Monkey Business

Ellen Epstein Cohen doesn’t clown around when she represents the circus

Published in 2006 Massachusetts Super Lawyers — November 2006

At first glance, there’s nothing unusual about Ellen Epstein Cohen’s cheery corner office at Adler, Cohen, Harvey, Wakeman & Guekguezian in downtown Boston. Like most law offices, a totem of framed university diplomas and awards line one wall. It’s beautifully decorated. But after settling into a plush armchair and chatting with Cohen for a minute or two, you get the feeling that someone is watching you. Then you notice the painting featuring larger-than-life-sized, music-playing monkeys dressed in red coats and hats. Staring at you.
Ellen Cohen’s toothy smile broadens when she sees you’ve noticed. “Don’t you just love them?” she says. The monkeys were highly controversial when they made their office debut 10 years ago. But their presence is fitting, since the 47-year-old trial attorney has represented the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for 23 years. Plus, she happens to find great joy in the company of monkeys.
“The monkeys speak to me,” she says. “I love animals. I’m a child of the circus.” In her youth, when her peers idolized the likes of David Cassidy, Mark Spitz and Joe Namath, Cohen’s icon was legendary Ringling animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams. “He was so brave, such a star. He’d go into the ring with the lions and tigers, and he was thrilling to watch. Plus, he had this shock of blond hair. … He was very good looking.”
One of the most exciting moments in Cohen’s career came when she finally met Gebel-Williams. It happened during the performer’s Ringling Bros. farewell tour, and Cohen’s firm was handling a legal matter for the company. “I made a big thing in the office that everyone was to treat him with the utmost respect, just the same as we do every client,” she says. Cohen was able to tame her emotions during the meeting, but as goodbyes were said and Gebel-Williams was about to leave the office, Cohen snapped. “He was my childhood hero. It was not very professional of me, but I asked him for an autograph. He was kind enough to sign my circus program, and then, he kissed my hand!” Cohen says with helium-voiced excitement.
Cohen admits her work for the circus is a very small slice of her business — “Maybe too small,” she says — but it’s the bright spot in her litigation practice, which includes handling medical malpractice and product liability claims. “Being a trial lawyer is hard work and is a hard lifestyle. If you don’t find a way to enjoy your work or your life, then it could get you down,” she says.
Cohen says most of her work for The Greatest Show on Earth “isn’t very sexy.” Usually it involves legal action brought about by an unhappy patron, and usually the work is subject to confidentiality clauses. However, Cohen mentions one case in which she had to defend a falsely accused clown. She remembers having to ask the plaintiff ridiculous questions about a traffic incident that supposedly involved the clown, who was off-duty at the time. “Was he wearing a clown nose? Did he have face paint on? Was he wearing clown hair?” Cohen recalls asking. “I felt so silly.”
Ridiculous questions or not, Cohen was successful in that case. What’s next? Maybe Clown College. “Just think, you can create your own persona, makeup and costuming,” she says. “Instead of spending time in the spotlight arguing about why my client didn't harm or injure a plaintiff, I could spend my time in the spotlight trying to make people laugh. You must admit, there is a very basic appeal to that.”

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