Barry Cohen is a partner with Royer Cooper Cohen Braunfeld in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an ILN member firm. In this episode, Lindsay and Barry discuss what Chat GPT means for the future of law firms, the challenges facing modern firms, and the lessons he’s learned over his career as a litigator.
You can listen to the podcast here, or we’ve provided a transcript of the highlights below.
Lindsay: Hello, and welcome to the Law Firm Intelligence Podcast. I’m your host, Lindsey Griffiths, executive director of the International Lawyers’ Network. Our guest this week is Barry Cohen with Warrior Cooper Cohen and Braunfeld in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, one of their three offices. Barry, welcome. We’re so glad to have you here. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and your firm and your practice?
Barry: Thank you, Lindsey. And actually, today I’m sitting in our downtown Philadelphia office, although I often am in our Conshohocken office. My name is Barry Cohen. I’m one of the founders of the law firm Boyer Cooper Cohen and Braunfeld. We started almost 11 years ago with six or seven attorneys. We have up to sixty attorneys right now with offices in downtown Philadelphia, a suburban office of Conshohocken in Pennsylvania, and a smaller group in New York City. We’re a business law firm, and so the largest group is corporate m and A to Z corporate practice. I happen to run our litigation group, which I would say is our second-largest group, but we’re an almost a full-service business law firm. So besides corporate and then commercial litigation, any type of business dispute, we also handle IP disputes and employment litigation, real estate litigation. And then outside the litigation realm, we have a thriving real estate practice that represents landlords, developers, project managers.
We’ve a fairly established and busy private client services group, which other people refer to as trust and estates representing fairly wealthy individuals, multi-generational wealth, family offices, C-suite level executives. We have another department that goes hand in hand with corporate and real estate, and the private client services is our tax group. Several members of ILN have met my law partner Dustin Covello, who heads up our tax group. So, he deals with international tax and domestic tax issues for again, high level individuals and corporations and closely held businesses. We have a bankruptcy group in our New York office, and then we also handle intellectual property prosecution on the trademarking copyright side. We do not handle patents. We usually work with other law firms on that. That’s it in a nutshell, but I can go into a deeper dive on any of those particular groups as well.
Lindsay: Great. Thanks so much for that. Let’s dive into our questions. What would you say at the moment is your biggest challenge and how are you working to overcome that?
Barry: I would say there’s really two huge challenges in a law firm and let me back up a little bit. As I mentioned, we’re sixty attorneys. We’re managed by a five-person executive committee. I am one of those five members. And Octo also act as general counsel. Many of the [inaudible] members know my law partner, David Gitlin, who heads up our corporate practice. David is also one of those five members of our executive committee. And then John Roy is our manager partner. I would say our two biggest challenges really go hand in hand and are somewhat circular. I mean, one is our talent, meaning our attorneys, our professional staff, paralegals and administrative staff, how to recruit and maintain and retain really talented individuals because we act as… from the lawyers’ perspective, we act as more of an old-time partnership. From everyone else, we act as a family. So, you really want to retain and attract talented people.
And then when I said earlier, it goes hand in hand, it is circular because we’re a service business. I mean, lawyers are here to service their clients, and so you have to also retain and maintain good clients that we’re excited to work with. But it goes hand in hand because you need that talented group of attorneys and paralegals and support staff to support and service those clients. That is really our biggest challenge is attracting talented attorneys and staff and then attracting clients that we want to work with. But once that wheel starts moving, it attracts each other because as you have talented attorneys, clients pass that along to their friends and hopefully good word spreads of RCCB, and then new clients come in. And the flip side of that is as we attract talented attorneys, they tell their friends what a great place it is to work and then we have people knock on our door. They want to come and leave other firms and come work with us.
Lindsay: That’s great because that is something that I’m hearing a lot from law firms lately is that there is this war for talent. Is that something that you’re coming up against lately or is it because you are such a family, because you are such a great place to work that you’re not struggling with as much as other firms might be?
Barry: We certainly were last year struggling with it more, and I think everybody was. It was the great resignation period when people were leaving. We’re not a thousand-person firm, we’re not multi-international offices. We can’t pay top dollar. The flip side of that is that we’re not billing our client’s top dollar as large firms. And there is a place for large firms. We work with many large firms; we work against many large firms. There are times they send us work and there’s times we send them work. So, there is a relationship there. I feel we do pay above our weight for our size, but it’s not simply salary. And then beauty of it is I don’t think attorneys are really, at least this generation, they’re not focused a hundred percent on salary. Now, if they were going where just the money is, I think they would all leave and go to the largest firms and work three thousand hours a year or three thousand billable hours a year and probably not be happy. There is a happy medium somewhere where you do have to pay for talent, but it’s not all about the money.
