Johnnie Cochran. (Photo: Aixa Montero/ALM)
A federal judge overseeing a bitter trademark dispute over the late Johnnie Cochran Jr.’s name is preparing to decide whether The Cochran Firm is a national law firm or a network of partnerships.
The firm’s business structure came into question after Randy McMurray, who ran the Los Angeles office between 2007 and 2012, alleged in a lawsuit that the firm is misleading the public about how it operates. His claims are part of his effort to lift an injunction barring him from using the Cochran name when advertising legal services. The Cochran Firm filed the trademark infringement lawsuit against McMurray after he began operating as The Cochran Law Group.
U.S. District Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell held an evidentiary hearing on the firm’s business structure last month. Both sides submitted closing arguments in briefs with the court on Monday.
“She’s going to rule whether The Cochran Firm is a single firm or a network of partnerships,” said McMurray’s lawyer, Yana Henriks, a partner at McMurray Henriks in Los Angeles. “The evidence shows it’s not even a network of partnerships.”
Richard Wirtz, founder of Wirtz Law in San Diego, who represents The Cochran Firm, did not return a call for comment.
The Cochran Firm, whose primary office is in Dothan, Ala., was founded in 1998 by Cochran, who famously won acquittal for O.J. Simpson in his 1994 double-murder trial. Cochran died in 2005 after being diagnosed with brain cancer.
McMurray formed The Cochran Firm Los Angeles in 2007 with partners Brian Dunn and Joseph Barrett. But, according to the firm, a formal agreement was never finalized. The relationship between The Cochran Firm and McMurray soured.
In 2012, The Cochran Firm, claiming it owns the registered trademark for Cochran’s name, filed its suit after McMurray—following his ouster— brought a separate case against Dunn and Barrett in Los Angeles County Superior Court demanding to be reimbursed for nearly $2 million in office expenses.
In the trademark suit, McMurray filed counterclaims against the firm and partners Dunn, Barrett, Samuel Cherry and Keith Givens. Those claims include false advertising and unfair competition.
Last year, U.S. District Judge James Otero of the Central District of California, granting the firm’s injunction request, ordered McMurray to stop using the Cochran name. McMurray appealed the preliminary injunction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The case was transferred to O’Connell.
On May 7, the Ninth Circuit reversed the injunction in part, finding that The Cochran Firm’s business structure was relevant to McMurray’s defense that the firm had “unclean hands” because it was using the same trademark to deceive the public.
“Specifically, appellee may be misusing the trademark to deceive the public into believing it is a single, national firm, when in fact it is a network of separate partnerships,” the panel wrote. The Ninth Circuit also found the injunction was overbroad but allowed the order to remain in place.
The evidentiary hearing, which took place on Oct. 21 and Oct. 22, included testimony from legal ethics experts on both sides. In his closing brief, McMurray claimed attorneys in the firm’s regional offices don’t share profits, liabilities or expenses but are instead a loose affiliation of offices.
The Cochran Firm’s principals have disputed those claims. Their closing brief parsed various definitions of a “national law firm” and listed the firm’s departments that work with the regional offices on expenses, technology support and marketing and advertising.