Undefeated

Lori Cohen, backed by her devoted team, takes a 48-0 record into the courtroom

Published in 2008 Georgia Super Lawyers — March 2008

Lori Cohen practices law like she won't get a second chance. The urgency she puts into her job is revealed in the appointment book lying on the edge of her desk. Ink fills the white space and spills into the margins. One of her days is two of ours because she is up at 6 a.m. and still up at 12 a.m.

Cohen is 48-0 at trial, for crying out loud. Can't she give it a rest after 17 years?

But she can't. If she loses, the client really loses. In the products liability (medical device) and pharmaceutical (medical malpractice) cases she handles, the client would be on the hook for millions.

"The plaintiffs, I'm sure they all want to beat me," says Cohen, 42, the chair of Greenberg Traurig's national pharmaceutical and medical device litigation group and co-chair of the litigation practice group in the firm's Atlanta office. "It might be easier just to get it done with."

But if she loses, what about the impact on her beloved team?

"My associates are a little bit concerned because they don't want to be the ones that are with me at the first trial that I lose," she says with a laugh. "I tell them not to worry about it. Let me worry about it."

Cohen worries all the details, which is one reason The National Law Journal named her one of among "The 50 Most Influential Women Lawyers in America." She got on the track of defending medical cases 17 years ago while in her first year at Alston & Bird in Atlanta. The lawyers most often in the courtroom were the ones trying medical cases, and the courtroom is where all the excitement was, so she elbowed her way to the front. She wanted the vibrancy of the courtroom and the challenge of preparing a team. She got it.

"I think the beauty of Lori's success is that it is so broad and so deep that there is plenty [of credit] for everybody," says Jud Graves, an attorney for Alston & Bird who has known Cohen for 17 years and was one of her mentors. "When you are as good as she is, you attract so much success, so much credit. There is plenty to go around."

He adds, "She does not feel the need to hoard the recognition. Not all trial lawyers are like that."

Cohen understands the value of teamwork. When she joined Greenberg Traurig in 2005, she took her team with her: a collection of 12 associates, paralegals, nurses, secretaries and technology and health experts. The team didn't have to go through rigorous vetting at Greenberg, either; they all got jobs because she was trusted.

"It is much more entrepreneurial here than at Alston so their thinking is if you're going to have that business to support that team, we want you to be supported," Cohen says. "It's not like people here said, ‘Well, we need to interview your people.' They said ‘Bring 'em.'"

Ten of the 12 are still with her. They include Barbara Powers, a nurse who has a cardiology background; Gerard Buitrago, a technology expert, who uses courtroom presentations to explain the science to jurors; Tom Mazziotti, an attorney who has since made partner; and Brenda Keen, the secretary, who has been with Cohen for 12 years and is a key member of the team.

They know Cohen's style is to be obsessive. She pores over depositions, new and old, looking for insights and inconsistencies.

Cohen's role on the team is not only quarterback but cheerleader. She will send e-mail memos outlining a particular success of someone on the team. Bonds are built with birthday parties and bowling outings. (Hint: If you want to beat Cohen, do it with a bowling ball; she's not that good.) There have been margarita parties in the office on Fridays to celebrate achievements and birthdays.

Sometimes Cohen gets carried away with team building. She wanted to do an Outward Bound trip to build unity and the team overruled her. She wanted to make bowling shirts: the silky ones with names on the front pocket. Overruled again.

"She is a consummate team player, because she realizes how much more a trial lawyer is with a safety net and a network of help," says Ernest Greer, the co-managing partner of Greenberg Traurig's Atlanta office. "She and I always appreciated the importance of bringing the whole team to bear. And even though we were the ones out front, in the limelight, there were a whole lot of people behind us and we always appreciate that.

"She took that to a whole other level. I get too intense and focused and although she is intense and focused, she keeps a singular eye on the team behind her better than I ever did."

Asked for a turning point in her career, Cohen does not pick a case where she did the spotlight work—the cross-examination in the courtroom—but a case where she did deposition work. Still, it was the case where she knew she belonged and could trade arguments with the big boys.

