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Erin Nealy Cox started her law career a world away from white-collar criminals and federal sentencing guidelines, as an associate litigator in the Manhattan office of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett. But she was a Louisiana native and a graduate of the Southern Methodist University School of Law who had clerked for Judge Henry Politz on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. So she soon returned to Dallas for a federal court clerkship before joining the city’s Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal. By that point, Cox had learned a hard reality: There’s a big difference between being a litigator and a trial lawyer. “Simpson had great cases, and so did Carrington Coleman,” Cox says. “But I was a junior associate, so I wasn’t the person the clients wanted to do the cases.” As a result, Cox started eyeing a job where she could become a bona fide trial lawyer: the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Dallas. Despite her r�sum�, Cox didn’t expect to get much response — in Texas, AUSAs are typically hired out of district attorney’s offices. But, luckily for Cox, Paul Coggins, U.S. Attorney when she applied, isn’t a traditional guy. Coggins had altered the feeder system into his office. He still hired from district attorneys’ offices, but he knew that plenty of bright associates in Dallas firms had the organizational skills needed to handle complicated criminal cases. So Coggins hired Cox three weeks after she applied. “Erin is just extremely bright, very capable, and is going to be a great lawyer wherever she is,” Coggins says. Cox started in trial immediately, assigned to the office’s immigration section, where prosecutors handle a high volume of nearly identical cases. After nine months she moved to the general crimes section, handling bank fraud and pension fraud cases. Those cases are the lifeblood of federal prosecutors, but rarely garner much attention outside of the federal courthouse. However, in 2001, a year into office, Cox started a monster case with a story line the media loved. She was handed the complicated file of one Brian Stearns, described by the press as a “silk-tongued stranger” who was accused of bilking residents of the small town of Brady, Texas, among others. Stearns was charged with 82 counts of fraud amounting to $50 million from investors worldwide. The case had been filed in Austin — a different district — but a recusal landed it in the Dallas office. Robert Webster, then chief criminal prosecutor in the Northern District, chose Cox as his co-counsel to try Stearns. Webster liked her ability to handle a mass of documents and her charisma in the courtroom, which he especially wanted in front of an unfamiliar judge. “It was a bit of a crapshoot,” Webster says of choosing the baby prosecutor. “But we had all of the confidence in the world. Her pedigree is impeccable.” Stephen Orr, an Austin criminal defense attorney with Orr & Glavson who defended Stearns at trial, couldn’t believe he wasn’t facing a veteran prosecutor in Cox: “She’s one of those that will drive you crazy with being prepared.” Orr does say he suffered from a document-intensive case that was not jury-friendly. “But they were very good about doing it,” concedes Orr, who says the jury loved Cox. The jury did not, apparently, like Stearns, who was found guilty and was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison. Cox now works in the cybercrimes section, a unit that doesn’t get to trial much but works up a wide variety of cases such as Internet fraud, trade secrets theft and virtually any type of cross-jurisdictional crime that involves a computer. Other AUSAs have turned experience in the cybercrimes section into big-firm jobs. But Cox, a new mother, may take some persuading to make the jump back to a firm. She likes — correction, loves — where she is. “I have a small child,” Cox says. “I really need to love what I do, or I need to be home with her.” And if there’s one thing she’s learned after experiencing the life of both the private and government lawyer, it’s this, Cox says: “It’s a wonderful thing to be unencumbered by the bad ideas of a paying client.” John Council is a senior reporter at Texas Lawyer.

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