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the work you do for employees and other workers?

Sam Cordes: I handle the full gauntlet of employment matters: discrimination, retaliation, whistleblower, equal pay act, fair labor standards act, constitutional matters, and common law discharge cases.

LD: How did you first become interested in developing this type of practice?

SC: After first year of law school, I worked for a small personal injury firm that also did a fair amount of workers compensation work. The firm did no employment work – indeed, the partners thought it could not be done. At the same time, the firm really liked my work, and was willing to let me do what I wanted if I stayed.

LD: What are some aspects about representing employees and workers that you find professionally satisfying?

SC: This practice area is alive with change and challenges. The law constantly evolves; the cases are extremely fact specific and the possibility of being factually and legally creative is always there.

In addition, this area of practice is about much more than making rich people richer. The essence of who we are often is tied up in what we do. When an employee is fired, he or she not only loses the income from that position, he or she loses the identity. They are profoundly affected. That ability to make a difference in such an important area is professionally satisfying.

LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say are the most interesting matters you have handled?

SC: During the mid-1990s, I handled a series of sexual harassment, hostile environment, and retaliation cases against members of the Pennsylvania judiciary. On behalf of a number of clients, we filed suit in federal court in the Western and Eastern Districts of Pennsylvania challenging the conduct of sitting state trial court judges directed at their female law clerks, court probation officers, and court reporters. Several of those judges resigned as a result of those cases. In addition, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recognized that sexual harassment brings the judiciary into disrepute – a finding that had theretofore not been determined. In a similar vein I have handled a significant number of such cases against large law firms. I have found the same arrogance on the part of the judiciary and big law partners fuels the cases.

During that same period, I handled a series of indirect evidence discrimination cases that have resulted in recognition that the corporate culture of an employer is a relevant piece of evidence in a discrimination case, and that the culture can be proven by resorting to comments and actions of higher management. These cases established the notion in the Third Circuit that discrimination actions are both vertical (that is, about how the employer treated the individual plaintiff), and also horizontal (that is, how the employer treats a wide range of employees). Both vertical and horizontal evidence is relevant and probative.

I have handled several political affiliation discharge cases and, through appellate practice in that area, have clarified and simplified the way to prove causation.

LD: Are you seeing any trends in employment law these days, in terms of the type of matters keeping you busy?

SC: The matters that keep me most busy during the past five years have been what I like to call “inconvenience discrimination” cases. Pregnancy discrimination; disability discrimination; FMLA and retaliation actions come with an existing employer argument that “no one dislikes pregnant women, disabled people, or people who need to be off work because of a serious health condition.” This thinking stems from the wrongheaded notion that for discrimination to be actionable, it must come with a built in dislike for the protected category. The inconvenience discrimination cases, however, do not start with that premise. Rather, properly litigated, they begin with the notion that things making life inconvenient for the boss are at the heart of the above adverse actions. No one hates pregnant women; bosses dislike the fact that they must work longer, or hire substitutes. No one dislikes a disabled worker; bosses dislike the inconvenience caused by the need to accommodate. By far those kinds of discharges have taken the place of the traditional animus-motivated actions.

LD: What are some challenges unique to representing employees in today’s world compared to earlier in your career?

SC: The largest challenge by far is the emergence during the past 20-25 years of sophisticated discriminators who have learned to be much more subtle. Proving a discrimination case is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle – each piece standing alone may stand for nothing. Putting that puzzle together is what makes it fun to represent employees in today’s world.

LD: Can you describe a recent matter you handled that had particular challenges to overcome?

SC: I recently handled a set of atmospheric discrimination actions, involving as the affected employees the female C-suite officer who was fired after complaining of stark unequal pay. At the same time, I was representing a series of lower level blue collar employees who were fired for the same reason. The challenge in those cases was to show a culture where such retaliation was the standard operating procedure. It required a significant amount of searching for contrast evidence – that is, evidence contrasting how the employer applied its policies, rules, and expectations to employees who were disparate in their level of responsibility, but at bottom, subjected in the same way to the animus disfavoring all who spoke out.

LD: How did you first develop an interest in having a career in the law?

SC: I used to be a newspaper reporter. I covered courts for a time. I remember covering two trials with similar facts, but vastly different quality of lawyers.

LD: Did you have experience as an employee earlier in your life that played a role in how you shaped your career?

SC: I did well in my first year of law school, and therefore quickly became caught up in the Second Year Big Firm interview phenomenon, which is fueled by the silly notion that good and sophisticated law is only practiced in hundred-attorney law firms. I did those interviews and received the coveted summer associate position. In the meantime, during second year, I worked for a three-attorney group, one that allowed me to handle most everything and to run with creative ideas. My opposition was those same big firm lawyers I would soon be joining for the summer. I was under-impressed. I kept that attitude during my summer and never have lost it. Good law, and sophisticated law, is found in firms of all sizes and good lawyers are found everywhere.

LD: What advice do you have for current law school students who hope to represent employees?

SC: My advice would be to keep your passion, but remember that your clients need your skill and brains much more than they need your heart. Plaintiff employment lawyers often are referred to as “passionate.” I would much rather be known as “smart and effective.

LD: Was there an early experience that really helped shape the course of your professional life?

SC: I joined a small plaintiffs' firm that had no employment law cases. I was given the time and space to develop a practice. While I did that, I helped with the personal injury and criminal practice and I learned to try cases from two attorneys who taught by example to never forget who you were representing and who you were trying the case for. I address jurors as “folks” because I view a trial as a chance to discuss what happened with plainspoken people.

LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer? Or how do you think others see you?

SC: A profile in a local newspaper described me as “extremely smart in the scholarly sense,” and at the same time full of “street smart sense.” That describes my style as a lawyer. Being a good employment lawyer means you must be good on paper and also good in court. I take both very seriously. So in a courtroom, I try hard to bring the jury along on an interesting and good time journey where at the end they have the power to do justice. I try to do the same in written materials. The essence of both is to tell a story. My style as a lawyer is to be a storyteller and an educator. 

LD: Did you have any early mentors who made an impact on your career?

SC: I am sure she doesn’t realize, but my first boss in a large firm had a profound effect on the course of my professional life, and she did it in a critique of a brief. I was just out of law school and I really wanted to sound “like a lawyer” so my brief was filled with latin-esque phrases and wherefores and whereases and heretos. She handed the work back, and in big red letters wrote: “speak English, F*** the prothonotary.” It spoke volumes about an outlook that focuses on solving difficult problems with clear and precise thinking divorced from a need to “sound like a lawyer.”

LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?

SC: “Outside the office?” What’s that? Just kidding. I try to keep Anna Quindlen’s advice in mind: “Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work…. The second is only a part of the first.” She also said, very wisely, “You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.”

LD: Do you have a favorite book or movie about the justice system?

SC: "To Kill a Mockingbird." Both the book, as well as the current Broadway play. I like both because it portrays the essence of a lawyer – the need to sometimes take on what seems like an impossible task and do one’s best, even in the face of what appears to be a sure loss. Change comes slowly and often incrementally. And a loss where you go down fighting can and often does have a profound effect on the next case. Atticus Finch understood that.

LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now?

SC: I would probably be retired. But I continue to practice because it is fun and challenging and provides an opportunity to have an effect on people’s lives.