Back then, circa 1994, she was just a young attorney being given uncommon hands-on experience with sophisticated litigation and courtroom techniques by Graves and two other mentors at Alston: Kip Kirkpatrick and Bernard Taylor. The firm's client was a doctor being sued over the insertion of spinal rods in a patient. At one point they found out the plaintiff's counsel had hired, as their expert witness, a doctor who had authored textbooks and was considered one of the country's preeminent orthopedic surgery experts. When their client learned who was lined up against him, he almost abandoned the case.

"He was horrified," Cohen says. "I talked to some friends at Emory and they didn't think it was very good for us that this guy was on the other side. So there was all this buildup to the case. But I prepared like crazy to depose this expert and found some skeletons and basically set him up at his deposition."

What skeletons? "He had a sordid affair with his patient, who then reported him, and he ultimately had to go before the state board in his state, and his license to practice medicine was restricted over the whole thing. In his deposition, he assumed I would not be smart enough or crafty enough to figure all of this out. Plus I acted like I was in awe of him and he just outright lied and said his license had never been restricted in any way."
She adds: "Jud cross-examined him and we won." This success prompted medical device companies to hire her to represent them.

Cohen has had plenty of her own cross-examination success stories, too. Graves remembers one of the first occasions where he saw Cohen gut a plaintiff's expert witness. By the time she was done, the jurors probably wondered if the man had passed a high school science test.

"I have seen her absolutely eviscerate highly intelligent expert witnesses, who are so charmed and outmaneuvered at the same time that they almost thank her for having revealed the truth when it was actually against their interests," Graves says. "It is an amazing thing to watch because she was so effective in the way she did it. They didn't see it coming. They surrender in the courtroom and when it is your client that has benefited from that, it is a beautiful thing."

Life generally goes so smoothly for Cohen she was able to reclaim her maiden name without the usual legal hassle. Born Lori Cohen, she married and divorced a Baer, then met and married Ken Cohen, a dentist, who was a classmate and friend of George Bush at Yale. The two now travel the world together: Turkey, Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands and Peru.

Needless to say, her parents, who had three daughters, were delighted she was a Cohen again. The parents, by the way, Norman and Eleanor, are the wellspring that helps explain Lori Cohen.

Norman is 89 and is still working in Randolph, Mass. He runs an upholstery business. Eleanor is 81 and works as a telemarketer for a giftware company.

They seem as ageless as their daughter is tireless. When Cohen was a child, her mother was so worried about her ceaseless energy and lack of sleep that she hauled her off to the pediatrician. The doctor said she was fine; she just didn't need much sleep.

Her parents did not try and rein in that spirit. Eventually Cohen left Randolph for Duke University to study public policy and economics, with a minor in math. "I just wanted to try a new part of the country and spread my own wings," Cohen remembers. "I was always very independent as a child and I wanted to do my own thing. I did not want to be restrained by geography, and Duke caught my eye. Nobody from my high school had ever gone to Duke."

After graduating in 1987, it was a pretty natural progression to Emory Law School, which steered her to Alston & Bird, one of the elite law firms in Atlanta.

Graves, Kirkpatrick and Taylor nurtured her and gave her a chance to succeed. She often asked for after-hours work. She knew she had to work for the partners she had been assigned to, but she wanted a slice of the medical work.

What Cohen got from three seasoned veterans was a chance to find her way around the courtroom and develop a style. She learned how to be respectful and compassionate toward the plaintiff's witnesses—not just because it was the way to win but because it was the right thing to do.

"You notice how nice she is—that is not an act," says Greer. "She can relate to anybody at any time. She can talk with poor people, she can talk with rich people. She is very much sensitive to making sure other people's issues and feelings are put first. If you look at the coterie of her friends, it is different people from different walks of life."

It's fitting that Cohen listens to a rock band as tireless as she is. Behind the couch in her office is a color painting, Sympathy for the Devil, by Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood. On her desk, her business cards are held by silver-plated lips in the likeness of Mick Jagger. When the Stones tour, she doesn't just get tickets, she gets front-row tickets.

"I love their energy, their drive, their unbridled passion for what they do," says Cohen. "It's the side of me that feels somewhat restrained by my law practice and their music just speaks to that other side of me."

As for her famous winning streak? She knows it's not spotless: she's lost appeals, settled suits, etc. So she's not afraid of it ending. What would unnerve her, though, is losing a case because of an error.

"People ask me about the streak but I don't talk about it," she says. "All I want to do is be able to go into any court and know I didn't make any mistakes that hurt my client, and I was overly prepared."  

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