Johnnie Cochran became a household name across the U.S. when he won an acquittal for former football star O.J. Simpson in the killing of his ex-wife.
Hour-by-hour television coverage of what mid-90s newscasters dubbed the “trial of the century” made sure of that.
But Cochran had been a legend in Los Angeles courtrooms years before he joined Simpson’s “dream team,” known for his powerful courtroom presence and his willingness to not only take on police brutality cases other lawyers wouldn’t touch, but his ability to get results.
“That’s our legacy, the emanation of him,” says Hezekiah Sistrunk, the Atlanta-based plaintiffs’ trial lawyer who serves as president of the eponymous Cochran Firm, which has offices across the country, in cities from Los Angeles to Atlanta, 15 years after its founder’s death. “We’re going to continue to do what we can to protect and grow that legacy as much as we can until we can no longer do it.”
Sistrunk, who joined the firm at Cochran’s invitation in 2000, was attracted by the celebrated attorney’s vision of a minority-controlled firm with lawyers who had the education, expertise and experience to offer “the same or better services as any similarly situated majority firm in America,” he explains. “Having grown up as a lawyer in a majority firm, obviously I thought that that was an admirable goal, and agreed with him on that.”
During Sistrunk’s two decades at the Cochran firm, it has won victories that prompted an overhaul of Atlanta’s drug-policing practices and helped transform attitudes toward racial justice and equality in a Louisiana town that had never returned a verdict in favor of a black plaintiff.
A native of Orangeburg, S.C., a small city home to two historically black colleges, Sistrunk spent his youth in and around the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He recalls the “Orangeburg Massacre,” when three people were killed and more than 25 injured after police officers opened fire during an anti-segregation protest at South Carolina State University.
“I grew up watching people I knew and respected, friends, family members, involved in the civil rights movement getting arrested, going to jail, and there being no lawyers of color in my town or my county to protect them, to get them out of jail,” Sistrunk says. “The only way you could get out of prison or out of jail during that timeframe was lawyers from other places, mostly white lawyers, involved with the NAACP.”
It didn’t feel right to Sistrunk, and he realized he could either involve himself in the process and try to change it or watch on the sidelines and complain.
“At that point, as a young man of 16 or 17, I decided I was going to try to become a lawyer and force a change in the civil rights arena, and I ended up being a lawyer,” says Sistrunk, whose professional accolades include the Clarence Darrow Award, the Maynard H. Jackson Jr. Legacy Award from the National Bar Association and induction into The National Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame. “I didn't start out doing civil rights, but I ended up practicing civil rights law.”
A graduate of North Carolina State University, Sistrunk earned his juris doctorate at Duke Law before becoming an associate at Atlanta-based Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy in 1982.
“Initially, I was the only lawyer of color in the firm, which wasn’t unusual in those days,” Sistrunk says. “Many law firms were beginning to add one or two lawyers of color, and it was considered progress.”
Lawdragon: It was. As you went through college and law school, were there particular mentors who shaped you as a young lawyer?
Hezekiah Sistrunk: Like many young students I admired Thurgood Marshall. My initial mentor in the firm was the son of the founder, Elliott Goldstein, who told me he would give me every opportunity humanly possible to see success from the firm, and he did. I worked for a couple of partners in that firm who gave me the opportunity to become a fairly decent trial lawyer by sending me to court to try cases, which is what every young lawyer wants to do.
The majority firms had significant corporate clients and you didn’t typically get the opportunity to do that as first chair. Powell Goldstein gave me that opportunity, and, as a young associate lawyer I appreciate those guys for that.
LD: Was there a particular kind of litigation you were working on at Powell Goldstein?
HS: Initially, I did product liability defense, medical malpractice defense and ended up defending environmental claims as well. As a young trial lawyer I also handled any kind of general corporate, business, insurance law matter assigned by the firm.
LD: Did you become a plaintiffs’ lawyer when you left Powell Goldstein?
HS: I did not. I left Powell Goldstein with a group of lawyers with whom I practiced, to form a boutique practice in Atlanta, where we literally took our business practice, picked it up from Powell Goldstein, and transplanted it into a small firm where we represented the same group of clients but gave them the benefit of scale and economy. We could do the same work and charge them less.
Our firm was called Love & Willingham; Daryll Love had been my first partner mentor at Powell Goldstein; he was the first partner I actually worked for directly. He was a litigator, a trial lawyer. Great lawyer; he's deceased now. I practiced with them for six or seven years, then left to create my own practice, Sistrunk & Associates. As you develop as a lawyer, you go back to your genesis, and I was feeling like I could do more for my community and develop my own initial notions of law practice by doing something different.
