Robin Cohen on Founding Her Own Firm, and Winning in Insurance Recovery

“My only regret is that I wish I would have done this five or 10 years ago.”

The idea of starting a new firm is daunting, strategically difficult and not for the faint of heart. As evidenced by her groundbreaking career, however, powerhouse lawyer Robin Cohen is anything but faint-hearted.

A renowned insurance coverage attorney and chair of her firm, Cohen Ziffer Frenchman & McKenna, Cohen advocates for policyholders in landmark cases. Unafraid to go to trial in massive bet-the-company litigation, Cohen has recovered billions of dollars for Fortune 500 companies, such as Verizon and Pfizer, for claims ranging from environmental coverage to employee dishonesty to asbestos-related litigation. In one case, Cohen secured a big win for her client, Warren Pumps Inc., obtaining more than $500M in insurance coverage for the company, and changing the way asbestos coverage policies are triggered.

Her deep experience in the insurance recovery field, and that of her close-knit team of more than two decades, inspired Cohen to start her boutique firm with partners Adam Ziffer, Kenneth Frenchman and Keith McKenna in January 2021. “The four of us, we've been together for over 20 years. We finish each other’s sentences,” Cohen explains. That familiarity, coupled with the  global seismic shift in insurance claims initiated by the Covid-19 pandemic, led the four partners to found a firm that has exploded onto the insurance recovery scene, aided by the quartet’s reputation and Cohen’s remarkable command of business acquisition.

Already highly regarded for their work at previous firms including Dickstein Shapiro and McKool Smith, since opening its doors in January, the firm has been sought out as coverage counsel for a barrage of new matters related to the pandemic. Cohen recently appeared in court as lead counsel for various real estate companies including Thor Equities LLC, JDS Development Group, LLC and JGB Vegas Retail Lessee, LLC in Covid-19 litigation cases. In those disputes, Cohen successfully argued that the companies’ claims could not be dismissed summarily and that policyholders should be given an opportunity to prove their business losses. In a rapidly changing pandemic world, Cohen is leading the charge to find relief for policyholders, after more than a year of losses and hardship.

Lawdragon: So, you’ve just had a major shift in your career with your decision to open your own firm. How did you know that was the move that you wanted to make right now?

Robin Cohen: So, for the past five or 10 years, my team and I were really creating our own group within our firms and bringing in our own business. We were very productive, and our client base grew significantly.

Then, COVID hit, and I think we all had some time for personal and professional reflection. And  that stay-at-home reflection time coupled with the fact that many of our cases blew up during that time – both because our clients were dealing with COVID losses and we handle a lot of coverage cases for D&O and ransomware attacks -- we realized that we’re a pretty close-knit group. We wanted to forge our own path, to really bet on ourselves.

So, we did a financial analysis of whether it would be fruitful to go ahead and open our own firm.  It wasn’t even a close call.

Because of our established team dynamic, starting our own firm was much easier than we had imagined. We had the luxury of a large client base that moved with us and it was a seamless process as we brought on new clients. We are, at this point, killing it in the sense that we hit the ground running with a very active caseload and new clients are knocking on our door every day. So we got a big splash in starting our own firm.

LD: That’s so exciting. Then, tell me what it’s like being a female chair of a firm – do you find that your role changes the environment?

RC: Absolutely. That’s another great thing about our firm – because it’s a woman-chaired firm, close to half our partners are women, and we are getting some of the best women and minority associates. I mean, they just seek us out.

LD: Why do you think women are moving from Big Law to firms like yours?

RC: I think a lot of women are unhappy, frankly. I think Big Law is trying to make things equitable, but there are subtle subconscious biases and inequities within the firms, not only with the assignments of cases, but on a compensation level, as well. I think that women are starting to see that more clearly.

When you go to a firm that’s smaller and women-based, all those issues go out the window. If I’m deciding who I want to help me try a case, gender is not going to be a factor. It’s going to be a purely merit-based decision. I think a lot of women feel that’s not the case at other firms.

LD: You've been a longtime advocate for women in the legal profession. Have you seen a major shift over the last 30 years or so when it comes to how women lawyers are treated?

RC: I’d say there’s really been a shift in the last five years. I’m not sure if it’s because of the #MeToo movement, or other factors, but the last few years have really exposed what a lot of women have gone through and the situations they have had to navigate that aren’t issues for men.

As a result, companies, especially those where women are the General Counsels or Heads of Litigation, are seeking out women to lead the charge in their legal representation. I’ve been the beneficiary of that, especially in the last few years as I have had women GCs seek me out to represent their corporations. Sometimes they’ll go to Chambers, and they’ll look for the best insurance coverage lawyers. There aren’t that many women on the list, so they’ll call me. So, I think women are starting to generate more business, and I think that will change the dynamic. But it has been a slow process.

