A Simpatico with the Underdog
Stephen R. Coffey earned his stripes in the Albany District Attorney’s Office before he was recruited to O’Connell & Aronowitz as the firm’s first and only trial lawyer. Three decades later, the criminal defense attorney and personal injury litigator is a senior partner at the firm, and has learned along the way that money isn’t everything, luck is crucial, and fallibility is just part of human nature.
Published in 2010 Upstate New York Super Lawyers magazine
By Nyssa Gesch on August 9, 2010
When did you decide to become a lawyer?
My father was a lawyer. Both my grandfathers were lawyers. I have two older brothers who are lawyers. And I have an uncle who’s a lawyer. (Laughs)
[But] it was a lot different in those days. By my senior year, I had pretty well made up my mind that I wanted to go to law school, and law school was pretty easy back then to get into. It wasn’t like it is today. Today the competition is so fierce that it’s almost like medical school; I think you’ve almost got to commit to that in your second year of college.
What was your major in undergrad?
Do you get to use that at all in your practice?
It’s funny. People say, “What can you do with a history degree?” and I remember hearing my favorite professor say, “You can enjoy it.” It’s something [I’ve enjoyed] for the last 40 years. So do I teach? No. But do I use it in my practice? Yes. Historical examples. Things like that, sure.
How did you choose your practice area?
That part was easy. Law school in many ways bored me: a lot of the contracts work and real property particularly. When I started doing the practice trials my senior year of law school, I said, “This is what I’m going to do.” There was never, ever a question of doubt.
Why did it appeal to you?
There’s a lot of creativity in trial work and there’s a great deal of spontaneity. I do what I do because I’ve always had a simpatico with the underdog. That is my value system. I knew that from college. I’d done a little public speaking and I liked it. I knew I loved being in court. I had grown up in a legal family so I’d seen a lot of courtrooms.
To me it has never been work and not really stressful. It’s never been. I had real estate closings when I first came into this firm that were 10 times more stressful than trying a case.
Were there any specific events that contributed to your sympathy with the underdog?
My father died when I was young—he was an alcoholic. There were eight kids in my family. When you come from a large family, you inevitably learn to share. You just don’t have any money. Those were the days when you didn’t have welfare and everything else. We lived in the housing projects for five years. … If you’re living in the housing projects, you’re living next to somebody who may have less than you, [who,] in fact, may have nothing at all. That tempers you. It affects how you see life and you develop a certain sense of compassion for other people.
As a kid, I was rebellious. In fact, from first grade to eighth grade I went to the principal’s office every year. If you’re a little rebellious and if you’re not a great athlete, if you’re not a great scholar, if you’re someone who’s trying to make it and exist in an unsettled family, then I think you identify with “ordinary” people. I know I did. … If you grew up that way, you get a sense of respect and admiration for that person who’s a little outside the mainstream. I always have. I was a huge Elvis fan. Now you think of Elvis later, in the ’60s and ’70s, as mainstream, [but] in the ’50s he wasn’t. You couldn’t find a bigger rebel than Elvis. He was my idol. I’ve got a life-size caricature of Elvis in my office here with a gold lamé suit. My wife got it for me.
The underdog can be anybody. It doesn’t have to be someone who’s downtrodden; it can be anybody who tends to fight the system, whatever the system might be. And I’ve represented a lot of people who have fought the system because of what they consider to be an injustice.
What was your first trial like?
When I got out of law school in 1970, I couldn’t get a job, so I went to work for the state. Then I got a job in the district attorney’s office in 1971 in Albany. And then I got very lucky. Actually, my career has been based in a large part on luck.
The county court judge at the time was a man named John Clyne, who liked me. I took a case one day that no one else wanted to try. Everybody else in the office was leaving and I said, “I’ll try it. I want to try it.” So I tried it in front of Clyne and he called the DA and said, “Listen, you’ve got to get this kid back in here. This kid has got a future. I want him in front of me.” So I started trying a lot of cases in front of him. In 1974, I tried 20 cases in the DA’s office.
