The Talent

December 23, 2011 1:51 PM

A Cozen Associate Reflects on a Year in the Prosecutorial Trenches

Posted by Sara Randazzo

Lisa Myers would like to make one thing clear about the year she recently spent in the Philadelphia district attorney's office: It was no deferral.

Yes, Myers left her job as an associate at Cozen O'Connor at the prompting of firm leaders in order to spend 12 months working for a government agency. But that's where the similarities between her experience and those of hundreds of law firm associates displaced during the economic downturn end.

Lisa-Myers300Unlike those deferred lawyers, Myers earned a full salary while detached from her firm. And her assignment wasn't the result of too much idle time at Cozen, where she worked for a year and a half before becoming an assistant district attorney attached to Philadelphia's municipal courts system in October 2010.

To the contrary, Myers says that before she taking the temporary job, she had to write memos detailing her role in some 45 active matters—mostly aviation and medical device–related products liability cases—that other lawyers would take on in her absence. She also had to put on hold her commitments as chair of the firm's associates committee and as the lone associate on its political action committee.

Myers, 33, was willing to do all that once her superiors decided she was the right associate to launch a new program aimed at giving young Cozen lawyers more trial experience than the firm can provide while also helping the understaffed D.A.'s office. (Two other firms, Reed Smith and Stradley Ronon Stevens and Young, have also dispatched attorneys to the Philadelphia D.A.'s office, though for shorter time periods.)

As it turns out, according to Hayes Hunt, a member in Cozen's litigation department who oversees the firm's associate training programs, Myers was indeed the right person to initiate the relationship.

"She's come back, and every lawyer that goes over there will come back, a stronger advocate," says Hunt. "And they'll feel even stronger about themselves, which will ultimately benefit our clients in the way they handle cases."

For her part, Myers says her year away from the firm was deeply rewarding.

"It was almost painful to leave the D.A.'s office," she says. "I miss it every day. It helps that I still have good friends there and that the work that I am doing at the firm is so interesting. However, it is still hard."

Myers landed the assignment via an informal search process, with her self-confidence persuading firm leaders that she would thrive in what can be an extremely stressful environment. (Myers acknowledges helping to move the process along by mentioning to Cozen CEO Tad Decker's secretary that as associate committee chair, she wanted the right person to get the job, with the caveat that "If you think that I would be deserving, stop looking.")

In joining the roughly 300-lawyer district attorney's office, Myers traded her quiet office in Cozen's Center City headquarters for the chaos of courtroom 1003 in the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center. Her task: handle cases originating in Philadelphia's Northeast region, a residential area that sees its share of robberies, burglaries, car thefts, drunk driving incidents, and drug arrests. Every day, Myers managed a docket of up to 40 cases, each requiring her to prepare court filings, line up witnesses, and negotiate with defense lawyers. Often forced to begin a bench trial with little notice, she quickly learned the importance of taking charge in the courtroom.

"Controlling a room, or at least giving the impression you're in control, is absolutely fundamental," she says. "When people came to that room, I was gracious, but I treated them like a guest." That meant police officers, victims, defendants, bailiffs, court clerks, defense attorneys, and even "the judge, frankly, was a guest."

Melissa Francis, the veteran prosecutor who oversaw Myers's work, says that the five-foot-tall Cozen lawyer "was like a tiny little pit bull. She never backed down from these attorneys with many more years experience than her.... That woman stood her ground every single day, fought in the trenches with the rest of us and made her point clearly and eloquently every day."

Francis says Myers also displayed another valuable quality: empathy. "From the beginning," says Francis, "she understood that your duty, your oath as a prosecutor, is to do justice and make sure the right thing is done rather than get a win."

That sense of empathy is likely the product of Myers's humble backgound. A native of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, Myers spent most of her childhood on a 200-acre hay and cattle farm outside Spokane, Washington, where she and her brother helped out with the daily chores. She ventured south for college, attending the Santa Clara University in California. Soon after graduating in 2000, she realized her liberal arts degree was not quite as marketable as she had hoped it would be.

"I went to PR firms and they wanted a writing sample, and I would say, 'Do you want my analysis of Paradise Lost?'" Myers recalls.