Lindsay: I totally agree with you, and I think that’s why firms like yours are such a great place to work. Talk to us a little bit about the current state of the market and what that means for you and your clients.
Barry: I think this market is certainly from a domestic in the US but also you see internationally. I mean, there is a state of flux with the economy and we’re all failing. I mean, you just go to the supermarket and realize what you’re paying for a dozen eggs versus what you paid a year ago, let alone two years ago. It does trickle down. You can only raise rates so much until clients balk. We’re actually looking at it as an opportunity because we are a little nimbler and a little smaller, we’re not tiny and we still can handle very sophisticated. I mean, we’ve done multi hundred million dollars corporate M&A deals, but we’re also small enough to do smaller transactions. On the one hand we are a good value. We’re not insurance defense. We know we’re not cheap, but we are what we consider to be very reasonable value for clients who want sophisticated attorneys at a fair price. And a lot of our attorneys have come from larger firms. So, the training and the talent is there without the overhead.
You’re asking about the state of the market, which is certainly one of the problems of economies. And we can see in-house councils, their budgets are being cut and so they’re questioning, “Do we need to do this deal? Can we afford this litigation?” And so, we’re trying to be creative with our clients there as well. Can we work out some type of flat fee? Can we work out a contingency fee? Can we work with them in some way to reach their business goal, and at the same time reach our goals?
Lindsay: And one of the things I was wondering about as you were speaking about was during the pandemic, we saw a lot of this need for clients to feel the comfort of speaking with their more senior council just to have that comfort level that they really needed. Are you still seeing a lot of that where they need to speak with… I think when you’re talking about a mid-size law firm, the benefit that you really get is that those are the lawyers that you’re talking to. Not that you’re not including associates on matters, but at a larger firm you’re definitely getting more associate level care than you are at a medium-sized firm. Are you seeing more of that when they’re coming to you because they get that advisor level care and are you still seeing that need for that?
Barry: Yes. Well, I think we are, but we always were. That is our model. We have our senior attorneys, our working attorneys. We don’t have a ton of associates. We actually don’t have any new associates. We don’t hire first year associates or even really second, third year probably be rare. I think this September will be our very first corporate first year associate because we worked with her last summer, and everyone was really pleased with her quality of her work and how sharp she was. But our general model has been large firms do a great job of training and there are many attorneys who want to leave big law for different reasons and it’s expensive to train young attorneys. And so, we get the benefit of retaining and bringing in really talented attorneys who got great training at big law but don’t want to work three thousand hours a year and can’t bill a first year out at a thousand dollars an hour, which is what big law’s doing for some people. And so, it’s just not sustainable for what we do. So, our clients appreciate that they get…
For example, they get me directly and then I might have one associate work on a file who’s already a mid-level or for a corporate deal, they’re getting David Gitlin directly and they’re calling David on the phone and talking to him directly and he’s not pushing it down because if a client wants to talk to him, he wants to give them the answer.
Lindsay: That’s great. What’s the biggest area related to your practice or industry that you’re curious about at the moment and why?
Barry: That’s a good question. Well, one thing that’s been curious recently, Chat GPT is an interesting concept. It’s exciting and scary at the same time. My twins who are 22, they were home recently, they’re both working in Manhattan and we were talking about Chat GPT, and we actually ran a site on just out of curiosity of a case that I just had and had just argued and Chat GPT spat out basically a short brief of the topic that I had just argued to an appellate court. It wasn’t completely on point. I mean, there were certainly nuances, but it was a hell of a start. So, it’s interesting. On one hand, you could be worried that, oh, this will be the end of lawyers and they won’t need lawyers. At the same time though, you go back in time, and you think about when Westlaw first came out or when other advances in technology came out, people said the same thing. I’m sure 80 years ago they were saying the same thing about the copy machine coming out that it would change how the law is practiced.
You just need to adapt. And so, I think it’s going to be an opportunity for people to learn how to use it and different… Some jobs will be eliminated, but other jobs will be created and law firms that adapt and utilize the technology I think will come out and be [inaudible].
