Joseph Cohn has made a career out of arguing ferociously for the disadvantaged
Published in 2008 Pennsylvania Rising Stars magazine
on November 25, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
Let’s call the client Cy.
In 2007, Cy settled into a Philadelphia apartment. The next-door unit, which shared Cy’s ventilation system, had been invaded by a toxic, green-black mold. It was only a matter of time before the spores emigrated into his home and lungs. Cy e-mailed the landlord, who promised repairs. They never came.
That summer, the apartment’s heat blasted even as the city wilted under brutally high temperatures. Cy sent e-mails. The landlord gave more empty pledges. It felt like something out of Dante. Through it all, Cy sent in his rent checks like clockwork.
His health suffered. Cy is HIV-positive.
Enter Joseph Cohn, the housing attorney for the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania.
Raised in Las Vegas, Cohn had lofty goals as a child—to play professional basketball. “I wanted to be a power forward, but it wasn’t in the gene pool,” the 5-foot-7-inch Cohn says.
At the dinner table, the topic of conversation was often civil liberties. Leading the discussion was Cohn’s stepfather, Allen Lichtenstein, who today is general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.
“I got to hear about the worst issues of the day,” Cohn says.
He showed the instincts of an advocate early on.
“At not much older than 3, he was making articulate arguments,” Lichtenstein remembers. “I’d tell him to do something, and he’d give me the reasons why it wasn’t a good idea. I’d keep telling him to do it, and finally he said, ‘So what you’re telling me is you’re right because you’re bigger than me.'”
“I said, ‘Now you’ve got it,'” Lichtenstein adds, laughing.
And so formed a lifelong motivation for Cohn: stick up for the little guy.
For a while, politics was part of the mission. In 1997, at age 17, he volunteered on a city councilman’s re-election campaign. The officeholder ended up losing a squeaker but Cohn dazzled the political professionals and afterward received a job offer from the consulting firm that ran the race, Dan Hart & Associates. He quickly became well known among the state’s power elite. “I got to work with the mayor, state representatives and senators, and city council members and do hands-on work,” he says.
At the same time, he had a full course load as a political science major at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He also found time to become leader of the College Democrats and start a campus chapter of the ACLU.
In 2000, his senior year, he stepped up his activism even further. The university had been roiled with allegations of ugly behavior by campus police—a female Hispanic journalist was roughed up at a concert, a black jogger slapped and called the “N” word. Cohn stepped forward and helped form a group called Students Against Police Misconduct. The administration responded by forming a committee to suggest reforms. Cohn was one of two students asked to serve. Officers were fired, a new chief hired.
“He didn’t take a lot of breaks,” remembers Aaron Clemens, then a reporter for the student newspaper and now an assistant public defender in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I can picture him in the student government offices late into the night, an In-N-Out burger in one hand, working tirelessly.”
Cohn loved politics and for a time considered a career in it, but those dinner-table discussions never left him. “I thought I could have a larger impact as an advocate building momentum on issues than a legislator with a vote,” he says.
So he started researching a career in law. He consulted Gary Peck, the executive director of the Nevada ACLU and a colleague of his stepfather, and Peck ran down a list of interesting law professors and the issues they work on. The name David Rudovsky kept popping up. Rudovsky, a pioneer in civil liberties work, teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and co-leads Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg in Philadelphia. Cohn called him up and liked what he heard. He headed east, enrolling in a joint degree program that offered both a J.D. and a master’s in government administration. Rudovsky offered him an internship after his first year.
“You could tell from his work and attitude that this was the kind of law he wanted to practice,” Rudovsky says.
After graduating in 2004, Cohn took a position as an associate at Sugarman & Associates. Then something unexpected happened. The housing attorney at the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania went on leave. Would he be interested in the temporary position?
“I took a moment to think about it, then said to myself, ‘Are you kidding?'” he says. “The ability, even for four months, to keep Pennsylvanians with HIV from losing their homes was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
The previous housing attorney didn’t come back. Cohn got the permanent job.
He’s known for being ferocious in his advocacy. In the last two years, 87 percent of his clients have been able to either stay in their homes or find appropriate housing elsewhere.
“It’s equal parts legal arguments and just wearing down your opponents,” says Ronda Goldfein, the organization’s executive director. “You have to either drag Joe away or he wins. I don’t think Joe would bring that passion to something he didn’t care about. He will be the 90-year-old guy running around thinking all the housing-code violations should go to the Supreme Court.”
“Is ‘relentless’ too harsh a word?” adds a chuckling Roger Ciafre, senior counsel in the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s law department. “You know that he’s not going to give up.”
Opposing lawyers also know there’s reason beneath the intensity.
“I’ve never actually gone to trial with him,” says Todd Baritz, of Kenneth L. Baritz & Associates, which frequently represents landlords. “We may snap back and forth but we’ve resolved everything we’ve had together.”
Back to Cy. With Cohn on the case, he won a judgment from the Fair Housing Commission; the landlord even agreed to return Cy’s rent money and pay his legal bills. It was a clear-cut win and it felt good.
In mid-September, Cohn decided to help the Cys of the world in a different way; he became a staff attorney for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. There, he provides analysis to the court on things like immigrations cases, prisoners’ cases and habeas matters.
“The idea behind it is that those type of litigants often need someone who’s going to make sure the court gets a thorough analysis and understanding on the law on those matters,” Cohn says, admitting the transition was “bittersweet.” “It’s still a way to ensuring that justice is provided to those who otherwise might not have access to it.”
Which is all he ever wanted to do.