LD: That makes sense. You’ve also said recently that the pandemic might help encourage more women to kind of follow the same path that you did in starting their own firms. Why women in particular?

RC: Well, with the pandemic, significantly more women are leaving the workplace than men. That might be due to some women having primary responsibility for the kids, and the kids being home from school. But I also think that sometimes when you’re not in the office in the middle of things, you have time to reflect on whether you’re really happy.

Some women who started their own law firms have said that women are a little more risk-averse than men. I think that’s true on some level. I think women may be a little bit more cautious overall, but the primary problem as I see it is that you can’t start your own firm if you don’t have the business, and women, as a group, haven’t established a client base on par with that of their male counterparts, for a host of reasons.

But I think that’s changing as women are being presented with more business development opportunities. As women build their own “books of business” they will gain financial independence and be able to start their own firms, if they choose. The more we continue that trend at women-chaired firms like ours, the more you’re going to see copycats, in a good way.

LD: Oh, that’s great. Then, speaking of COVID and building your business, tell me about the explosion of cases that you've had related to COVID.

RC: So, we’re representing pharmaceutical companies, real estate companies, name-brand retailers, airlines, sports leagues, hospitals, universities – you name it. The thing is, many companies suffered devastating business losses as a result of COVID, and almost all companies suffered some loss – not just nationally, but internationally. When COVID hit, my partners and I were literally on the phone from dawn until late at night for seven months, nonstop.

And then, after we worked on a case, we would get recommended for the next one. So, we probably nearly doubled our client base as a result of COVID. We were providing legal counsel  in “real time,” as clients were sending us their policies to analyze. Our deep institutional knowledge allowed us to provide advice to our clients on an ad hoc basis in emergent situations. For six months, we worked around the clock to meet our clients’ needs. The enormity of the situation is hard to quantify but I can say that, during that time period, it eclipsed the workload we experienced after 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy, most likely because the pandemic was a global event.

I’m particularly passionate about the issues in these cases, especially those involving first responders, like hospitals. Care providers experienced tremendous business losses even though they were on the frontlines saving lives. The insurance industry is fighting hard not to pay in these cases and denying claims outright, despite their merits. I think it’s going to come back to bite them, but we’ll see how it all pans out. No one knows yet.

LD: Right. What grounds are insurance agencies denying coverage on?

RC: They’re saying that the virus doesn’t cause “physical loss or damage,” and “physical loss or damage” is not defined in the policy. So, their argument is that you need structural damage to the covered property in order to obtain coverage. But that’s not what their policies say.

Viruses can cause physical damage, even if it’s not structural damage, as well as physical loss of property in that you can’t use it for its intended purpose. So, the courts really have to decide. We’re saying that the insurance companies are trying to rewrite their policies to add “structural damage” when the word “structural” does not appear.

LD: Okay. That makes sense. Then, you mentioned that a lot of the business that you’ve been getting for COVID claims has been through recommendations from other clients. Tell me about that.

RC: That’s true, and a lot of folks at Big Law, like other attorneys who I work with closely, have also recommended us. And then, when you win a significant issue regarding the scope of an exclusion, like we did in Thor Equities, the news gets reported by a number of outlets. I must have received 30 calls as a result of our representation of Thor Equities. So, my view is that the best form of business development is simply winning.

We talk about that strategy a lot at our firm. We don’t do much formal business development. Instead, we take on complex cases, we win them, and then we let everyone know that we won. That’s our basic marketing plan in a nutshell.

LD: That’s the best kind of marketing.

RC: Very, very efficient. Very streamlined. I will tell you, it really works for us. We win cases that our competitors don’t. So, that’s our mantra.

The other aspect that sets our team apart is that we’re real trial lawyers. So, clients know, not only are we not afraid of trials, we want to go to trial, if we can. That maximizes the dollars for our clients because you receive better settlements when the industry knows that you’re not afraid to go to trial.

LD: Speaking of the lawyers at your firm, how do you decide what kind of people you want to bring onto your team?

RC: Well, our last firm was very conscious of the grades that applicants received in law school, which law schools they attended and whether they were on law review.

I look at things very differently. First, it’s great if applicants attended a first-tier law school or were on law review, but if they’re in the top 10 percent of a second-tier law school, or they were number one in their moot court competition, or they distinguish themselves in another way, that’s great, too. I’m looking for people who are dynamic and well-rounded. People who are good public speakers, who are good on their feet, people who can captivate and draw in a jury.

The other thing I’m looking for is diversity. I’m a strong believer that if you have a diverse team not only do you invite more diverse ideas, but you also perform better in the courtroom. If your team is reflective of a cross-section of society, like juries are, that’s going to resonate with the jury.

But you can’t have a situation where the women or diverse members on your team are just present. They have to be active participants and assume significant roles. So, I would say that the more dynamic and proactive a candidate is, the better. Straight As on a transcript aren’t what I look for in a candidate. I mean, that’s a great achievement, but I’m looking for those qualities that I think will make a candidate a successful trial lawyer.