It was basically a move of my clients from Love & Willingham to my own firm, initially doing defense work, basically the same clients that I had before. In those days, as a lawyer of color, it was significant to be able to take your corporate clients and move them from a majority-based firm to your own firm. And they all moved with me, without hesitation. I practiced in that firm from 1994 until 2000, then joined with The Cochran Firm.
LD: Tell me more about that decision. Was that the first time you and Johnnie Cochran met?
HS: It was the first time I met him personally; I had seen him before. Before he became the Johnnie Cochran everybody knows, from the O.J. Simpson trial, he was already a relatively famous lawyer. I had seen him through my involvement in National Bar Association activities. He was always a big advocate for the NBA and had spoken at national conventions, so I met him in a group setting.
I never had the opportunity to sit down and actually talk to him about what he thought about the law, my aspirations for the law, his aspirations for a national law firm. In fact, when I first met him, he was still practicing in his Los Angeles office. So that's before there were any notions, of which I was aware, that he wanted to develop a national law practice.
LD: I’m trying to envision the two of you meeting, which seems like it would have been a very special moment.
HS: It was, for a lot of reasons. At that point, everybody in the world knew who Johnnie Cochran was. But people respected him for a lot of different reasons. One of the things that Johnnie Cochran did for me as a young lawyer who was literally fighting the battles, out in the field, was give lawyers of color a national platform. For a long time, a lot of people in America - whether you want to admit it or not - would look at lawyers of color and not want to recognize them in the same fashion that they recognized other lawyers, because quite frankly they had seen them on a national platform. So to see Johnnie Cochran doing the best job that a lawyer could possibly do for an entire year, trying a case with expertise as he did in the Simpson case, changed the mass, national perspective on lawyers of color.
Many of us relatively young lawyers of color, like Johnnie, who really enjoyed and still do enjoy trying cases, were proud to see him and his success
LD: He was masterful, and he owned the courtroom.
HS: He confirmed in my head, and in the heads of many young lawyers, that what we were doing was the right thing. Trying to protect other folks, to be the best I could be and be like him, was the right thing.
It was a pleasure, an honor to meet him for the first time, and to sit down and talk to him about the law, about his picture of the law, and my long-term views of what the law practice should look and be like and to recognize that so much of what he wanted to do, was the same as what I wanted.
Among the people who influenced me before I met Johnnie was the mayor of Atlanta, Maynard Jackson, who was a friend and a client. One of the things he and I talked about for years was creating a national minority majority-based firm. That’s what Johnnie offered me: The first opportunity, I think, in America to do that. We’re still doing that, and it’s one of the pride points that I have. I’m proud of the partners in my firm, who helped Johnnie create The Cochran Firm, a number of whom are still here practicing with us, and kept it rolling. We came up with the method to develop this nationwide practice and we continue to hold down the battlefield with it.
LD: What are some of the cases the Cochran Firm has handled that are particularly meaningful to you?
HS: There are cases that we’ve handled that have generated a lot of money for people, which can be a great thing, but what’s more important is fostering positive change in people’s lives. Some of our cases have effectively changed legislation, policies and communities, and that's a good thing. We've tried cases where no lawyer of color had ever tried a case and won verdicts for people of color that had never been obtained before.
For example, my partner Shean Williams and I prosecuted a case in Atlanta involving Kathryn Johnston, an African-American senior citizen who was shot and killed by Atlanta police officers executing a no-knock warrant in 2006. They came in, thinking her house was some sort of a drug den, and it was not. She was a 92-year-old woman. Afterward, the police lied and made up some excuse about why they raided her home. They even planted drugs on her property.
We prosecuted the case, and for the first time in our city, we ended up getting a no-knock warrant wrongful death case resolved. We figured out that Atlanta had a quota system that officers were required to comply with and, as a result, they had to have a certain number of arrests during specified time frames to meet their goal.
We convinced a court that the process was improper, and we got around the immunity provisions that so often prevent you from winning cases involving police. What happened in that case is we got help for the client and changed the landscape in Atlanta with respect to policing. The Atlanta Police Department, which was in charge of that drug policing division, abolished it, rewrote all the rules, reestablished the division. As a result of this case Atlanta established a citizen’s review board that reviews police shootings and cases of police brutality.
