The life and career of "America's Lawyer" : Johnnie Cochran

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Walk down the street of any city in America and ask folks to name a lawyer. Chances are great you will hear one name more than any other. And it won't be Perry Mason. Or even Ally McBeal.

This week's Law Star, as big a celebrity as some of the superstars he has represented, has been called "America's Lawyer." And even if you did not agree with the verdict in, well, let's just call it the most abundantly publicized criminal case of the last millennium, you have to admire the record of the inimitable Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. He boasts a 40-year history of taking on tough cases, and winning. And although he is best known for his success in helping Hollywood hot shots in big trouble, he is most proud of his lesser publicized work: defending Davids against Goliaths in civil rights and personal injury trials you won't necessarily see on Court TV.

Remember, before the initials O.J. came to represent something other than a favorite beverage or football hero, and long before one particularly infamous murder case catapulted an already-seasoned and well-respected trial lawyer to world-wide fame, Johnnie Cochran had built his rep and rock-solid record during his early years as a tough civil litigator in cases unpopular with the LAPD, among others.

Mr. Cochran was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1937. He received his bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of California at Los Angeles and earned his J.D. in 1962 at the Loyola University School of Law.

He began his legal career in Los Angeles, where he spent three years as a Deputy City Attorney in the criminal division. From there, he went into private practice, co-founding Cochran, Atkins and Evans, a firm handling both civil and criminal cases. His law firms over the years have taken on various names and incarnations, specializing in a range of work, including personal injury litigation, criminal defense, entertainment matters and public financing. But from the start, our Law Star made his name, and yes, good money, taking on causes other lawyers would not touch, including police brutality and misconduct matters and the murder trial of a Black Panther leader.

Along the way, Mr. Cochran also served as the first African-American Assistant District Attorney of Los Angeles County.

Today, he heads up The Cochran Firm with offices all around the nation. And celebrities aside, the fact is, anyone with a good civil rights or personal injury case is invited to contact him.

Our Law Star is also the dad of three, a former Court TV anchor, the author of the big-selling memoir, A Lawyer's Life, among other books, a commentator, and winner of more professional awards than we could count. His trial record has also earned him invitations to membership in the most elite law organizations in the nation, including the American College of Trial Lawyers, the club open only to the top 1% of trial lawyers, the prestigious International Academy of Trial Lawyers, and the Inner Circle of Advocates, whose membership is reserved for the top 100 plaintiff lawyers in the nation.

To get a few words with Johnnie Cochran, we had to catch him between his seemingly nonstop flights to and from his offices in L.A. and New York. The other hard part was convincing him we wanted an interview, not just an autograph.

Q: Mr. Cochran, without you as an inductee, LawCrossing could not rightly call our showcase the Law Stars Hall of Fame. Of the hundreds of thousands of lawyers in America, you are the most famous, and your "journey to justice," to borrow the title of one of your books, continues. As a kid raised in the Jim Crow era in Louisiana as well as a housing project in California, what made you decide to become a lawyer, and did you ever imagine your career would have such a big impact?

A: From 12 years of age, I knew I wanted to be an attorney. I wanted to use the law to change society for the better. Early on, Thurgood Marshall became my hero. I have tried to pattern myself after him. I have always wanted to be the best I could be. I never imagined the impact that my career would have. I never set any particular goals, but I am deeply honored by the results.

Q: A lot has changed in your practice since your days as a young, unknown lawyer, taking on matters like the murder case of Black Panther leader Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, and representing blacks victimized by police misconduct. These days, we see parodies of you performed on Saturday Night Live, you own a jet, you get star treatment all over the world. We assume your greatest reward is the freedom to take on the issues and cases you feel strongest about. But other than that, after 40 years of law practice, what keeps you going? And what advice do you have for up-and-comers in the profession who think they have what it takes to emulate your success?

A: I feel very blessed, but I think there is so much more to do. I do not think we have the equality in society for all individuals across the board regardless of their economic status. I want to bring about fundamental fairness. I feel one has to work very hard to make society fair across the board for every person, especially the poor and disenfranchised. They should never take no for an answer. They should attempt to be the best they can be to bring about fairness to all individuals.

Q: You have said, "If Simpson had been poor, he'd be in jail right now, whether he was innocent or guilty." When it comes to the poor, people of color and disadvantaged individuals generally, do you think access to criminal justice in America has improved at all in the years following the acquittal of O.J. Simpson? Do you think people understood the issues in the case beyond race?

