Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Truth About Matrimonial Attorney Robert Stephan Cohen

Robert Stephan Cohen has been called the “pit-bull” of divorce lawyers and his reputation for doing whatever it takes to bring the other side to its knees has brought the likes of Christy Brinkley (twice), Ellen Barkin, Pamela Duff, Uma Thurman, and various Trump wives to his door. He was profiled in the New York Times as “one of the most powerful matrimonial attorneys in the country” and has also been featured in New York Magazine and Town & Country, which described him as “your worst nightmare.” Cohen has even authored a book with the somewhat ironical title, given that he’s famous for the opposite, of “Reconcilable Differences: Seven Essential Tips to Remaining Together From A Top Matrimonial Lawyer.”

Mr. Cohen is famous and he’s at the top of his field.

But when did winning massive settlements at the cost of destroying families become something to be celebrated?

Robert Cohen thrives on stirring up dirt and animosity simply to make a buck. Or in Cohen’s case, 800 bucks an hour, his exorbitant rate. Countless individuals who have been unlucky enough to find themselves sitting across the table from Cohen say that even years after their divorce, they are still repairing the damage that Cohen has done not only to their finances but, more importantly, their family. In a profession of sharks, Cohen stands out as a Jaws-like figure, devouring everything in his path.

But even in a field that regularly descends into the down and dirty, there are ethical and moral lines that lawyers are not supposed to cross.

Nearly everyone interviewed for this story reported that Cohen used underhanded scare tactics to force them into settlement, usually for pennies on the dollar. One woman, who we’ll call Irene Schaffer, reported that as soon as her ex husband hired Bob Cohen, he immediately withdrew all of the money, more than $70,000, from their joint bank accounts. The two had been civilly negotiating the terms of their divorce for months, but it wasn’t until Cohen was hired that her ex decided to take hold of all of their assets. Without access to funds she was at the mercy of her husband. “Once Cohen was hired the divorce got nastier,” she said. “It’s amazing what he gets away with.”

Cohen even went as far as essentially vetoing Irene’s choice of lawyer. When Irene told her soon-to-be ex husband that she wanted to hire well-regarded attorney Margaret Cohen (no relation), the husband said that he needed to consult with Cohen first. He later phoned Irene back to say that he refused to release any money for that particular lawyer. “It’s all to make you feel uncomfortable and scared,” Irene said. “They want you scared. I knew that he was trying to intimidate me into backing down.”

One of the few who bested Cohen at his own game was his ex-wife Margery Rubin. In 1998, Margery Rubin told the Daily News that for “killer divorce lawyers” like her husband, “attack is part of their method of operation. That was [Bob’s] reputation, of course.” She also noted that figuring out the value of her husband’s partnership at the Manhattan firm of Morrison Cohen Singer and Weinstein was her biggest challenge in their divorce. The hard-fought battle went to trial – then suddenly ended when Rubin produced a key witness who provided evidence that Cohen lowballed his wealth. “When you get down to it, there had to be facts,” Rubin said. “I happen to [be] very well organized. I had everything in order financially.” Twenty-two years of living with the most ruthless divorce lawyer apparently rubbed off on Rubin who not only took Cohen to the cleaners financially she went on to start Divorce Source, a service showing other women how to navigate the confusing divorce process.

But Rubin is one of the few to best Cohen. Most wind up suffering extreme financial losses and far more devastating effects to their family.

“All he seems to care about is lining his pockets,” noted a physician who has seen first-hand the damage that Cohen wreaks. The physician is in a position that puts him in contact with numerous families who have been torn apart by Robert Cohen’s unfair -perhaps even bordering on immoral - tactics. “The ones that really suffer are the kids,” he said then further explained Cohen’s MO: the divorce gets dragged out to make the lawyers richer, nasty accusations get thrown around and children are forced to choose sides and endure painful years of watching their parents go at each other’s throats.

“And Robert Cohen is one of the worst. He goes for the jugular.” Like many interviewed for this article, the physician agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity, afraid of retaliation from the powerfully connected Cohen. Dozens of others refused to even talk about their experiences afraid that whatever they said could somehow make its way back to Cohen. “He is a nasty man, and I’m very careful about who I speak to now.”

Jeff McClain, whose name has been changed, said that it was quite clear to him that Cohen was doing whatever possible to extend the length of their case.

Unfortunately, he said that he had no way of putting a stop to Cohen’s antics. A very common, but nevertheless underhanded, way of forcing the opposing side into settlement is to show that you can outspend them. “The system is set up to favor the rich” Jeff said. And no one is better at playing this “deep pockets” game than Bob Cohen, who has represented some of the richest people in the country including Michael Bloomberg, before he was mayor and was just a billionaire businessman, and corporate raider Henry Kravis.

