Tuesday October 9, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- It was 1962 and a young attorney was back in the city of his birth to begin practicing his craft during a tumultuous period in the American legal system.

"When I first started the court system was in the midst of an incredible change," attorney Leonard H. Cohen recalled recently while sitting in an office at his law firm in Pittsfield. "The law changed dramatically during that time. I was just a young lawyer come back from Boston. What an exciting time it was."

Now in his 50th year of practicing law, Cohen, 77, has become one of the pre-eminent trial lawyers in the state: Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly nam ed him one of the most influential attorneys. But he isn't resting on his laurels and hasn't slowed down.

"I'm as busy as I've ever been and I find that enjoyable," he told The Eagle. "I come early and stay late."

Cohen's early years as a defense attorney came during the tenure of Earl Warren as the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Warren presided over the court from 1953 to 1969 and oversaw sweeping decisions that fundamentally transformed several areas of law and ushered in principals we now take for granted, such as being given Miranda warnings and the right to have a lawyer assigned to your case if you can't afford one.

"These people essentially rewrote this country's understanding of what rights under the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth amendments meant," said Cohen.

The Fourth Amendment deals with the right to be safe from unreasonable search and seizures. The Fifth deals with due process under the law, while the Sixth encompasses the right of a trial by jury and a speedy trial.

During this time, Cohen returned to his hometown after receiving a law degree from Boston University.

He also did his undergraduate studies at BU, and knew then he wanted to be a lawyer. His career path was helped along by a rabbi he befriended at school and who encouraged him to take up law.

A day after discussing his wishes with the rabbi, Cohen received a letter from the law school.

"I hadn't even applied and I got accepted," Cohen said.

While in law school, then located on Ashburton Place in downtown Boston, Cohen spent many an hour watching trials at the county court house.

"I remember distinctly you could walk out the door, take a left, walk about 30 seconds and enter the Suffolk Superior Court," he recalls. "I would leave the law school in the mid-afternoon and walk over to the courthouse and go sit in the back and watch these trials take place. I was incredibly, incredibly excited and I said to myself, ‘This is what I want to do the rest of my life.' "

Back in Pittsfield, Cohen joined a public defender agency, the forerunner of the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

"I was an assistant public defender for three years," said Cohen. "It was like getting a master's degree in criminal law."

Cohen said there wasn't much money in the work, but it provided him the opportunity to dive in to his profession.

"It got you into court every day, and as a young lawyer, that was hard to do. You tried a case every week," he said. "It gave you some sense of appreciation that there were large numbers of people out there who were economically and culturally deprived and found themselves in a difficulty."

He later joined the prestigious law firm of Cain, Hibbard & Myers, and was made a partner in 1970.

"I went there because of these three lawyers, who were incredible lawyers, but more importantly, they were wonderful human beings," said Cohen of attorneys Lincoln S. Cain, Stephen B. Hibbard and Frederick M. Myers. "They were people who not only enjoyed the practice of law, but never lost sight of the roles lawyers were supposed to play in our society."

Over the course of his career, Cohen has represented myriad clients in district, county and federal court cases and has presented cases to the Massachusetts Appeals Court and the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

One of Cohen's cases changed the way police across the state handle breathalyzers to test drunken driving suspects. Before Cohen had his day in front of the Supreme Judicial Court in 1991, police were not required to ensure that the machines they used to determine whether someone was over the legal limit for drunken driving were in working order. After the SJC agreed that a testing program was needed, police across the state were required to test their breathalyzers once a month to make sure they were operating correctly.

"There were literally thousands of these breathalyzer tests that were pending around the state," said Cohen. "That was a really big case because it affected a whole lot of things."

Nearly four years ago, Cohen, C. Jeffrey Cook, Kevin M. Kinne and David E. Valicenti left the firm to start their own. Cohen, who had been with the firm for more than 40 years, said the move was amicable and that he and his partners wanted to open a "boutique firm."

Cohen spends several nights a week looking through the cases before the SJC and Appeals Court and reading trade periodicals.

"That's the way it's got to be," he said. "You have to keep abreast of what's going on, because if you don't, you're not useful."

Cohen said, Ileen, his wife of 55 years, has been understanding of his schedule.

"I've been fortunate to have a wife who has understood that and has encouraged that," he said.

He believes Ileen has grown used to it, since both of their children also went into law.

Their son, Joel, is a defense attorney in New York City, after spending several years as a federal prosecutor. Their daughter, Debra de Roths child, was also a defense attorney before her passing in 2001.

Cohen, whose office window overlooks Park Square and the court complex beyond it, still loves working in Berkshire County.

"When you do it and then go home at night, you have that quiet sense of satisfaction -- win, lose or draw -- that you have really been at the heart of what the legal system is all about in this country," he said. "I'm enjoying myself. You get the feeling as you grow older that if you've done it the right way and worked hard at it that you really do make a difference in terms of what life is all about."

To reach Andrew Amelinckx:
aamelinckx@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6249.
On Twitter: @BE_TheAmelinckx