[That same year] a new DA came in and the first assistant left. I became the head of the trial bureau at about 28. I mean, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I’m the head of the trial bureau. I’m trying cases left and right, murders, rapes, drugs, you name it, I’m trying everything, learning as I go and making a lot of mistakes.
What was your favorite part about practicing in the DA’s office?
It’s a funny thing. A lot of people will tell you the reason why public defenders leave is because they burned out because it gets so hard. … But as a DA, your sense of accomplishment of convicting people, who deserve to be convicted, is very rewarding. But I knew I would never stay.
What made you leave?
I had been there almost four and a half years. For me, it was never a long-term project. I wanted to use it—which is understandable—to get experience, to get a name, to get contacts, so forth and to move into the private sector. Which is precisely what happened. I was lucky to get hired by Lou Aronowitz at O’Connell & Aronowitz.
The senior partner at O’Connell & Aronowitz, which is where I am, said, “Listen, I want you coming over here.” So I took a 20 percent pay cut and walked into an office with a hope and a dream and a woman [my wife] who believed in me.
How did your time in the DA’s office help you with your private practice?
The trial work helped a lot. It gave me enough confidence so I could try cases. In those days, people tried more cases than they do now. You didn’t have mediations back then. It taught me confidence; it taught me how to speak in public; it started smoothing out my ability to cross-examine and direct witnesses.
I used the district attorney’s office for the classic reasons: to go in, get experience and then move on. Even though [my hometown of] Troy’s across the river, and even though I come from a law family, when I came into Albany, I knew no one. I had no contacts, I wasn’t in politics, I had no sterling law school record. I had none of that. So when I was walking into private practice, I had my experience at the district attorney’s office and that was it.
How much of your current practice do you dedicate to criminal defense? And how much to plaintiff’s negligence?
Probably two-thirds civil, one-third criminal. But if a case interests me in criminal work, I will always take it. I’m at the point now where I can take cases that I really like, which is not [dictated by fees]. … Money [is] important, but it’s not the test. I love what I do. I absolutely love my work. Wouldn’t do anything else.
Are there any parts you don’t love about trial work?
The one part that is never fun is baby-sitting a sick jury. You never enjoy [waiting out a jury while it deliberates]. There’s the old story, “There’s no atheists in foxholes.” No [lawyer] sits when the jury’s out and says, “Oh, I know I nailed this.”
I’ve never taken a criminal verdict that my client hasn’t started hyperventilating. These are dramatic moments. Real time experiences. Frankly, I think that a lot of attorneys do not want to [go through] that, which is understandable.
How do you deal with that stress?
You do the best you can. Most cases are going to settle. A lot of criminal cases are going to plead. [But] it’s important for your client and the other side to know that you will try the cases. … Last year, [for both criminal and civil,] I tried five cases. In this day and age, that’s a lot of trials in one year. Those are verdicts. And I don’t care if it’s a million-dollar case or a $10,000 case or a [class] E felony criminal case. Those [cases] are important to the people who are going to trial. That is their life. And when you come in and get a verdict, that is a very important event in their lives.
To this day, I have never forgotten the moments when my client and myself stood and heard a bad verdict. And I have also never forgotten those instances when I could have done more. Those reflections haunt you.
What’s your most memorable case?
Oh, my gosh. That’s like, “Which children of yours do you love the most?”
I tried a malpractice case last August . These two little girls had been raped and sodomized by their half-brother. This case got an $11 million verdict. I’ll tell you, I fought that case for 10 years. Through dismissals, reversals, trials, appeals, everything. You name it, we did everything. I don’t think I’ve ever, ever taken such a personal interest in a case.