Many of the individuals interviewed noted that one of the ways that Cohen extends a divorce is by calling unnecessary expert witnesses. Every time an expert witness is called to testify it drags out the court proceedings for days and drives up lawyer fees by the tens of thousands of dollars. In Jeff’s case, Cohen called a friend of Jeff’s ex-wife as an expert witness. “All she did was read off of my ex-wife’s resume,” he complained. “She is not an expert and it did not need to be done in court. Her resume could simply have been submitted to the judge, but these things allow the lawyers to spend time and money booking court dates, submitting paperwork, and coordinating everyone’s schedules to rack up a bill and intimidate the other side.” Eventually, Jeff was forced to settle prematurely because he could not afford to continue fighting for a fair settlement. He is still, after 5 years, trying to dig his way out of the financial hole that his divorce and Cohen left him in.

The divorce courts in New York have been referred to as “an intimate little viper’s nest” and Jeff claims to have experienced this first hand as well. “The lawyers, like Bob Cohen, work in the system so much and go before the same judges, and legal guardians so often, that they develop relationships with these individuals that frequently tip the case in their favor.”

Jeff’s ex-wife intended to relocate overseas with their young son, and not surprisingly, Jeff fought to prevent this. Generally, children in a divorce are counseled and represented by legal guardians and are then brought before the judge after being carefully prepared for the questioning regarding their relationship with each parent.

However, Cohen, who was very close with the judge, was able to get the hearing at which Jeff’s son was to be questioned regarding the overseas move moved up a month ahead of time and gave Jeff and his lawyer only a two hours head’s up of the scheduling change.

Jeff and his attorney were able to scramble to the court just in the nick of time and thus avoided being defaulted. And Cohen’s dirty trick would backfire but at a dear emotional cost to Jeff’s young son, who became confused by the proceedings and eventually broke crying and left the room in tears. The judge moved by the little boy’s anguish, shifted allegiances and ordered that unless Cohen and his client could prove that Jeff was an unfit father, the little boy was not to leave the country.

But it was a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire. As a result of the judge’s ruling, Cohen turned his attention during the remainder of the hearing to attempting to prove that Jeff was an unfit father. Jeff said that he believes Cohen was strategic in planning this maneuver in order to put him and his client on the offensive and Jeff and his attorney on the defensive. The well being of the child involved was clearly not Cohen’s priority, Jeff says. Getting his client whatever she was, even at the expense of the child. Jeff was suspicious that Cohen was even able to assert influence over the legal guardian appointed to objectively look out for the child’s best interests.

“Things were done and accomplished that could only have been done with them (the legal guardian and Cohen) working as a team. I was questioned much more often and much harsher than my ex-wife.” When Jeff later confronted the legal guardian about siding with Robert Cohen, the guardian flippantly replied, “Well, what’s done is done.”

Though he is a giant of intimidation, Robert Cohen stands less than 5’6” tall. One woman said, “My lawyer and I used to make fun of him because we thought he bought his suits in the children’s department. We always made a point of lowering the lectern for him before he would get up to speak in court…Humor was the only way for me to cope with the ridiculous lies he was telling about me in court.”

It seems evident that Cohen likes to play dirty, but just how far will he go to win his case?

Although, he doesn’t break any criminal laws, one woman whose ex husband had hired Robert Cohen said she discovered that her first lawyer had been approached by Cohen about joining his firm, Cohen Lans LLP, while he was still representing her. She said she began noticing that her lawyer was not looking out for her best interests and, more often than not, sided with Cohen and her ex-husband. She confronted him saying, “If I didn’t know better I’d say you were bought.” Her lawyer eventually came clean about his conflict of interest and she was forced to find a new attorney and start from scratch. Her divorce dragged on for 7 long years and cost over 2 million dollars in legal fees.

Another who faced off in court against the “pit bull” recalls with disgust, “The man goes through your trash.” Glenn (name has also been changed) went through a well-publicized custody battle that, thanks to Cohen’s connections, received one-sided coverage in the press in favor of Glenn’s wife. Cohen and his client were not shy about publicly smearing him in articles in order to gain an upper hand.

Robert Cohen may or may not literally go through someone’s trash, but those that were brave enough to speak about their encounters with him felt as though they had been violated to that extent.

Another woman was furious when Cohen confiscated her family’s computer that she also used for work. The most frustrating part of her case, she recounts, was that she and her husband had been separated for quite some time and had an amicable relationship. They had worked out joint custody and a division of most of their assets without intervention from a lawyer. To finalize the divorce her ex-husband hired Robert Cohen, and suddenly the divorce went from amicable to vicious. Custody of the kids was even used as a bargaining chip for Cohen and his client in an attempt to get more money in the settlement.

Ironically for an attorney that has written a book on keeping marriage alive and protecting the kids in a divorce, preserving the family unit is obviously not something Cohen is actually concerned about. It appears instead, that his top priorities are getting paid and making sure his client gets what they want at any cost. The question that many would like to ask him is “How do you look at yourself in the mirror Bob?”