LD: Right. And how would you recommend younger lawyers go about distinguishing themselves and building their personal style?

RC: I would say to law students who are interested in a boutique litigation practice like ours, be proactive and reach out to the firm. A lot of times you may reach out and you don’t get a response because partners are busy. Timing is everything. So, if you don't reach anyone the first time, try again, because you never know who’s going to be responsive.

LD: That’s great. Then, what made you become passionate about representing policyholders?

RC: Well, it was totally by accident. I started practicing at Anderson Kill right out of law school. Everyone was a partner there at that time, which was great because I knew that I would probably make a better partner than an associate.

I didn’t know that the firm only represented policyholders in coverage disputes. I accepted the offer to work there because I liked the people. But when I received my first work assignment, I was really confused. I didn’t understand why we were taking a position that was adverse to the insurance company. I asked Randy Paar, a more senior partner who would later become my mentor, “Why are we taking this position? Isn’t this an insurance case?” That’s when Randy told me, “We don’t represent the insurance companies, we represent the policyholders.” I had no idea.

But it was amazing how the practice fit my personality completely. I enjoy plaintiffs’ work because the plaintiff is the party that pushes things forward. But with the insurance recovery practice, you also have access to resources that are typical of a defendant because you’re representing large companies as plaintiffs who are accustomed to being defendants. So, the insurance recovery practice allows me to litigate in the way that best suits my personality.

Another thing I love about my practice is that winning a case for plaintiffs means that my clients are obtaining substantial monetary recoveries. It has also been easier for me to develop business in my field than many of my colleagues because 90 percent of the bigger firms are conflicted out because they represent insurance companies. So, over the years, my colleagues at Big Law have continually referred clients to me. Between the recommendations and the large recoveries I’ve obtained for my clients, I have been very fortunate to experience the tremendous growth of my practice.

LD: Oh, that’s fantastic. And you are obviously extremely skilled at bringing in business. What do you love about doing that?

RC: Oh, I really love developing new business. I think it’s in my DNA. One of the things I look for in associates and junior partners is whether it’s in their DNA, too.

LD: How can you tell if it’s in someone's DNA?

RC: You know it when you see it. They tend to be more social, people with charisma. It can be a quiet charisma, too.

I also think that business originators tend to be more strategic in the way they approach cases, and they relate better to CFOs, who are much more business-oriented.

I think you can mentor a lawyer on how to develop business, but only to a point. It takes some initiative on the lawyer’s part and the ability to connect with prospective and existing clients, to make them understand that their case is just as important to you as it is to them. And so, I learned pretty early on that my ability to draw people in and focus on their needs was one of my talents.

I started bringing in business when I was 35. I realized that all you have to do is ask. If you don’t, you’re not going to secure a position of power within your institution.

LD: That makes sense. And then, taking it back to early in your career, I just wanted to ask about any mentors you had. I know you mentioned one – Randy Paar.

RC: Randy Paar was a significant mentor of mine. She was a phenomenal woman. I’ve never seen a lawyer perform as well as she did in oral argument or in court. Her father was Jack Paar, Johnny Carson’s predecessor. So, if we want to talk about a line of work as being part of our DNA – Randy was accustomed to performing; her delivery was flawless. She was so unbelievably good in court. Randy was a great mentor.

And then I had a male mentor who is still a dear friend, Jerry Oshinsky. Jerry was a name partner at Anderson Kill. In fact, it was Jerry who made the decision to move our team to Dickstein Shapiro, and he’s the one who put me at the head of Dickstein’s New York office. We grew that firm from five lawyers to over a hundred. In fact, Adam Ziffer, Ken Frenchman and Keith McKenna, who are the other three founding partners of our firm, were all with me at Dickstein Shapiro and instrumental in the growth of their New York office.

LD: Speaking of growth, where do you see your firm going from here?

RC: Well, we want to be the leading firm in the country representing policyholders. We also want to expand geographically.

Our biggest challenge right now is deciding whether to grow in other practice areas, because there are other areas that are synergistic, like antitrust work or litigation against banks. After we’ve had a couple of years under our belt, I think that’s when we’ll make that decision. Either way, we’re committed to growing organically.

LD: Right. You mentioned that you were looking to expand out to the West Coast, right?

RC: Yes, to California. Many of our clients are located on the West Coast and we represent a lot of tech companies. So, I think we’ll probably have a presence there within the next year. That said, I think we’ve all learned from the pandemic experience that effective lawyers can work effectively remotely, without being physically present in a location.

LD: That’s so true. And, no matter where you are, what would you say your firm’s driving philosophy is?

RC: I think the most important thing is to continue winning. So, our philosophy is work hard and play hard. The key is being a little more creative, thinking outside the box and devising a winning strategy. It’s what makes the practice so much more interesting and exciting.