She decided to apply to law school, and while waiting to hear back started volunteering for U.S. Senator Patty Murray in Washington State. By the time she began to receive acceptance letters, she was fully immersed in politics and decided to defer an acceptance to Gonzaga University School of Law and instead enroll in a campaign training program in Washington, D.C. From there, she went to work on a New Jersey state senate campaign, the first in a series of Garden State political jobs she held over the next eight years.

If not for a 2004 conversation with then-assemblyman Joseph Roberts, who has since retired, Myers might not have given her latent legal interest a second chance. Roberts, a man whom Myers says doesn't mince words, asked her why she wasn't in law school.

"I said, well I kind of got caught up in this and working for you," Myers recalls. "He said, 'Well, if I have one regret it's that I didn't go to law school. So Rutgers is a great school, you should think about that.'"

Shortly after that conversation, she enrolled in Rutgers, pursuing her legal education while continuing to hold various political and legal jobs. She earned her law degree, as well as a master's in public administration, in December 2008.

Political connections led her to Cozen member Jeffrey Nash, who encouraged her to apply for a summer position. She landed a job at the firm in summer 2008 and came on board full time a few months after graduation.

As for Myers's prosecutorial turn, it coincided with a move by District Attorney Seth Williams, whose first term began ten months before her arrival, toward "zone prosecution"—an approach under which prosecutors are assigned to one of six neighborhood regions, allowing them to follow cases from arrest through sentencing, rather than have a different lawyer take over a case in each stage of the process (the office does still have specific units dedicated to homicide, family violence cases, and sexual assault offenses). The change centralized all municipal court proceedings into one courthouse, with a region on each floor, and helped create familiarity among the various parties involved in matters affecting a given neighborhood, Myers says.

That familiarity, however, became a nuisance with one particular judge, whom Myers says liked to exploit her inexperience. Her dealings with this judge reached their nadir just a few weeks into her D.A.'s office stint during a proceeding involving an accused drunk driver. Despite overwhelming evidence, the defendant walked free after the judge and the defense lawyer zeroed in on Myers's failure to ask a routine question. She remembers looking out the window of the courtroom and thinking to herself, "How do I get out of this program without humiliating myself?"

Discussing the episode in early November, Myers recalls quickly putting the setback behind her and persevering. In a voice choked with emotion, she describes the sense of camaraderie she felt working as part of a team with a shared cause—in this instance, making Philadelphia a safer place.

"To be in the foxhole with those people, to have them trust you with their case that they're so invested in—it is so remarkable," says Myers, adding that building a similar sense of shared purpose in a law firm—amid competition over billable hours and who gets the best assignments—can be difficult.

One of the most valuable things Myers says she learned from the experience is that you can make a mistake and still recover. "You don't want to make mistakes," she says, "and given the right amount of time you should be limiting them to almost none. But when you do [make a mistake], there's only so much energy you can invest in it. Put it in perspective and move on."

Myers's experience has strengthened Cozen's commitment to providing more of its young lawyers with similar experiences. Third-year associate Peter Caltagirone is now filling the role created by Myers, and the firm is ramping up what it calls its CO-Partners program, which will pair Cozen lawyers with such other organizations as the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and University of Pennsylvania Law School's Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.

In the future, says litigator Hayes, the process for choosing which associates are offered such opportunities will be more rigorous and likely confined to those who have been with the firm for at least three years.

"Lisa didn't go through that process, but she was the perfect choice," says Hayes, a former Philadelphia public defender. "In the future we can't rely on being lucky in that way."

Myers credits her modest roots for helping her earn the respect of her colleagues at the D.A.'s office, who she says didn't hold it against her that she earned roughly four times as much as they did—or that she got a raise from the firm while not even billing time, while they hadn't gotten a raise in three years.

Grappling with the pay difference was a challenge to Myers, who saw her colleagues struggling just to pull together rent money and have enough left over for happy hour. Though she says she doesn't believe law firm associates are overpaid, she does find the discrepancy in pay between public and private sector legal work "obnoxious and unacceptable" and "just not fair."

"Something has to change," Myers says. "I would sometimes go to bed thinking: What can I do? What's the op-ed I'm going to write? Who needs to be petitioned? And I'll continue to think about it."

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