Having grown up in a family of lawyers, Susan Filan learned at an early age about law and the impact it has on everyday citizens.
Filan, a former television legal analyst who recently became of counsel at Cohen & Wolf in Westport, said her father, retired Appellate Court Judge Frederick Freedman, taught her to “never humiliate or embarrass another lawyer” and to “always be completely candid toward the tribunal.” Filan is also the niece of retired U.S. District Judge Alan Nevas and her late great uncle Leo Nevas practiced law until he was 97.
The Newtown resident recently discussed her long and varied career, which included representing indigent defendants charged with crimes to her private practice, where her concentration was in criminal defense and matrimonial law, to her television career.
Q: From 2005-08, you were a legal analyst for NBC and MSNBC. You shared insight on numerous high-profile cases, including Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, O.J. Simpson and Jon Benet Ramsey. What was the most insightful thing you learned from being a TV analyst that has affected your current practice of law?
A: As a TV analyst, I had to read, listen and learn the facts as given to me very quickly, form my opinion, and speak, sometimes in a matter of seconds. At times, a story was so sensational, or heinous, that I had to work hard to not react and to separate the legal elements of the story from the media frenzy of opinion. I had to stay grounded, and keep my legal mind sharp, lest I got swept into the bubble of buzz of a story.
I learned in television that no matter the question, give the answer you want to give. Have your talking points and get your message across even if your answer is not responsive to the question. This doesn’t work as a practicing lawyer in the courtroom. No matter what the Judge asks, I’ve learned to be sure to answer their question, as asked, and make sure the witness answers my questions, as asked.
Further, my TV experience taught me that in the practice of law, it is extremely important to take my time, learn, uncover, discover and understand the facts. And to separate fact from opinion. Not all is as it seems when told in a 10-second sound bite. And I have learned not to judge quickly or form fast opinions. Behind every story is a human being. I have learned to find the human being, rather than the story. Instant analysis and quick opinion, while an important skill as a television analyst, may not always serve me as lawyer and counsel for my client.
Q: You began your career in 1991 as a special public defender at a New Haven legal aid clinic, representing indigent defendants charged with crimes. Since then, you’ve worked as an assistant state’s attorney to deputy assistant state’s attorney and solo practitioner to, most recently, of counsel for Cohen & Wolf in Westport. What did that work 25 years ago as a special public defender teach you about law and the judicial system?
A: I learned early on that most lawyers and judges are fair, noble and honorable. For the most part, the criminal justice system works. Juries often get it right even if a trial does not go exactly according to plan. I learned to put away my inner skeptic and have faith in our criminal justice system, to trust it, love it and work hard to preserve its highest traditions as practiced in Connecticut.
I found a spirit of fundamental fair play. While there are indeed individuals who feel aggrieved by what transpires in a case, I, for the most part, was inspired by the collegial and honest way in which criminal law is practiced in Connecticut.
I started my practice in New Haven and was taught … by some of the great judges such as John Ronan. And, great prosecutors, many of whom are now judges, such as David Gold. I also learned from great defense lawyers, such as Tom Ullmann and Willie Dow. Judge Sidney Landau once told me the way you begin your practice of law will shape and inform your entire practice of law—so start right. What I learned as a special public defender in New Haven inspired me from the beginning and inspires my practice today—advocate zealously, fight hard for your client, play fair and by the rules, and never cross the line.
Q: As a frequent lecturer and speaker, you’ve spoken on numerous legal trends and topics. What legal topics today get the most buzz and interest from audiences?
A: I used to present fairly regularly on my experiences covering high-profile cases and anecdotes from the studio or the road. Though a bit off-topic, audiences invariably still love to ask a question or two about cases I covered and famous people I met.
My talks today reflect my desire to help people through the often hellish thicket of divorce when so much is at stake. I like to educate about the different ways to approach divorce in Connecticut, such as mediation, litigation and collaborative divorce.
I also like to discuss tools for radical self-care and maintenance of virtues and values whilst tempted to be punitive or vengeful. The old adage is in a criminal case, you see the worst people on their best behavior, and in a family case you see the best people at their worst behavior. I like to remind people not to lose themselves to their worst self and to remember to keep their integrity intact no matter what.
Q: After eight years as a solo practitioner in Westport, this year you joined Cohen & Wolf. Tell us about the freedom that goes along with having your own practice and the limitations, if any, in the types of cases you can handle with a larger firm.
A: As a solo practitioner, I had tremendous freedom to decide which cases to take and which clients to represent. I was able to set my own schedule and travel, rest and parent as I chose.
Now that I have joined Cohen & Wolf, while I have lost some control of my schedule, it does not matter because I feel like I have been called up to join the Olympians. My colleagues practice law at a level that excites me and, at the same time, they have the same heart and core ethical values as my father.
My fellow lawyers are generous with their time and knowledge and are motivated by a desire to help people. My colleagues have their own families and demonstrate work/family balance in a way that is admirable.
I have been gifted the opportunity to represent clients and work on cases that I would not otherwise were it not for my colleagues’ respective excellence in their fields. The family law practice is a feast of fabulous lawyers. While I miss some of my scheduling freedom, this pales in comparison to the great gains of affiliating with a practice of legal giants with giant hearts.
Q: You’ve appeared on media outlets in the U.S. and the U.K. ranging from ABC, CNN, NBC and NPR Radio to BBC Television and BBC Radio. Tell us the biggest difference between how the American and British media view and analyze the law.
A: Americans are more likely to have opinions in news, and to report opinion as if it is news. American media has more analysis in its pieces, rather than reporting facts only.
British media tended to be less about opinion and more about facts. However, when it came to the Michael Jackson trial, I found the British media to relish in gossip and sensationalism every bit as much if not more than American media.
I found British media incredibly curious about American legal cases, which is interesting, since our system of justice is derived from British law.