It's not just about getting money; clients also want change. That’s what we did, and I’m proud of that.
LD: You should be. We know all too well how difficult it is to create meaningful and lasting change in the intersection of law enforcement and civil rights.
HS: That same partner, Shean Williams, and Jeff Mitchell and I tried a wrongful death trucking case in Coushatta, Louisiana. It's one of those little towns where folks who were no longer in power after the civil war formed their own militia to recreate the system of justice and to recapture their pre-civil war authority over the local, newly freed population. This town had a long history where folks were massacred and hurt and most of the freed men and women and their allies were run out of the town or killed. It’s a town where there had never been, in modern history, a positive result for any black civil client, ever.
Nobody that we knew thought we would ever get a good result. We tried the case before a local jury and got a significant seven-figure jury verdict as well as a seven-figure settlement of another part of the case. But more importantly, we got results for our client that, at the time, we thought changed the landscape of that community, how it viewed its own citizens and how they viewed each other. When we left the city, we felt pretty good about what we had done, because some of the folks in the community felt pretty good about what they had done. That's the kind of thing I am talking about, where you can use your practice as an opportunity to do good, do well and create positive change in the community moving forward.
LD: You've really come full circle with that young man you started out as, wanting to change things, and to contribute. Today, with so many parts of society focused on social justice, it has become common for majority law firms to put out position papers on embracing social justice. From your perspective, what can lawyers do now to make the law more fair, more equal?
HS: What you can do is actually live the oath that you take. It’s nice to put out position papers, and I applaud them for doing that. People deal with what they see, and what they hear, so if majority firms aren't doing that, taking a position, taking a stance, then the impact, societal impact that we desire can never be achieved. But, at the same time, you actually have to put your foot in the water. What I mean by that is if you see something and you think it needs to change, you as a lawyer have a unique position in America where you can do something about it. You really can.
One of the biggest problems we have in social justice, with police confrontations, is that the laws surrounding qualified immunity are so entrenched that basically police can do what they want without fear of any kind of ramifications at all. It takes lawyers to sit down and figure out how to address that issue. And it's going to be a process. There is not going to be, I think, one case that can fix that. You’ll need to do what the lawyers did back when the NCAAP Legal Defense Fund was trying to figure out how to deal with Plessy v. Ferguson: Take a series of cases that literally chip away at the process one step at a time.
In the police-community situation, nobody wants to stop the police from doing their job, but if you do something that really hurts people, in a gross way, there needs to be some sort of recourse for citizens that allows for fairness in how the system applies justice, for both the police officer and for the citizens who have been hurt. The way it seems to work now, that fairness, that equation, is out of balance.
LD: What will it take for change to come?
HS: If that's going to change, it will take a concerted effort by a lot of different parts of our community: legislatures, citizens in the community and lawyers. And I think lawyers have as significant a role as anybody because we can work to change the law.
You know you can't always change how people think, or how they act, but you can control the results of that through the law. If you're going to act crazy, there should be a result for your acting crazy. If you create that result, then you can change people's conduct. People will change if they know there’s a bad result that will come from certain types of conduct, but that won’t happen unless you change the laws to make it happen. The laws have to catch up to the society.
That happens oftentimes in our culture: The law is a little bit behind where the people are. And when that happens, it's up to lawyers and folks involved in the legal process to try to see if we can create a meeting of the minds or a meeting of the interests in that regard.
And that’s part of Johnnie Cochran’s legacy with this firm, the goal of having talent that was comparable to the other kind of law firms that we all grew up in. That's what this is about. We don't want to just be some law firm that can get in front of a television camera, and look and sound good. If you can't try a case, if you're not going to be a trial lawyer, you don't belong in The Cochran Firm. We are a trial law firm, have been from the beginning, and we still are. We pride ourselves on being able to go to court and try a case with anybody in the country and win. We take pride in that.
LD: You have excellent lawyers, and Johnnie Cochran was always known in the L.A. County courtrooms as the best lawyer in town. He was so powerful and the lawyers that he worked with were just excellent lawyers. And then, he became famous, right? But, he was known first and always as a great courtroom lawyer.
HS: He tried all these cases that no one had tried in America, and he got results. He was doing police brutality cases back when they weren't very popular to do. People don't know that. He was a great trial lawyer before he became famous. Some of his early trials are legendary. He was always the people’s lawyer…protecting the least of these. He left us with that mandate and The Cochran Firm seeks to uphold it every day.
About the author: Katrina Dewey (email@example.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. View our staff page.