An Appetite for Deduction

Mary Quinn Cooper, born trial lawyer        

Published in 2008 Oklahoma Super Lawyers — November 2008

Spend five minutes with Mary Quinn Cooper and you will thank your lucky stars that you're merely chatting from the other side of a conference room table rather than locking horns in a courtroom. Five minutes is all you need to pick up on the chutzpah that she radiates, the sheer grit and determination.

Her decisiveness was apparent as early as her freshman year in high school, when Cooper decided she was going to be a lawyer. Never mind the fact that there were no attorneys in the family, no role models to lead the way, no compelling or charismatic figures to pattern herself after.

Ask her why she wanted to become a lawyer and she really can't say. She just did. "I should have a better explanation," she admits, "but I don't."

So Cooper attended college at the University of Arkansas before coming home to Oklahoma for law school, where she earned her degree at the University of Tulsa in 1986.

It didn't take her long to decide on trial law as her practice. "Trial lawyers are a special breed," she says. "They're born with certain characteristics. They have big personalities. They like to be in front of people.

"I want to be out front," she declares. "I like to go full-bore. You either like me or you don't. There's not much gray between the lines."

Most trial lawyers, by her calculation, share similar personality traits. They're smart—street smart as much as book smart. They're quick on their feet. They're dedicated and hard-working. Above all, they know how to operate in adverse situations without getting rattled.            

"There're all kinds of perils confronting a trial lawyer," Cooper says. "Espousing an unpopular cause. Going against a tough, opposing counsel. Facing a hostile judge. Trying to work with difficult witnesses.

"Lots of factors," she declares with a knowing smile. At the same time she seems to relish the challenge that those factors pose.

"For a trial lawyer, intuition is incredibly important," she insists. "There's always a ton of preparation, but they have to be willing and able to make instant changes. Lots of lawyers make a meticulous plan and stick with it no matter how the trial develops. Even if they get thrown off their game plan, it's vitally important that they still keep going. A good trial lawyer needs to be able to react to those surprises and not get derailed. Above all, he wants to have what he says resonate with the jury."

For the last 15 years of her career, Cooper and the firm of Eldridge Cooper Steichen & Leach, which she helped found in 2002, has focused on defending product manufacturers. "Once I started practicing defense law, I got into a groove and there was no going back," she says.

Recent ECS&L clients have included such iconic names as Ford, General Motors and Harley-Davidson. With a growth rate of more than 300 percent since its inception, Eldridge Cooper is among the fastest growing law firms in Oklahoma.

A lot of that incredible growth can be traced to headline-grabbing cases such as Moody v. Ford, which involved a Tulsa jeweler and his wife who sued the Ford Motor Company for product liability. In 2003, their 18-year-old son was killed when the Ford Explorer Sport he was driving ran off a road in suburban Tulsa and rolled upside down. The roof collapsed, pinning the young man in such a way that he died of "positional asphyxiation."

The plaintiffs, led by well-known Tulsa attorney Clark Brewster, alledged that the Explorer "had an inadequate roof-crush tolerance," which resulted in his death. The part that gave way, Brewster declared, was made of "spindly little pieces of metal engineered down to an unacceptable level to save money."

Cooper and her staff worked on Moody v. Ford for two years before the case went to trial. The early days preparing for it were hectic, followed by a lull of maybe a month or more, followed by a frenzy of activity when the trial got under way.

In November 2006, a federal jury in Tulsa returned a $15 million verdict in favor of the Moodys. U.S. Chief District Judge Claire Eagan voided the verdict on March 20, 2007, citing the necessity of a retrial because of Brewster's improper courtroom manner, specifically his personal attacks on Ford's witnesses and attorneys, which left the court "with a firm conviction that Ford did not receive a fair trial."

A retrial was scheduled for June 16, 2008, but was cancelled after Ford and the Moody family settled out of court. Details of the settlement are confidential. Cooper has refused to comment on the outcome of the case.

But Brewster doesn't mind commenting on Cooper's courtroom demeanor, giving her high marks as a trial lawyer. "Mary Quinn Cooper is a hard worker," he says. "She's incredibly zealous and focused in her advocacy. She's also terrifically poised in the courtroom."

One doesn't reach this level of jurisprudence without a helping hand. Behind every successful lawyer early in their career, there's usually a mentor, an older, more experienced figure who helps smooth the way. "Bert Jones, who still practices law in Tulsa, was my mentor, and he was fabulous," says Cooper. "He can be considered a pioneer in product liability law. While working for the Rhodes Hieronymus law firm in Tulsa, he did the first case which resulted in the establishment of a product liability law.  

"I worked for him when I was in my mid-20s and fresh out of law school. Back then, women weren't really encouraged to be trial lawyers. They weren't encouraged to have loud and aggressive personalities. Yes, things were changing, but there were still some taboos regarding how women should behave in the courtroom—if they should even be in the courtroom.

"Bert Jones told me to be myself—to learn from other lawyers but to rely on my own judgment as to what I should do and how I should do it. He was an incredible influence in my life. He had so much patience, which is something I don't have much of. I hope someday to mentor someone, but I don't think I will be able to muster the patience that Bert Jones had with me."

Fortunately for Cooper, as Jones was bringing her into the legal community, women across the country were joining the profession in unprecedented numbers. Prohibitions against women were lifting and law firms were actively looking to hire females and minorities. "The mid-1980s was a good time to start a career," she says. "I never felt discriminated against. The same standards that applied to my male counterparts applied to me. It was the same demanding standard all the way around."

She laughs when she characterizes lawyers as "total control freaks." "It's absolutely true," she insists. "It's a profession wherein well-defined rules and regulations predominate. A profession that attracts orderly, sensible, left-brained people who don't appreciate surprises or anomalies."

And yet the surprises and anomalies are built into the system. "You can't control your schedule," Cooper laments. "You can't control what a judge wants to do. You're at their beck and call. Their schedule may be radically different from yours. Whereas lawyers put other cases on the back burner while they work on the big one, judges continue to preside over a packed docket. There's just not enough time in an ordinary day. It can be very frustrating at times.

"Clients can be demanding. They always expect you to win for them. They feel they have the right to call you any hour of the day or night. Bert Jones always told me that the law is a harsh mistress. It may sound hokey, but it's true."

But Cooper has to confess to being demanding herself. "I know I'm hard to work for," she says. "I'm intense, aggressive and difficult. But I like to think that I work as hard as the people who work for me. It's never a situation where I'm on the golf course while somebody is here at the office slaving away on something I ought to be slaving away on."        

 

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