Sher Cohen’s Law & Order: Justice Unit

Don’t call Nancy Sher Cohen at home after 8:30 p.m. “One of two things is usually true,” the 54-year-old-litigator said. “Either I am asleep, because I am exhausted [from all the work], or I am out because I am working.”

For other, less-energetic people, an 8:30 nightly collapse from exhaustion would be an indication to slow down. But the lively and assiduous Cohen, a classic rock lover and breast cancer survivor, who has made her professional name representing, among other things, Holocaust survivors cheated out of life insurance money, chemical manufacturers and even the mortgage lender on the Twin Towers after Sept. 11, is impervious to such signals.

“She never really gets overwhelmed,” said Robert Cohen, Nancy’s husband, and a work-from-home screenwriter. “She is the poster child for multitasking. She finds time for everything, and she is a master at getting a lot of things done in a little period of time.”

For Cohen, shareholding partner at Heller Ehrman — a law firm of more than 750 attorneys with offices in 13 cities — and a indefatigable community activist who sits of the board of Bet Tzedek Legal Services, Congregation Valley Beth Shalom and the California Women’s Law Center, practicing law is a vocational expression of her Judaism. She finds in the law a similar process of exegesis to Torah study. Further, using the law to help the less fortunate, and the “make-peace-first” approach that Cohen brings to all her cases, she attributes to her Jewish background.

“I grew up in a Modern Orthodox congregation, where the study of Torah was very important,” said Cohen, speaking to The Journal from her downtown office. “What you do in the study of Torah is that you take a story or a commentary on that story, and try to gather from that a rule of law. Then, if you play with the story a little bit, and tweak a few facts, it changes the way you think about the rule.”

“Civil law is the same, but the story is from a previous case,” she said. “You tweak the facts and you change the law that you follow, and that changes the rules that you would apply. It’s a chance to understand nuance.”

Cohen, who is being honored at the Four Seasons on Oct. 30 by the American Jewish Congress with its 2005 Louis D. Brandeis Award, sees litigation as a way to solve problems.

“Sometimes you have to use the court system to do it, but I never try a case without trying to settle it first,” she said. “It’s a very Jewish thing to do. It is not about the fight, it is about the solution.”

But sometimes, fighting is the only solution. Currently Cohen is representing a group of Holocaust survivors who are suing European insurance companies who failed to pay out life insurance policies that their relatives had purchased before the war. The case, a class-action suit which has been going on now for eight years and could potentially be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, is a thorny one.

“Developing the facts is a real challenge — how do you find out from insurers whether or not your client had an insurance policy?” Cohen said. “[The insurance companies] say things like, ‘But you don’t have a copy of the policy or the death certificate’ — well, people didn’t bring their insurance policies when they were going to Auschwitz.”

Some of Cohen’s other cases are less sensational. On several occasions, Cohen has represented chemical manufacturers against Erin Brockovich-type lawsuits, where certain illnesses are blamed on a town’s proximity to a chemical plant.

“It does not offend my sense of justice at all,” Cohen said. “Many times these cases involve tragic illnesses, but I don’t have a problem representing a company who says that illness was not caused by something they did. Some things are just wrong. It is wrong that a child will get sick and die, but it doesn’t mean that it was caused by something, and it doesn’t mean that someone has to pay for it.”

While trying such cases can be challenging, it is in her personal life that Cohen faced the biggest trial of all. In 1997, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and spent nine months going through chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. Throughout it all, she kept working. At the time she was managing partner at Heller Ehrman. She set up her office at home, and she also didn’t stop the community work she was doing as president of Bet Tzedek.

“People would see me in various states of hair,” she said, referring to the hair loss that is a side effect of the chemotherapy. “But I was never depressed. I always believed I would survive. I got tremendous support from home, and tremendous support from my law firm. The support I got from the community is something that I take with me every day.”

“She wouldn’t let anything interfere with the focus she had for Bet Tzedek, even though she was extremely engaged with many other important things in her life,” said David Lash, who was the executive director of the organization at the time Cohen was president.

“She was an incredible president,” Lash said. “We raised more money her year than we ever had in the past, we improved the staff and we took on new and exciting litigation [representing Holocaust survivors] that she prompted us into. She was a role model in that she tackled so many things successfully without regard for what normal people would consider to be serious restraints of time and effort.”

“She is a hero,” he continued. “That is the best way to describe it.”