Well, in terms of the underdog, two things. No. 1, these girls had been sodomized and raped. No. 2, the New York Court of Appeals rendered a horrendous decision [finding that the pediatrician did not have the duty to report the abuse to Child Protective Services]. I just didn’t like that decision. But, nonetheless, that was the decision and we had to go back to federal court. We’ve had a couple of dismissals, reversals. And these are young girls who have been living this case for 10 years. They have had to fight the system from the very start. They’ve had social workers who were dismissive, who were cold. They’ve had some very good people, but they’ve had a lot of people in authority who gave lip service to their job and their duty. Honestly, if necessary, we will fight the insurance company, the medical liable insurance company. I don’t care if it takes another 20 years, I will fight them every day. And that’s not bragging; it’s the way I feel about this case. These kids have been through a 10-year nightmare.
It’s been awful. It’s been terrible. They were girls who were 9 and 7 when they were raped. Raped and sodomized repeatedly. Twice a week. And 10 years later, they still do not have a conclusion to this case. By any objective standard of a civilized society, that is wrong. It’s not a question of blame. It’s a question of you’ve got to dig in and you’ve got to just fight it. And by God, we’re going to do it.
What stage is it at now?
We got a verdict; they reversed it. We’re going to go back on a question of liability. We could try that again, which I’d prefer not to, but if we have to, we have to. I’m so emotionally invested in that case that whatever it takes is what we’re going to do.
Trial work is becoming, in my opinion, in many ways, a lost art. I suspect it’s that way around the country. Lawyers want to mediate things; they want to sit down and discuss things, which is OK, but if you really want to know what happens, go into a courtroom. When a foreperson stands up and tells you in about five minutes what your life is going to be like by reading off a piece of paper, that is the moment. There’s just nothing like it. And there can be tremendous disappointment or it can be exhilarating. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, because it changes from one day to the next. It’s never the same. Never.
What do you do in your free time?
I read a lot. I work around the house. I walk, I exercise. I play some golf. I’m always with my family.
You mentioned you’re married. Do you have kids?
I have two children. We lost our son Quinn three years ago to muscular dystrophy [at age] 23. You go through an experience like that, it softens you. I think what I’ve learned over the years, if nothing else, [is] about people. I’ve told lawyers in this office, “Listen, we’re human beings. And people have pain.” I sympathize with people like that. And not just because of what I’ve been through, what my wife and son Ian have been through, what Quinn went through. People are human. All people. We’re all fallible.
How are you involved with the Muscular Dystrophy Association?
We have an MDA dinner, “Legal Leaders in the Fall,” the first week of November. One year we raised about $10,000.
I’ve told MDA, “Listen, if you have people out there that need legal help, I’m more than happy to help them out, do whatever I can.” Because I know what those parents have been through. There’s no question that I’m more sympathetic now when I see parents come in with a child who’s been injured or a child who’s been sick or a child who’s got a serious illness. How can you not be affected by that?
Simple things like handicapped seating and cut sidewalks, all those things, you realize you just take for granted, but thank God you’ve got them. It does help me in my practice, no question about it. … I’ve represented people of all persuasions, child abusers, murderers and everything else. I make no apologies and, in fact, I like 99 percent of my clients. I don’t like what they did a lot of times, but I like them. People say how can you like them? Because I do like them. Because I understand them.
What do you know now that you didn’t know when you graduated from law school?
I know that I know a lot less. I find I’m much less judgmental. I’m much more willing to accept compromise and I understand my fallibility. And I understand how lucky I’ve been.
We all have disappointments. What I’ve learned is you gotta keep rolling through it. And that you don’t have success day after day.
Who do you consider your role models?
E. Stewart Jones Jr. He grew up in Troy. I grew up in Troy. I’ve known him since I was a child. He is to me the greatest trial attorney I’ve ever seen, bar none.
And a lawyer in my office, Neil Murray, who’s a great appellate attorney, who’s just a great attorney because he’s able to do so many different kinds of law. He’s the best attorney I’ve ever met.
What advice do you have for young lawyers?
You’ve got to go your own path. … Don’t take a job simply for the money. And if you can, do what you love. If you’re lucky enough to do something you love, then, boy, I’ll tell you what, that makes your life a whole lot easier.
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