Lindsay: I totally agree with you. I mean, we saw the same thing, or I mean we didn’t see it, but with telephones when those came out, you used to have people who would sit there, phone operators and connect people, and now we just connect ourselves directly. So, as you say, some jobs will go away, but others will be created, and I think there’s always going to be room for lawyers to do the work. As you say, what was missing in that brief that was created was the nuance. And that’s the thing that you really need lawyers for is to understand the nuance, to understand the case law, to be able to apply it and do the strategic work. The thing that I’m really curious about, and I was just talking to one of our other lawyers about this, is that you have been able to get all of that through experience, through doing this for a number of years. And so, you understand that.
And so I wonder about how you’re going to get between the gap of being a new lawyer, getting to that point of having the experience without maybe being able to do all of this, the smaller work and the nitty-gritty and how we’re going to then train new lawyers to get to that point of having the experience if we now have these new tools that maybe they’re not going to need to do some of the stuff that they would’ve done in the past.
Barry: I think that’s interesting. And if you tie that into the post pandemic world… I sit on a management committee of INTA for lawyers who are in management roles on one of their subcommittees and it’s a conversation that comes up a fair bit because we personally don’t have a policy for attorneys coming into the office. We have a policy for staff, but we don’t have a policy for attorneys. We give them a lot of flexibility and the work gets done and we want to appreciate that they all have lives outside the office. And so as long as the client gets their needs satisfied, if the brief is due and it gets done at 10 o’clock at night because someone has little children at home, we want to respect that, obviously. The flip side though for young attorneys though, if they’re not coming in enough, it is hard to learn and some of them are missing out.
And so, it’s a fine balance of trying to work with that as a manager to make sure people are getting the training but also respecting their lives outside the firm. And that is something I think a lot of law firms are struggling with right now. To your point of Chat GPT or other new AI technology, I think those that do well will adapt and thrive. But I think there will be some industries that in some parts of law, like some commodity work… I’m trying to think of something, but drafting an apartment lease, something that’s very uniform and done over and over again, you may not need a warm body to do that, that might be able to be spit out by Chat GPT or something like that. But then there’ll be whole new industries created. I mean, think about an engineer. All the people work in gaming industries and the thousands and thousands of software engineers and social media engineers, that job didn’t even exist 10 years ago.
Lindsay: Right. No, it’s really exciting. Well, the pace of technology and the way that it expands so dramatically, I wouldn’t have even thought of this existing 10 years ago. Seeing where this is going to go in the next 10 years and what it’s going to create will be really interesting.
Lindsay: Tell us something interesting about yourself that most people don’t know.
Barry: Oh wow.
Lindsay: I always like this question.
Barry: And I got to make sure we don’t have HR called or anything like that. Something interesting about myself. Well, a few things. I’m actually an introvert by nature and when I talk to a lot of people, they’re always shocked when I tell them that because they don’t think I am an introvert. But I actually am an introvert by nature, I’m very happy staying at home and reading a book, watching TV and being completely by myself. But as a litigator and is someone who’s helping run a law firm, you’re forced to become an extrovert to a certain extent. That is something I find interesting.
I mentioned I have 22-year-old twins that life is very different now that my wife and I are completely empty nesters. And so, we are enjoying that immensely. As much as we do love our children, we were very happy for them to flee the nest and live their lives. And we talk to them almost every day, but we enjoy watching them from afar as they go about their lives and as they learn, excel and fail at the same time at certain things. And we’re just living life and trying to not age as much as we probably are aging.
Lindsay: I think that’s true for everyone.
Barry: And Lindsay, you can relate to this. That’s probably why a year ago I decided to run my very first marathon just to try and have new challenges and do things as painful as some parts of that were.
Lindsay: Well, I mean the marathon is one of those things where it really teaches you a lot about yourself.
Barry: I swam in college, and you’d have these… Swimming’s a very boring sport, and you have a lot of time to yourself to think underwater. Although I was a sprinter, so maybe it wasn’t that long of time, but the marathon training was… I actually enjoyed it. I actually had some very long runs where I was able to actually think about cases, think about clients, think about strategy. I couldn’t take notes, but really you can get into a deep think when you’re into just a slow, steady three-hour pace.
Lindsay: There’s something about it that helps you untangle knots in your head that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. As you said, you can’t take notes, but something about it helps you really figure things out.
Barry: Now don’t ask me if I’m going to do another one. I’m still debating that.
Lindsay: Well, there are those six world marathon majors. So, you have five left.
Barry: Yes. You’ve tackled a few of them as I know, which is very impressive.
Lindsay: I’m halfway through, so we’ll see. I’m taking this year off. So who’s been the biggest mentor over your career?