A: No, I do not think that access to the criminal justice system in America has improved since Simpson. That's a battle we must continue to fight, especially for those individuals without the means to make it fair and equal. No, I do not think they understood the issues in the Simpson case beyond race. It was more about economics than about race. Unfortunately, too often the race of individuals plays a major part and that has made it unfair in determining a party's guilt or innocence and whether they should be charged or not charged. If you do not have adequate resources, you are more likely to be convicted.

Q: Most trial lawyers specialize in either criminal or civil matters. You have handled both, successfully. Which do you prefer and why?

A: In the beginning, I preferred criminal because that is where my experience was as a Deputy City Attorney and Deputy District Attorney. I thought I could equalize things. However, over a period of time, I have come to prefer civil litigation. I have found that I can bring about more of a change to society. For example, when individuals are injured due to police misconduct, defective products or toxic tort situations, our litigation can cause change in the entire system. In a police misconduct matter where the choke hold was standard operating procedure in Los Angeles, it is now banned; in a toxic tort matter, residents of the affected area receive compensation for injury, and clean-up for the affected area is ordered and maintained in a healthful manner for the future generations. Thus, I found I could use the civil arena to change society for the better for the poor and disenfranchised and provide them with adequate compensation where they have suffered injury and damage.

Q: We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Law Star Dennis Archer, first African American president of the ABA, who said "past injustices" account for the relatively small number of law degrees earned by minority students. If African-American students continue to be turned off by the justice system and legal profession, how can society remedy that in order to graduate more black lawyers?

A: Society must take real strong steps to open the justice system to everyone. They must help with scholarships, grants and other opportunities to attract more African-Americans and minorities into the legal profession.

Q: If by some magic, torts, crimes and legal disputes of every kind disappeared and all the courts closed tomorrow, what would your next choice be as a profession?

A: I would probably want to do something in advertisement; maybe commercials or something on that order where I could somehow open doors for individuals to help give them a chance to be the best they can be.

Q: Your big name clients have included celebrities such as Spike Lee, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Michael Jackson, Riddick Bow, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and many more, not to mention that other guy. But of course, the media does not report on most of the cases handled by The Cochran Firm. Can you tell us a bit about your firm's less celebrated workload these days, and why these cases are important to you?

A: I'm most interested in handling the No J's. The less celebrated cases The Cochran Firm is handling now are civil matters wherein we aid the less fortunate. Individuals where we handle their case on a contingency basis attempting to seek justice for the death of a loved one by the hands of the police, or where a little girl loses her arm after falling from a trolley car, or where the residents of an entire city suffer from cancer due to the chemical exposure to PCP's from a large corporation's daily operation. These are important to me because the individuals who have suffered the loss or injury are not ordinarily exposed to the legal system and may be somewhat intimidated by it and may not speak up otherwise.

Q: What's been on the docket at your other law venture, Cochran, Neufeld & Scheck, where the practice is devoted to plaintiffs' civil rights, police-misconduct cases and wrongful conviction? Why is this work separate from the cases handled at the Cochran Firm?

A: We are continuing to fight for individuals who have been wrongly convicted in cases wherein police misconduct exists. It is very gratifying to be involved with Cochran, Neufeld & Scheck. CNS is on the cutting edge, especially with respect to the wrongfully convicted, although scientific testing procedures are used to convict individuals, it is now being used to also free those individuals who are wrongly convicted. CNS works closely with the Innocence Project in this stead. They have freed more than 150 people through the Innocence Project.

Q: You have spoken out strongly against racial profiling of African-American men, but do not oppose the idea of profiling at airports, which would in effect put Middle Eastern men in the position previously reserved for black men. Why is one wrong and the other ok?

A: I am against racial profiling, but I believe that, where certain specific issues or probable cause exist, an individual must be stopped, given the circumstances. There must, however, be good probable cause and not just because they are a Middle Eastern man.

Q: In your book A Lawyer's Life, you reminisce, among lots of other things, about your three-year long Court TV show. Will you be doing any more television in the near future?

A: Yes, probably so. Right now I am a legal commentator for NBC News speaking on the Michael Jackson case, and I regularly appear on Larry King Live speaking on upcoming trials such as Scott Peterson, Kobe Bryant and Robert Blake.

Q:. Finally, the question we ask all our Law Stars: who are your personal legal gurus and Law Stars?

A: Again, Thurgood Marshall's work has inspired me throughout my career and life; Professor Charles Ogletree at Harvard Law School, Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck all are high on my list of legal gurus and law stars. They all have brought about a change in society and are very conscientious of individuals' civil rights. I admire the work that they have done.

Cochran, Neufeld & Scheck, L.L.P.


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