Controversy at Cochran Law Firm Shawn Chapman Holley — a former colleague of the late, famed lawyer Johnnie Cochran — is suing the law firm he made famous, claiming racial and gender discrimination, fraud and breach of contract.
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Controversy at Cochran Law Firm

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Controversy at Cochran Law Firm

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Controversy at Cochran Law Firm

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Before he died, Johnnie Cochran helped create the iconic image of the modern, hard-charging defense attorney. Remember his defense of O.J. Simpson and that moment when Simpson tried on the bloody glove?

Mr. JOHNNIE COCHRAN (Lawyer; Founder, Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. Law Firm): Don't be part of this continuing cover up. Do the right thing, remembering that if it doesn't fit, you must acquit.

CHIDEYA: Cochran's winning reputation helped him expand his L.A.-based operation across the country. The Cochran Law Firm focused on civil rights, police abuse and discrimination complaints. Cochran died of a brain tumor in March 2005. Since his death, the firm has tried to carry on in his image or has it?

Now, the firm is being sued by one of Cochran's former colleagues from the Simpson trial, Ms. Shawn Chapman Holley. Ms. Holley alleges racial and gender discrimination, fraud and breach of contract. She also claims Cochran's clients don't always receive quality representation.

Ms. Holley and her attorney, Dan Stormer, spoke with NPR's Tony Cox.

Ms. SHAWN CHAPMAN HOLLEY (Former Managing Partner, Cochran Law Firm): As you may know, Johnnie and I had a long history together. There are number of other members of the firm and support staff who shared Johnnie's ideology. All of those people are gone now and they're gone because they were either fired or otherwise forced out of the firm.

And all of us - and I mean I'll just speak for myself here - but I was very clear in saying to these people this is not what Johnnie would have wanted. This is the antithesis of what he would have wanted and people are not being served properly here and I did everything that I could do to fix that and ultimately, I was kicked out of the firm. I was fired.

TONY COX: Shawn, when did you first feel that there was a change in the Cochran firm as a workplace and why do you think it turned for the worse?

Ms. HOLLEY: Well, back in the late '90s, Johnnie formed a partnership with some people who are based in a small town in Alabama. And those people are primarily personal injury lawyers. They are not lawyers who have primarily represented people in the community or civil rights causes of action - the sort of things that Johnnie cared about.

And he formed that partnership at a time he, after the O.J. trial, he was doing a lot of other things, doing a television show in New York. And these people came to him and suggested that they could help run the firm and take care of some of the finances.

And he, you know, signed on the dotted line, thought it was a great deal. But those people were more concerned, it seems to me, with making money and not really concerned with sort of things that Johnny and those that he chosen to work with him cared about.

And while Johnnie was alive and well, he could, to a great extent, control the firm but as soon as he got sick, they then rose up in power and took the firm in a completely different direction and began to do things that Johnnie absolutely did not want to do and I've made it clear to them that he didn't want to do that.

COX: For example? Give us an example of one such thing.

Ms. HOLLEY: Well, they formed a partnership with what's loosely called a criminal defense firm. What it really was, was a boiler room where a salesman worked and telephone calls came in based on yellow page ads from people who wanted a criminal defense lawyer.

These criminal defense lawyers were really independent contract attorneys out in, you know, all over the country who were not the cream of the crop. They were people who were being paid a small percentage of the retainer fee that the firm, the spoiler room firm, would take most of the money and give smaller amount of money to the lawyers in the field.

But it was a moneymaking idea as far as these new partners of Johnnie's. Now when this idea came to them when Johnnie was alive, he said absolutely not. Well, as soon as he got sick, the other partners decided that it was a great idea because, of course, it was a way for lots of money to come into their pockets.

And what began to happen is horrible, horrible, miserable misrepresentation began occurring all over the country to people who had, who were charged with crimes and primarily, African-American people and other people of color.

COX: How hard was it for you to continue working after Johnnie Cochran's death?

