Andrew Cohn is a partner at Wilmer Hale and Co-Chair of its Energy Law Group. His practice includes real estate development and finance, equipment leasing, co-generation, and waste recycling projects. He has served as the chair of the Real Estate Section of the BBA and Co-Chair of its Real Estate Pro Bono Committee, in which capacity he has led his colleagues at WilmerHale to commit to volunteering for the program for 16 weeks per year and spearheaded efforts to serve the needs of the program, including helping to raise funds for a much-needed copier, a laptop computer, paper, pens, signs and more. Recently, he was honored by the BBA at its Housing Court Lawyer for the Day 15th Anniversary. Andrew speaks frequently on construction lending, development matters and Massachusetts water-rights laws, and is a member of the Business Law Section of the American Bar Association, where he serves on the Environmental Controls Committee. He also is a member of the Federal Energy Bar Association and the American College of Real Estate Lawyers.
1. Part of your leadership in the Lawyer for the Day Program was getting WilmerHale on board with a 16-week commitment, and continuing to nudge law firms to keep up their participation. How do you make that approach? What do you think is special about the program that enables this kind of firm participation?
From the outset, my firm was deeply committed to the Lawyer for the Day Program, having helped to work out the details with the judges of the Housing Court. Because the firm has a long-term commitment to public service, it was not difficult to get “buy in” from management and the Real Estate Department. The 16-week commitment was very high, but I gave assurances that it was only for a transitional period because I was confident other law firms would step up and participate in the program. That participation was readily forthcoming from virtually all the law firms I approached in part because of the design of the Lawyer for the Day Program: participants receive advance training from Volunteer Lawyer Project (VLP) experts and then at the Housing Court both GBLS and VLP attorneys are present to provide guidance. All the firms approached saw this as an opportunity for younger attorneys to learn to think on their feet, stretch to deal with new situations and provide a real benefit to pro se litigants.
In almost every instance, there was eagerness, not pushback. For several firms, the question was prior commitments to other pro bono programs and a concern about adequate personnel to cover the weeks to which I was asking them to commit. The people I was talking to were partners or pro bono coordinators at these firms, who were already inclined to be of help, but the program was new at the time and we are always facing limitations of resources. One way around this was to have the firms’ initial participation period be during the summer when summer associates would be available to assist firm attorneys. Part of effective negotiating is selling the positives and acknowledging the difficulties. One of the things that was so important in structuring this program was a very critical sellable commodity: you put in your time, and you are not forced to take the case back to the office. I have to say that Housing Court was very responsive to this arrangement. We do go through the process of checking conflicts – you have to be cautious – but you’re not picking up a representation. In sum, only a very small amount of nudging was required; the fairest description is that there was eager willingness to participate.
2. What do you think participating attorneys – particularly younger attorneys – gain from participating in the program?
One thing I always joke about is that once you go through the VLP training and spend a little time in Housing Court, you will be able to answer all of your friends’ rental apartment questions! You’ll be an expert at Massachusetts landlord-tenant law, and it will stand you in good stead. The other thing is, as a Lawyer for the Day attorney, you’re learning to read and digest facts very quickly. You’ll sit down with a tenant, hear their story and what they have to say, and then you ask to see their papers. Essentially, you’re doing what any lawyer does, but under time pressure, and you have your new knowledge of the Housing Court superstructure and how the system works with all its limitations and parameters. Very often younger attorneys in a firm are part of a team not making the executive decision, but in this environment, the individual attorney is in charge. If you need help there are GBLS and VLP lawyers available, but you are the one assimilating the facts, making a strategic decision, and advising the client. I think you learn better when you are the sole decision-maker.
The participants really find the experience profoundly satisfying – they feel that they’ve done something for others, and that they’ve learned. We couldn’t have had such a successful 15 years of the program if the task was inherently unpalatable to the participants. Instead, it’s very validating.
3. I know that you have personally volunteered with the program as well. Were there any standout moments or stories of being able to assist someone, or any specific interactions you recall, that really drove home to you how valuable the program is?
The many occasions where pro se tenants were able, with pre-hearing guidance and coaching, to present their own cases. Helping them to have their own “voice” was deeply satisfying, to them and to me. They felt like participants, not cogs. The Lawyer for the Day Program has helped me to understand that justice is not only about outcome, but also about process. Also, many tenants who fall behind do so because of health emergencies or loss of a job. Helping them negotiate reasonable settlements which prevent homelessness and put their lives back on track is very worthwhile lawyering.
You also see instances of true grace and character, and learn that not every tenant is an angel and not every landlord is out to cause harm. I remember one memorable session where the landlady was so patient and thoughtful with her tenant, who had been disruptive and had broken property. Instead of pursuing an eviction, the property owner said she knew this would jeopardize the tenant’s Section 8 housing application, and that she would let the tenant remain in the housing while giving 90 days to find a new apartment. The monetary settlement agreed upon totaled only $50 – far less than what was owed. The tenant wept with happiness at the conclusion of the settlement.
Another thing which has hit home for me in this program is that, as a volunteer lawyer, you are creating a balance in which you’re engaged mind-to-mind with the other person. You’re sharing expertise, they’re sharing facts, and you’re helping them to see which facts have traction and which don’t. For example, a tenant might think, “I lost my job so I couldn’t pay rent” has impact – well, that has no legal traction. What stops an eviction is offering a settlement that can make up for some past rent (over time, at an affordable pace), money the landlord wouldn’t see otherwise. Now we’ve shifted from ‘poor me’ to ‘Going forward, how are we going to solve this?’ It’s not about being benevolent, it’s about being an effective lawyer.
4. You have been a member of the BBA’s Real Estate Section in various capacities for a number of years. What has kept you coming back?
One, is maintaining contact with the attorneys at VLP and GBLS who provide ongoing guidance to the program. The high quality of their character, their skill and their willingness to train and explain brings forth my admiration and my desire to be of assistance to them.
Two, the extraordinary opportunity to work with members of the judicial branch. The Public Service Committee of the Real Estate Section which supervises the Lawyer for the Day Program meets regularly with both the clerks and the judges of the Housing Court. Many people in Housing Court are first-timers; the judges know this and give a talk before starting the court session. In what other court does a judge, before they start the proceedings, give you an extensive talk about the process? We always tell attorneys who are new to the program not to miss the judges’ talk. It’s what litigants will hear and will help guide you as to the thinking of the judges. It’s an incredible experience and especially valuable to young lawyers.
Three, a sense of connection to the wider Boston community, and a way to stay alert as a lawyer. Even after many years with the Program, there is always a challenge that is outside my comfort zone and requires alertness, humility and the ability to learn and adapt. This is a wonderful opportunity for lawyers at any stage of their careers, especially for younger attorneys.
5. You have a national practice focusing on real estate, energy, and environmental law, and you have been named to Best Lawyers in America for more than ten (10) years. What advice would you give to attorneys looking to develop and grow their practice?
Learn the fundamentals thoroughly; keep current on evolving laws and regulations; push yourself toward excellence (there’s always a way to make your work product better); and think through transactions from both your client’s perspective and that of the other side; doing so will enable you to combine toughness with fairness. Never want a deal less than your client, but never want it more. Finally, be ready whenever luck comes your way so you can make the most of it.