Barry: That’s a really good question too. I don’t think I’ve had one particular mentor. I’ve taken things from different people over the years. I mean, obviously everyone’s going to tell you their parents were certainly mentors. And I can’t say that wasn’t true. I’ve certainly had coaches. I’ve had some great teachers going back to elementary school and to high school and college and it wasn’t one particular teacher. There were different things and different teachers have given me lessons over the years. I worked for a federal judge for a little bit and was a mentor in certain aspects. Certain bosses with things that I didn’t like about him or her, but they still were mentors in some issues. And certainly, my wife, we’re very different people. She’s not a lawyer, but there’s no doubt that I’ve learned a ton from her including how to be humble.
Lindsay: I love that. That’s really great. What would you say that most people misunderstand about your field of work?
Barry: I think it is because our corporates are our largest practice. And it’s interesting because prior to starting this firm I was at… I started out with a litigation boutique. So, we did nothing but litigation. And part of that was IP litigation, which as you know I do. But it wasn’t all IP litigation, it was a generalist firm. I then went to a… helped open a Philadelphia office of a larger Pittsburgh firm. And while Pittsburgh had corporate and other departments, the Philadelphia office itself was almost all litigation. And so, when I started with my partners here and we started growing this firm, and again, I was the only litigator and we started and corporate was… everyone else was corporate. And even now we probably have a dozen litigators, but corporate’s still the largest group.
Corporate lawyers a lot of times think of litigation as all we want to do is litigate. We just want to be in court, we want to fight. And I think that’s a misnomer because it is for some litigators, but the way our department looks at it, we look at litigation as a tool for the business owners and it is just a tool. And so, we’re still always trying to think about what the goal of our client and that goal or goals is change over time. And litigation is a tool, and it might be the last resort you want to be in court, but it’s simply a quiver in your arsenal of how to achieve your client’s objectives.
Lindsay: And I think in the end, all of you are still business advisors, especially depending on the type of law that you’re practicing.
Barry: That’s exactly right. I personally find myself more often than not talking clients out of litigation, even though from a profit viewpoint. From a law firm, it’d be much better if I told them to go into litigation. But it just doesn’t make sense a lot of times. And so there are times it does make sense. And then you have to use parts of litigation to achieve what you’re looking for.
Lindsay: Sure. And probably I think a lot of companies, or not a lot, I shouldn’t say a lot, but there are companies who are reticent to get lawyers involved early on. And so maybe litigation is where they end up. So, it’s really important for companies and clients to know that they need to get lawyers involved at the outset because it does get more expensive the longer that they wait to call their lawyers.
Barry: A hundred percent agree. I mean, I can’t tell you how many examples we have of commercial disputes or real business divorces. You can have two best friends who got together years ago and started a business where brother, father, son, we’ve had those disputes. And a year later or another generation later, people aren’t getting along. But they started the business without a lawyer and either had a handshake deal or a horrible agreement and now to unwind it can be expensive. And had they spent just a small bit of money at the beginning to put in paper what their goals were and what their objectives were and how they wanted things to work, they wouldn’t had a fight years later and spent a lot of legal dollars on it. So, you’re right, sometimes it is smarter to get a lawyer, whether it’s a litigator or the corporate lawyer or the real estate lawyer in advance and do it right up front.
Lindsay: That’s always my advice to my friends is get a lawyer involved. The earlier, the better. Even if it doesn’t get contentious, it keeps it from getting contentious earlier on. What would you say is the most important lesson that you’ve learned over your career?
Barry: Own your mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. And I tell this to the lawyers under me. In short, blowing a statute of limitations, which we have never done. Every mistake is fixable, and you just need to own your mistakes. And if it was someone under you that made the mistake, you still need to own it as the manager or supervisor, owner, it doesn’t matter. And come up with a solution for how to fix it. But sweeping things under the rugs, it just gets worse. It festers and it builds up. And the sooner you can address the problem and come up with a solution, it’s better for you. It’s better for the clients. It’s better for opposing counsel. And see this in litigation too. When you’re in front of a judge, don’t try and push it. Own up to what’s an error, own up to where… show your weakness, [inaudible] honor, we’re weak in this part and I’ll concede that. However, on this point, we’re very strong and here’s X, Y and Z why. And it’s somewhat of somewhat of an honesty policy.
Lindsay: That’s a good life lesson too, actually.
Barry: Yes. You can pass it on to your kids. It’s one of those lessons. Unless they’re teenagers and it’s a little different.
