Plaintiffs firm Cohen & Malad celebrates half century

By Marilyn Odendahl • modendahl@ibj.com

 

In 50 years of practice, the law firm that is now Cohen & Malad LLP has evolved from a small general practice, taking whatever legal problem walked in the door, to a 20-plus attorney operation that serves a wide range of cases from family law to bankruptcy to class actions.

Whether deciding to take a client or mapping the best strategy for litigating a case, the team of attorneys will gather in the conference room or an office and come to a consensus. The associates and law clerks are not expected to remain silent. As the partners talk, the younger lawyers are encouraged to speak up, join the conversation and give their opinion, even if that means disagreeing.

Managing partner Irwin Levin paused as he carefully selected his words to describe those attorney conferences. “Among the lawyers, when we work on a case, we are sometimes very vocal,” he said.

Partner David Cutshaw, without hesitation, interrupted. “We scream at each other,” he said.

“We scream at each other,” Levin agreed.

Stepping onto the 14th floor of the downtown Indianapolis skyscraper, clients and visitors walk into a sleek, modern and quiet law office at Cohen & Malad. A bank of windows in the conference room looks across a city that, like the practice, has transformed and grown in five decades.

The firm was founded in 1968 when John J. Dillon, Jim Kelley, Virginia Dill McCarty, Don Hardamon and Lou Cohen settled in an office together and stenciled their last names on the front door. Dillon, who served as Indiana Attorney General during the administration of Gov. Roger Branigin, brought McCarty and Kelley with him from the Statehouse. Hardamon and Cohen joined with their established practices in collections and bankruptcy, respectively.

Through the years, Kelley’s name was dropped after he was elected to be Marion County prosecutor, then McCarty’s name was removed when she became the first female U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana in 1979.

Rick Malad was hired immediately after he graduated from Indiana University Robert H. McKinney in 1973 and has never worked anywhere else. His moniker elevated to the nameplate around 1984, when the firm became Cohen & Malad.

“I’ve never had one thought about leaving the firm,” Malad said recently when he gathered with some of his colleagues to reflect on the firm’s history. “I think it’s clearly a great firm, and it’s been a great ride for me.”

The firm has evolved and grown in the past five decades, branching out into new practice areas and building a national reputation. But two of the original founders, Dillon and Cohen, still loom, having crafted the personality of the firm from the blend of their opposite personas.

“That’s the precursor to what we have today,” Levin said. “We have disparate personalities, but we have people who have mutual respect, and that’s certainly how Jack and Lou worked, because they certainly had respect for each other. Everybody just seemed to get along.”

Dillon, also a Major General in the 38th Infantry Division of the Indiana National Guard, had a commanding presence and was very formal, intimidating many of the associates and law clerks. He wanted people to call him “Mr. Dillon” and during the weekdays, he always wore a suit and tie except for the times he arrived in his military uniform. On Saturdays, he would be tucked in his office, wearing an old sweater and listening to opera on the radio.

“He was very well respected,” Malad said, recalling Dillon as his mentor. “He knew everybody. He couldn’t walk down the street without stopping four or five times because people would stop and talk to him.”

Cohen, confined to a wheelchair after a swimming accident in Florida left him a quadriplegic, was big-hearted with an infectious laugh and demeanor that made people relax. From the time he came to the office at 9 a.m. and until he left at 6:30 p.m., he had the phone cradled to his ear, talking to attorneys across the country. He remembered what was said in all those conversations, but he relied on his secretary to take his dictation of letters and legal documents.

Cutshaw and partner Gregory Laker served as law clerks and Cohen’s personal attendant when they were both still students at IU McKinney. They would go to his house in the morning, help him get out of bed and dressed, then drive him to the office or, once Cohen got his specially outfitted van, ride with him.

“He was very good at resolving issues, getting people together who had varying interests or even people who hated each other or didn’t get along,” Cutshaw said. “He was very good at getting people together and coming up with solutions.”

The influence of Dillon and Cohen is also reflected in the variety of cases the firm handles. Representing clients in bankruptcy, criminal work, personal injury, zoning, and airplane crashes, Cohen & Malad still is not afraid to take just about anything that comes through the door.

In the mid-1980s, a physician showed up and told the attorneys he thought he was a victim of securities fraud. The company made an “insulting offer” of four figures, which spurred Cutshaw to turn the case into a class action. He delved into securities fraud, studied class actions and sketched some forms that are still used today. The work brought an offer of almost $4 million from the company and created an appetite for complex litigation.

Cohen & Malad was one of 10 law firms in the United States selected to run the class action against Swiss banks for stealing the accounts of victims of the Holocaust. Levin, also a graduate of IU McKinney, led the work. That was followed by bringing a case against various German companies on behalf of slave laborers.

Laker ushered in a mass tort practice in 2002 when Cohen & Malad represented more than 100 women who had breast cancer from taking hormone therapy. Then the firm litigated a mass tort against pain pumps on behalf of young athletes. The devices had been put into the injured shoulders of individuals after surgery but they caused the cartilage to be destroyed.

These are the kinds of high-risk, high-reward cases that can diminish the legal profession in the eyes of the public. Politicians often call for tort reform and the public scoffs at the fees attorneys collect when the case is completed. Laker has gotten a few turned up noses once he tells people he is a trial lawyer.

“I’ve always found it takes about two minutes of a story about a case you’re currently working on to completely change the attitude of that person,” he said. “When they hear about the cases that we do and the facts of the cases that we work on every day, they understand why we do what we do.”

To remain a fixture in the legal community for another 50 years, Cohen & Malad will have to adjust to the demands and changes in the marketplace. The attorneys say the law office must continue evolving, tending its stable of talented young lawyers and being entrepreneurial. Maybe the screaming will diminish, but Levin hopes the enthusiasm of the attorneys is just as robust in 2068.

“I think when most people go to law school, they have this vision that they are going to help people,” Levin said. “I think that we feel every day like we do that.”•

 

Originally published in the Indiana Lawyer