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Partners at one of Southern California’s most successful plaintiff shops have embarked on a novel business plan: They’re opening Bay Area offices for a firm whose reputation is staked on one man. And they don’t seem to mind that he died last month. “Johnnie Cochran is established in the public mind. He became almost an icon or a cultural standard of exquisite legal practice, criminal and civil,” said Bruce Fishelman, of counsel at Santa Monica’s Greene Broillet & Wheeler and the new western manager for the 130-lawyer Cochran Firm, whose name partner died March 29. “Greene Broillet has got a great reputation, but it’s not known the way Cochran is known,” Fishelman said, explaining why Greene Broillet’s nine partners — plus three who left that firm Monday — have become partners in the Cochran Firm. But other than the guarantee that Cochran himself won’t be working on your case, it’s not clear who will be working directly with Bay Area clients: The new San Francisco partners are based in Santa Monica, and no lawyers have yet been hired for the local offices. “I’ve never heard of anything like this,” said David Wilkins, a professor at Harvard Law School and expert on law firm structure. The arrangement promises increased West Coast firepower for the Cochran Firm and, Fishelman said, an opportunity for the new partners to work on a wide range of mass tort, civil rights and public interest suits. But academics and legal ethicists say the Cochran Firm’s fast growth and seemingly loose alliance of lawyers create issues that few — if any — plaintiff firms have had to tackle. Famous in life for the O.J. Simpson defense, police brutality suits and impressive cultural penetration, Cochran in death is fast becoming a legal Colonel Sanders as his image presides over an increasing number of offices around the country. “It’s like a franchise, as I understand it,” Wilkins said. “It’s a little bit like he licensed his name.” The Cochran Firm — which is separate from the Los Angeles Law Offices of Johnnie Cochran — has ballooned over the past eight years by snapping up established lawyers around the country. “We try to identify the best lawyers in the state if we are interested in expanding,” said J. Keith Givens, the firm’s Alabama-based nationwide managing partner. Most of these lawyers, he said, including the Greene Broillet partners, were handpicked by Cochran himself. Givens said the majority of partners are required to leave their prior firms, but an exception was made for the Greene Broillet lawyers. The new partners plan to open Cochran offices in San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego in the near future. Costs — and expected profits — will be split between the nine Greene Broillet partners, the Cochran Firm and the three former Greene Broillet partners who are also participating. Several of those new partners — including R. Browne Greene, Bruce Broillet, Christine Spagnoli and Timothy Wheeler — will have an equity stake in the Cochran Firm, and have been on that firm’s 30-lawyer executive committee since last June, said Givens. Brian Panish, a name partner at Greene Broillet until Monday, when he left to form his own firm, has also been on the executive committee, and will be an equity partner in the Cochran Firm as well. Panish said there will be no crossover between work done through the new Cochran offices and the caseloads at his firm and Greene Broillet. “They’ll be completely separate legal entities,” Panish said. “They’ll have their own cases.” But the boundaries between the Cochran Firm and the other practices seem blurred, and Givens said Greene Broillet resources may be used on the Cochran cases. Jennifer Stanich-Banmiller, president of the Danville-based plaintiff marketing company Wingtip Communications, is skeptical of the practice of using a dead lawyer to advertise the services of live lawyers in Los Angeles who delegate the work to other lawyers in the Bay Area. She said it seemed to be purely an advertising scheme. “I can only imagine that there are franchising opportunities in the future,” she said. Wilkins, the Harvard professor, said the Cochran Firm has become a curiosity in the heavily localized plaintiff bar. “It doesn’t look from the outside to be a traditional law firm,” he said. “It looks like a collection of fairly independent firms who were brought into a loose affiliation.” Fishelman said he expects this affiliation to help the Greene Broillet partners expand the range of cases they bring. But ethicists caution that as firms grow — and lawyers share affiliations between firms — conflicts become increasingly common. “If I was the king of lawyers, there’d be no firm bigger than 25 partners,” said Richard Zitrin, an ethics expert and partner at Zitrin & Mastromonaco. But Wilkins and Zitrin pointed out that the Cochran Firm’s growth is exceptional only because it represents plaintiffs. “I don’t see why plaintiffs can’t do what defense firms do,” Zitrin said.

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