Lindsay: Right. That’s for sure. Absolutely. How about a client who’s changed your practice?
Barry: I’ve had some clients over the years. I get very emotionally involved in my clients and their problems. I mean, even after a case ends or settles or a trial, I am emotionally invested for… it takes me about 48, 72 hours to unwind. I’ve had some clients that have changed me in how I look at things because we’ve had some clients that I thought we went way over the edge for them and took to heart their issues only to then have some of them not pay our bills. And so that’s a problem when you’re running a small business. We’ve had other clients who have basically thanked us for saving the day for them. And we enjoy those moments as well. As I’ve gotten older, I have to learn to, I can’t take on their… it’s great when you take on their problems as your personal problems ’cause it makes you a better lawyer, but you do have to draw a line somewhere to separate their problems from your problems ’cause you didn’t create the problem for them. You’re here to fix it. And I refer to myself that way sometimes.
I often refer to when people ask me what I do, I often say I’m a janitor. There’s a mess and I’m brought into somehow clean it up. And that may be litigating going to court, it may be coming up with some type of resolution, but I’m here to clean up a mess.
Lindsay: That’s a great way to look at it. I think that that is a great metaphor. So, what does being part of the ILN mean to you?
Barry: We are fairly new to the ILN. I know David Gitlin was there much earlier with his prior firm and I can’t remember if this is our third year or fourth year with the ILN, but you have to minus out several of those years because of the pandemic. And yes, I think the ILN did a good job with virtual platforms, but it’s not the same. For us, it resonates a little bit with how we look at our law firm. We look at our associates, we look at our partners and try and treat everyone as a family. And I think this is just an extension of that family. I’ve made some great friends, got to travel to some places, but more importantly, it has come up a lot. And well, maybe I should say if this come up, certainly more often when we have clients asking us, “Do you know someone in Peru, as I emailed you recently on that question? Do you have a lawyer in this jurisdiction who can help out?” And ILN has been helpful there in that we have been able to find lawyers.
Obviously on the flip side, it’s nice when you get inbound referrals and people call you, but we certainly understand there’s some competition there as well. But it is nice to be able to get someone on the phone and to reach out and not have to vet them because of this ILN connection. You just know that they’re going to have your clients’ back. And at the end of the day, that’s what you really, really want. Because when you make out referrals, listen, everything doesn’t go perfectly. I mean, especially in litigation, right? One, there’s always two sides of the story. Someone has to win; someone has to lose. But you want to know that the person you’re referring it too has your back and has your clients’ back and you can trust them. And I think that’s what we get out of the ILN.
Lindsay: Absolutely. That’s great. I love to hear that. To wrap up, I always love to ask this question. What is something you’re enjoying right now that has nothing to do with work?
Barry: Well, I just went on a ski trip with a friend of mine, and I haven’t skied in five years, but he asked me to go skiing. And people always love the story. They often say, “Well, how do you know this person?” I said, ‘Well, we actually met in first grade.” So, it is a childhood friend from first grade that we are actually… I’m still friends with my kids, my kids are actually friends with his kids. We had a short guy weekend trip of skiing out west ’cause I haven’t skied in five years. So that was actually fun. A little nerve-wracking and what we know as you get older to start skiing on some black diamond skis and their trails, I’m not sure you’re going to get hurt. That was fun. And then the second thing, which my wife got me into, which probably the rest of America is getting into, but maybe not the rest of ILN, is pickleball.
Lindsay: I knew you were going to say pickleball.
Barry: Everyone is into pickleball. It is fun. She’s way better than I am at it, but it is. She’s also playing more than I am. But it is actually a fun sport ’cause I was never a tennis player, and I am enjoying that. I’ll try and do that at least once a week and you can get some aggression out with it.
Barry: But there is a skill to it as well.
Lindsay: That’s what I’ve heard. We’ve got to take a poll among ILN members and see who else is playing pickleball and that’ll be the next ILN thing.
Barry: I don’t think it has caught on internationally yet too much. I think it will be in a few years, but I think it absolutely in an ILN event, you could do a pickleball. It’s like a yoga class. Do a pickleball class.
Lindsay: We’ll have to do a little tournament and maybe will launch it internationally through the ILN.
Barry: There you go.
Lindsay: Well, thank you very much Barry for joining us. I really appreciate it. And thanks so much to all of our listeners for joining us as well. We’ll be back next week with another guest. And in the meantime, please take a moment to rate, review and subscribe over on Apple podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts. And thank you so much.
Barry: Thank you.