Preeminent trial lawyer possessing considerable strength across a range of coverage litigation, Nancy Sher Cohen is a partner at Lathrop Gage, leading the firm’s Los Angeles office and its insurance recovery and counseling team. Her practice encompasses insurance coverage, product liability, toxic and mass tort, class actions and general commercial litigation. Obviously, hers has been an impressive and extensive career, and yet one that almost never happened.
THE DRAW OF THE LAW
Flashback to Texas, 1971. It was her junior year at the University of Texas at Austin. Out of the blue (or so it seemed), Cohen received an interesting phone call. A call that later, she would appreciate as much more auspicious than she could have conceived at the time. Back then, Cohen knew only that the caller was the dean of the University of Texas Law School, one of the most prestigious law schools in the country.
“At the time, I didn’t realize that Dean Page Keaton was was the author of the tort books that every law school in the country uses,” explains Cohen. “Anyway, he asked me to come in to talk to him about going to law school. I had less than zero interest, and politely refused.”
Continuing along with her studies in government, Cohen graduated with honors and equally high expectations of how she would apply her new degree.
Things didn’t move along quite as expected. Despite being a college graduate, her job search was discouraging and somewhat demeaning. Entering the workforce in the early 1970s, Cohen faced a job market that viewed even well-educated women as fit only for secretarial work.
“I ended up working as a secretary in a law firm for about a year, while my husband finished his master’s degree,” she explains. “I had been put in charge of the firm’s collections department, not their own collections but for clients. Many of those working at this firm also taught at the University of Texas and apparently were impressed by my work because they came to me offering to not only pay my tuition to law school, but to give me a job during and after.”
Incredibly, Cohen’s answer was again, “No.” Instead, she followed her husband to Japan where he was a scholar at the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo.
“I still cringe at the idea of being ‘the little wife who follows her husband’,” she says with a wry smile. “But, it was a different time. Besides, Japan certainly offered an exotic appeal. I had led a somewhat sheltered life and I was looking for adventure. And, truth be told, I would follow my husband of 45 years anywhere.”
It was a fascinating interlude in the couple’s life, but about a year-and-a-half into their stay, she asked if maybe it wasn’t time to go home.
“My husband was fine with that,” she says, “he just wondered what I wanted to do next. I told him I wanted to go to law school. I think I was as surprised as he was. After rejecting two opportunities, I realized that I had really enjoyed working in the law firm and the idea of law school was now quite appealing.
“It was only in retrospect that I could appreciate that it really was the best course for me,” she continues. “I loved the law and in particular I loved litigation. He said he wanted to pursue his Ph.D., so we packed up and headed home.”
Upon returning to the States, the Cohens settled in Los Angeles where her husband entered the doctorate program at UCLA. Meanwhile, she applied to and was accepted at Loyola University of Los Angeles Law School of Los Angeles, where she attended on scholarship.
Though it might be difficult for younger readers to conceive, in the early 1970s, it was still unusual for women to attend law school. While TV ads claimed, “You’ve come a long way baby,” the truth is, “baby” had just begun to tentatively tread among the predominately male-dominated careers.
Interestingly, on the heels of “The Summer of Love,” Woodstock, student demonstrations, ceremonial bra burnings and other historical events claiming freedom and liberation, the gender gap between male and female opportunities was staggering.
High school students who continued on to college of course included females, but there remained a significant discrepancy between the number of male and female graduates. A running joke that had begun in the 1950s was that most women attending college were going for their MRS degree. Sadly, this wasn’t far from the truth. As Cohen had discovered, despite being at least as intelligent as most of her male counterparts (if not more so), with the same education and experience, once entering the “real world” opportunities were depressingly different.
Understandably, mentors for young females (who were of the same gender) were also scarce. Cohen appreciates her good fortune in not only finding a wonderful mentor and role model, but also a lifelong friend in the personage of Elsbeth Rostow. Married to Walt Rostow, President Lyndon Johnson’s national security adviser, who returned to Austin to teach government at the University of Texas, Elsbeth carried plenty of clout on her own.
“Elsbeth was a dynamo,” says Cohen. “She had multiple Ph.D.s, and was one of the most significant mentors I’ve had in my life. She was a strong, beautiful, absolutely brilliant woman who loved teaching and loved training young women.”
Rostow was Cohen’s primary reference and cheerleader when applying to law school, and the two stayed in touch over the years despite the miles between Texas and California. Many years later, Cohen says, while making plans to attend her son’s graduation from Wheaton College in Massachusetts, she received another invitation in the mail from her lifelong friend. Delighted, Cohen read the card which announced that Rostow would be receiving an honorary doctorate during the very same ceremonies.
“So, she and I spent a wonderful weekend just visiting and catching up,” says Cohen. “I appreciated the opportunity to let her know what a powerful influence she’s had over my life and career, in terms of what women can do, what we should expect to do and to remember to give back and help those women who follow.”
