On July 13, 2020, CWBA members Nancy Cohen and Nicole Black officially opened the doors to their new firm, Cohen | Black Law. The two had worked together previously at Lewis Brisbois and decided that the time was right to venture out on their own. The firm focuses on professional liability, director and officer liability, commercial, and real estate litigation.
Cohen began her 38-year career at a boutique firm doing a variety of trial work. She joined the CBA Ethics Committee when she was a two-year associate. After she began defending grievances, Cohen got to know John Gleason when they were opposing counsel on several cases. In 1999, he became Regulation Counsel at the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel and asked her to join the office, where she became Chief Deputy. The disciplinary system was being revamped, and Cohen enjoyed the opportunity to get in on the ground floor and make policy. She saw it as an opportunity to do something that would make a difference. Cohen returned to private practice in 2010, most recently with Lewis Brisbois, a large national and international firm.
Black started her career at a small boutique firm, moving to a regional firm, and then a large international firm. At each of these firms, she has always done complex commercial and had developed her professional liability litigation practice. Black enjoys the challenge of professional liability litigation because of the case within the case and how you really have to get to know the ins and outs of the client’s business -- she finds the same to be true for commercial litigation. Both Cohen and Black noted that they have to be at the top of their game because, representing attorneys, their clients are especially sophisticated and demand a level of excellence.
As they prepared to open their firm, there was a lot of leg work in setting up the administrative side of things. In particular, Cohen said it was important to look at technology and what they needed. They talked through what they wanted and hired a consultant for the technology. Black was gratified that their clients have been supportive of the move and even reached out with offers of advice and assistance. Cohen allowed that while there will always be challenges, at some point you just have to take the risk and trust that everything will be okay. “You have to be willing to go to the cliff and be willing to take a leap.” Cohen describes herself as a risk-taker who enjoys outdoor adventure, so this type of risk comes naturally to her.
Both find that there are advantages and disadvantages to owning your own firm. As a firm owner, you need to have administrative protocols in place so you can practice law, but there is more flexibility in choosing the cases you want to take. In particular, this is an advantage for small firms in taking pro bono cases. Black describes it as a mental shift, because anytime you work, you are now working for yourself. She enjoys streamlining the administrative side and focusing on a handful of cases, allowing her to get her fingers deeper into a few cases. She says that at a large firm it was easier to walk down the hall and exchange ideas with colleagues, and she finds that she now has to be more intentional about seeking out this type of interaction.
Of course, the firm has faced challenges unique to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first weeks of the pandemic prior to Cohen and Black leaving Lewis Brisbois, the pace of cases slowed for about six weeks as the courts were closed, but things picked up again in mid-May. Cohen and Black have found that commercial cases have increased because businesses have a lot of uncertainty around issues such as evictions. They have used various means to meet their clients’ needs, including in-person meetings with masks and social distancing around their large conference table. They have also made effective use of video conferencing platforms such as Zoom. Black finds that this has actually been an advantage as many of her clients are on the Western Slope or out of state and not able to come to their office.
In the early days of the pandemic, the pair even argued a case before the Colorado Supreme Court via WebEx. While there were a few technical hiccups, they said that, overall, it went very well. They found that they were able to judge the justices’ reactions better because they could see them closely on the screen, instead of being at more of a distance in the court room.
When asked what advice they would offer to those opening their own firm, both said that they would recommend talking to people who have been through it before. Cohen suggests finding a mentor, joining the Colorado Attorney Mentoring Program (CAMP), joining the CBA, joining a specialty bar, or attending CLEs such as Hanging your Shingle. Black says to “plan, plan, and plan again,” though you will inevitably find things you didn’t think about. “You have to embrace the bumps in the road.”
The professional accomplishment that Cohen is most proud of is taking on a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP suit) at her first law firm. She particularly enjoyed the first amendment issues and assisting those petitioning the government. She is also proud of her work on the board of Family Star Montessori school, where she helped it through some difficult times. Cohen has also been a member of the Colorado Supreme Court’s Standing Committee on the Rules of Professional Conduct. She first became a member when she was with OARC. She says she finds it very invigorating because there are brilliant people on the Committee and it is interesting to think about how their work will impact lawyers.
Black is most proud of a published court of appeals case that she and Cohen worked on, In re James, 454 P.3d 345 (Colo. App. 2018), which was affirmed by the Colorado Supreme Court. She says she is surprised by how often she has to reference it.
Both credit excellent mentors for having an impact on their careers. For Cohen, former CBA President Frank Plaut taught her a lot about professionalism, while former Magistrate Judge Pat Coan taught her by example with the way she handled herself. And Judge Al Harrell is a good friend and listener who puts things in perspective.
Black recalls that she was paired with Tony Van Westrum through CAMP, and he mentored her for eight years. He gave her advice on recognizing how you want to practice. Though he wasn’t there to see the firm open, she says he definitely inspired her to make this change in her career.
For both, bar association involvement has been important to their careers. Cohen says she likes being around lawyers, the camaraderie, and the intellectual challenge. As Denver Bar Association (DBA) President in 2016-2017, one of Cohen’s strategic goals was getting new lawyers involved. As she looks at the young lawyers who have become DBA President since then, she believes the DBA has been successful in this mission.
Black is a 2014 graduate of Colorado Bar Association Leadership Training Program (COBALT) and says it has had a great impact on her career. Now that her career has shifted with a new firm, she wishes she could do a COBALT 2.0 and further develop her leadership skills in light of the new challenges she faces. Black also served on the CBA-DBA Joint Management Committee for three years. However, she was not always a CWBA member, and Black recounts how former CWBA Presidents Janet Drake and Patty Jarzobski made it their mission to convince her of the benefits of membership and followed up with her until she joined. She looks forward to becoming more involved in the future.
Cohen advises that it is important to have someone who is supportive of you, someone who knows you, someone you can bounce things off. For her, her husband, who is not a lawyer, as well as her good girlfriends, offer perspective and a laugh. “Practice is one aspect of the human being, but you have to look at other aspects. It’s important to laugh at yourself.”
Black notes that some of her best mentors have been women from different practices, many CWBA members. “As you build your network of mentors be sure to develop female mentors.”
Outside of work, Cohen enjoys skiing, rafting, biking, cooking, and being with family, including taking her children to climb fourteeners and biking in places like New Zealand.
Black enjoys hiking with her Rhodesian Ridgeback, doing yoga, and spending time with family and friends. She also makes a point to take a trip every two years where she can disconnect. Some memorable adventures have included backpacking through Romania with her sister and trips to South Africa and Botswana.
Kate Noble is a CWBA Publications Committee member and a legal editor with Colorado Bar Association CLE, the nonprofit educational arm of the Colorado and Denver Bar Associations