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In representing union members in hammering out contracts, a pair of attorneys at the 28-lawyer New York labor firm Koehler & Isaacs have enjoyed fulfilling work and a good deal of independence early-on in their associate careers. Cynthia Devasia and Rudolph G. Behrmann spend a major portion of their days working on behalf of the 10,500-member New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association: Devasia in the labor and employment law division, and Behrmann in the area of criminal law and disciplinary cases. “I’ve just written an amicus brief that’s now before the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Devasia, 25, a 2002 graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Her brief, filed last November in support of a petition for a writ of certiorari in The County of Nassau and Joseph Jablonsky v. Ray E. Shain, argues for the right of correction officers to conduct strip searches of all new inmates as a routine matter of safety. “How many lawyers so recently out of school can say that?” For his part, Behrmann said, “I appreciate the autonomy I have. There’s no second-guessing on my decisions, especially the criminal matters.” Behrman, 30, a 1997 graduate of the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, was a Bronx County assistant district attorney for four years. Though the salaries are substantially lower than those at big firms, both Devasia and Behrmann said the small firm setting — Koehler & Isaacs has 23 associates, two senior partners and three of counsel — suited their professional ambitions. “I wanted the chance to hone my skills quickly, and that’s just not guaranteed in a big firm,” said Devasia, whose father worked in New York state corrections after emigrating to the U.S. from India, where he was himself a lawyer. “I work with other attorneys on each of my cases, so I’m reviewed, and there’s always someone I can turn to. But it’s not a situation where someone’s breathing down your neck.” Behrmann frequently visits clients at Rikers Island, the city’s principal jail. With some 14,000 inmates, Rikers is said to be the world’s largest penal colony. “It’s depressing, to be frank, but [visiting there] makes me understand my clients’ needs,” said Behrmann. He explained the peculiar squeeze that is the life of a Rikers correction officer: “You may have administrators who are not sensitive to your needs, and on the other hand you have inmates who are definitely not sensitive to your needs.” Consequently, job-related stress manifests itself in ways that can ultimately require legal services when officers run afoul of the law. For example, an article in a recent union awards banquet program read: “Violence at work is an everyday and expected occurrence � [I]t can be hard sometimes to turn off the adrenaline rush that’s brought on by being in a high-stress environment, and sometimes officers find themselves at home, taking out the stresses of the day on the ones they care about the most: their families.” Behrmann said his past experience as an assistant district attorney has helped him in his current practice. “It’s important to listen, first and foremost, to everything my clients tell me — and then doing a little investigation of my own. I go to the scene. One of the skills I believe I’ve developed involves my experience with police officers when I was with the DA’s office. This now works to my clients’ advantage. When I’m on the scene, the police understand that I’m a defense attorney, but I’m not seen as hostile. I know how to handle my client, and often I know the police officer who’s putting my client under arrest.” It was this sort of understanding that drew the correction officers’ union to Koehler & Isaacs, established just four years ago. During the last union election campaign, improving the quality of legal services to members and their families was a paramount issue. With an annual retainer of $5 million to bestow on a suitable firm, the union’s winning slate of officers figured they had the clout to finally get what they wanted. Accordingly, Elias Husamudeem, union treasurer and chief of staff, and Norman Seabrook, the union president, sat down with name partners Steven Isaacs and Richard J. Koehler to talk turkey. Both partners had represented unions since the early 1990s, and it surely helped that Koehler served as commissioner of the city’s Department of Correction under former Mayor Edward I. Koch. On the negotiations that led to Koehler & Isaacs winning the union’s business, Husamudeem said, “We got more services out of them.” EMERGENCY OFFICE SPACE In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Koehler & Isaacs got something out of the union as well, namely emergency office space. When the law firm’s offices at 120 Broadway were closed, the attorneys set up temporary shop at the union’s offices on Broadway at Worth Street. The bulk of legal services requested by correction officers do not revolve around criminal matters. Koehler & Isaacs offers these clients — plus their spouses or partners, and their children — such services as home mortgage preparation, representation at disciplinary hearings, pensions and job-related disability claims, probating of wills, personal injury filings, medical insurance and Social Security benefits. AUTONOMY IS KEY Individual autonomy is key to running a small office covering such a variety of services, according to Koehler, whose firm also represents unions and associations for painters, bricklayers, New York City police captains, home care and railroad workers, and U.S. park police. The correction officers’ union is the largest client. “I’m telling my [colleagues] all the time, ‘You’re a better lawyer than me on this matter, and you’re a better lawyer than me on that matter.’ This is not just a baloney screen,” said Koehler. “Look, let’s take Cynthia [Devasia] for example. Right now, she’s preparing a major presentation as we enter into negotiations on a new contract [for correction officers]. “She’s going to be right there with me at the board of directors’ meeting,” he added. “I’ll do the introductions, but she’ll be running the presentation because she’s the one with the facts in the front of her head. “She’ll be my partner.”

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