Ms. HOLLEY: The difficulty after Johnnie's death came not only because Johnnie died and we were all sad and grieving at Johnnie's death, but because the people who were now in charge of the firm were doing things that were completely inconsistent with what Johnnie wanted and contrary to all of the promises that had been made.

COX: What are you doing now? Go ahead, Dan.

Mr. DAN STORMER (Lawyer): One thing I want to make clear is that she was able to meet the challenges of the job. It wasn't the job that was the problem after Johnnie Cochran's death. It was the way the firm was being run and it was the treatment of her within the firm.

COX: Dan Stormer, in terms of representing Shawn and in this lawsuit against the firm, what specific relief are you asking for?

Mr. STORMER: Well, there's a limited amount of relief that you can get in this situation. The primary relief now is just monetary.

COX: Would it be reasonable to expect that any law firm could continue to operate in the way that it did once its primary person - in this case, Johnnie Cochran - was no longer involved?

Mr. STORMER: Oh, absolutely. Johnnie had picked people who represented what he thought was the appropriate way of representing the community. Shawn was certainly one of those people that was to carry on the legacy that he had created.

COX: Final thing is this, Shawn, for you. What are you doing now? How has this entire situation impacted your employability?

Ms. HOLLEY: You know, Johnnie set up this firm so that it could continue long after he was gone so that his legacy could live on and he chose me as one of the people to carry that on and I honestly believe that I would be there doing that work throughout my entire career. And so, though I have a job and a good job and I'm grateful for it, I'm sad that I'm not doing Johnnie's work.

COX: I appreciate the time. Thank you both for coming on.

Mr. STORMER: Thank you.

Ms. HOLLEY: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Shawn Chapman Holley is a former lawyer in the Cochran Law Firm. Dan Stormer is her attorney. For the other side of the story, Tony spoke with Randy McMurray, managing partner of the Cochran firm in Los Angeles, an unnamed plaintiff in the suit.

COX: Do you find it all ironic that the firm itself has become the target of the discrimination lawsuit especially from someone so visible with the firm as Ms. Chapman Holley had been?

Mr. RANDY McMURRAY (Managing Partner, Johnnie Cochran, Jr. Law Firm): There is a certain amount of irony involved in them. But if you look at the makeup of the Los Angeles office of the firm nationwide, we're probably the most diverse firm in the country. In Los Angeles, it's even more diverse than that.

COX: Did this complaint come as a surprise to you?

Mr. McMURRAY: No.

COX: Why not?

Mr. McMURRAY: Mrs. Holly was - she was angry when she left and it was - I was not surprised that she filed the lawsuit for a lot of reasons and a lot - and some of them are personal.

COX: Are you looking forward to your day in court? And if you are, couldn't such a public display of the internal workings of the firm be harmful to you even if you win?

Mr. McMURRAY: You know, there is a saying that any publicity is good publicity, but that's not the case, I think, when you're talking about a name that is as respected especially in Los Angeles but nationwide as Johnnie Cochran's name. I think that any lawsuit against his law firm is damaging to us and to his legacy.

I don't think that the - any of the allegations of discrimination - I don't think those are going to play out once the evidence is shown. The services that we render are beyond question and I don't think that anybody with any information about the law firm itself can support that we're not providing the best quality to our services. I mean, there is an allegation with no factual data to support.

But I don't care what kind of law firm or what kind of services you have, you're going to have disgruntled client. Once in a while, somebody's not going to be happy. If you reject their case, they're not going to be happy with you. So you're not going to please everybody, but our job is to make sure that they get the best representation we can provide for them. That's what we stand for. We stand for that today.

COX: Thank you.

Mr. McMURRAY: Thank you, sir.

COX: Okay.

CHIDEYA: Randy McMurray is managing partner of Cochran firm's L.A. office. He's also unnamed plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by Shawn Chapman Holley and he spoke with NPR's Tony Cox.

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