Life after law school was much different for Cohen than her last job search. This time, not only did she not have to “settle” for a job beneath her capabilities, she was approached by a very prestigious firm and invited to join their team.
“Tuttle & Taylor had never hired anyone from Loyola before,” Cohen explains. “I had met Chuck Rosenberg at a social event and was quite surprised when he later contacted me to offer me a job. I was really a little shocked because I knew their reputation was of only hiring the crème de la crème — Supreme Court law clerks, Ivy League law school grads and such.
“To be honest, I wasn’t sure I could live up to the expectations of such a brilliant law firm,” she adds. “But I wanted to accept the challenge. I guess I was good enough because I became a partner within five years and ultimately the head of litigation.”
Focused on her career and doing the best work possible for her clients, it never occurred to Cohen that she was indeed a monumental trailblazer for the women who would follow. Perhaps it’s genetic. Cohen’s grandfather immigrated from Poland in 1915, leaving behind his family and everything familiar to blaze a trail for his decedents.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FAMILY
“He arrived in Kansas City and starting with just one truck, eventually building that into a fleet and a very successful company. My grandfather provided a service delivering the movies to various theaters,” says Cohen. “There was a lot of product coming out of Hollywood and he became very successful very quickly.
“But, as we edged closer to World War II, he could see that Hitler was headed toward Poland, where all of his family still lived,” she continues. “So, he took some money, got on a boat and eventually was able to extract his family from Poland just ahead of the Nazi troops. He brought them all to Kansas City, my hometown, and essentially assumed the role of patriarch making sure that everyone found jobs. As you can imagine, he was the most influential person on my paternal side of the family. Today, there are more than a hundred family members who are thriving thanks to his selfless efforts.
“It really drove home to me the importance of family,” she continues. “We were a very close-knit family. Actually, the family on both sides were very committed to giving back to the community.”
Family influence obviously played a significant role in not only how Cohen perceived herself and her potential, but despite the times and general attitude toward females in the workplace, how she was raised helped her to ignore any nay-sayers or those who would pigeon-hole her due to her gender.
“I come from a lineage of extremely strong women,” says Cohen. “My mother was notoriously strong, and we have an expression in our family which is, ‘Abend women are all dynamic, strong and successful.’ Of course, Abend being my mother’s maiden name. Looking back, it might seem that I faced many challenges, but think about what women of my mother’s generation were up against. Yet, none of us were ever held back by traditional walls. Women in my family were always encouraged to grow and achieve and have careers they were passionate about. Not only that, we were taught to be at the top of whatever profession we chose.”
While Cohen’s mother was a stay-at-home mom, she vehemently supported her daughter’s pursuit of her dreams, and encouraged Cohen to not let sexual bias get in the way. Her mother was very successful and influential within the nonprofit arena, impressing upon her daughter that women can do anything.
PLAYING FOR KEEPS
It may have taken her a while to finally realize her true destiny, but as with everything else Cohen undertakes, once she made that decision she was fully committed. Not just to earn a law degree and find a job, but to push herself, continuously learning, growing and improving while always seeking the next challenge.
Today, hers is a name counted among the top in the legal field with countless awards and honors as well as an ever-growing roster of impressive leadership roles.
In much the same way, despite the fact that she was a relatively young bride, her marriage has continued to grow and thrive as the couple celebrates 45 years together.
“We were kids,” she acknowledges with a smile, “we grew up together.”
Their son Aaron, 33, has followed his father’s interest in photography and is an entrepreneur in the automotive industry.
It’s not surprising that Cohen remains as enthusiastic and passionate about her work today as she did when just starting out. Her roster of clients includes Fortune 500 companies, movie stars such as Clint Eastwood, biotechnology companies and consumer electronics.
Recognized for her exceptional talent, Cohen has been consistently listed as a leading insurance coverage attorney in Chambers USA since the publication began publishing those rankings in 2003. Frequently featured in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, which has named her one of the top women litigators and most influential lawyers in California, Cohen was also named to the Legal 500’s Hall of Fame list in 2017. That same year, for the fourth consecutive year, she was named a national and local Litigation Star by Benchmark Litigation.
Additionally, she’s been featured in numerous articles in the legal and business press including The Recorder, California Law Business, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner.
As though this weren’t sufficient to establish her as one of the country’s busiest and most dynamic attorneys, Cohen also served as deputy general counsel for the Rampart Independent Review Panel, which was charged by the Los Angeles Police Commission with performing a review of the city’s police department and was the deputy general counsel for the Los Angeles County Citizens’ Commission on jail violence.
When asked what she enjoys most about her diverse and fascinating career, Cohen doesn’t hesitate. “I love the problem solving of litigation,” she says. “I enjoy being in court. Any day that I’m in court, I count among my happiest.”