To insiders of the matrimonial law bar, it came as no surprise that Cohen Clair Lans Greifer Thorpe & Rottenstreich LLP has a role in one of the most consequential divorces in recent memory. As widely reported, Cohen Clair is among the firms representing Melinda French Gates in her split with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
Robert Stephan Cohen, a named partner at the firm, is a legendary divorce attorney whose clients have included a constellation of bold names in entertainment (Christie Brinkley, Chris Rock), politics (Michael Bloomberg), and business (Henry Kravis).
This year, the 23-lawyer firm is celebrating its 10th anniversary. It is also looking to extend its brand nationwide and prove it can thrive after the 82-year-old Cohen stops practicing. This year, it also has a new managing partner and its first female to hold the role: Shannon Simpson.
Simpson, who represents Melinda French Gates with Cohen, recently spoke with The WILEF Tribune about her career and the nuances of matrimonial law.
Did you expect to be in management at some point in your career?
No. But it’s funny, when I think I’ve reached the end of what it means to be a lawyer and I’m coasting, there’s some new challenge that comes along.
So first, it was making partner, and bringing in business became a part of what I do. When I started to bring in business, delegation became a bigger part of what I do.
So after getting comfortable with that, this management position came along. It requires a different set of skills that lawyers don’t necessarily develop along the way, so you have to learn on the job.
How did the job come about?
About 10 years ago, we merged with another prominent matrimonial firm. And since our merger, we’ve had one managing partner, Jad Greifer. I was put on the executive committee last year and that’s when Jad was ready to step down. And I think the firm was ready for something new, and there was a desire to have some more diversity at the top.
What makes diversity so important in the matrimonial space?
There is diversity on the bench among our judges, and we would like to reflect that diversity. And we have diverse clients, and we’d like to reflect that diversity to them as well. We have had some Black clients and clients of color who have raised concerns that the system doesn’t take their needs into account. So, for example, a Black father could be our client, and there could be only white forensic psychologists available to evaluate the parents in the case, and I think there could be a cultural gap there.
You started your career at Davis Polk & Wardwell. How did you become interested in matrimonial law.?
I liked my time at Davis Polk. I had fun cases, including one that went to trial. I had another serious investigation where we traveled a lot and made presentations to the government. I was there for about three years and had done some matrimonial pro bono work, which I enjoyed.
Then I got a cold call from a recruiter to come here. I didn’t have anything in mind, but I said, “What a great firm.” I was excited about doing the stuff that makes being a lawyer fun, like making more motions, arguing those motions in court, and taking depositions.
Something I wasn’t expecting when I got here is how much settlement work we do. And that’s been a lot of fun as well.
What makes a great matrimonial lawyer?
I would say someone who is both an excellent litigator and an excellent settler of cases. When you know the law very well, and you’re confident about your ability to litigate successfully, then I think that that translates into an ability to negotiate a good settlement as well. And you really must do both because of the nature of these cases.
It’s knowing when to pull back and settle your case because that’s what’s best for the family. But it’s also being comfortable enough and confident enough to go to court when you need to protect your client.
I assume navigating the emotions of clients is a big part of the job?
That’s absolutely true. And sometimes, because of the way matrimonial law works, there’s often a disconnect between what people think is fair, what should be fair in their case, and what the law is. And this comes down in both ways. The side of the titled spouse is often surprised to learn what his or her obligations might be, and the non-titled spouse is often surprised to learn what the limits are of the entitlement. You find yourself pointing out the weak parts of your client’s case, so if there are places where we may have a challenge.
But of course, when I deal with the other side, I’m only advocating for my client. So it can be a challenging dynamic sometimes. And it’s also a time when people feel very vulnerable, right? And so you have to make sure that you proceed cautiously and take that into account.
What’s it like to hold so many secrets of such high-profile people?
I’ll say this: For every time you see us in the press, there are half a dozen equally high-profile clients whose divorces never even make it into the paper because they put a premium on privacy. When you have a high-profile case in the press, it’s interesting to see the difference between what gets reported and what you know to be true. I’m often like, “Wow, how could they get that so wrong?” And then sometimes, I wonder, “Wow, how could they get that so right?”
Has your work changed your views of marriage at all?
People are who they are. Half my cases settle without me doing anything. People come in and they say, “This is what we want for our kids. This is what we think is fair.”
Maybe you have some issues around the margins, or you need some help crafting an agreement that’s going to stick, but it’s done. Other people come in, and it’s a five-year or an eight-year divorce. And it’s because people are who they are, and they don’t change when going through a divorce case.
And that’s true whether they got along before their divorce or didn’t get along. And so I would certainly say it makes me think that there are always two sides to every story. So when you go out into the world, and you hear your friends talk about marriage, you think, “Wow, there is another story here. There’s always another point of view.”
When clients are so vulnerable, establishing trust seems key.
Absolutely. There’s not one thing somebody could say to me that would surprise me. When someone comes to me and says, “Listen, this is really embarrassing,” I’m thinking to myself, “Whatever you’re about to tell me, it’s not even close to the strangest or the weirdest or the most unusual or surprising thing that I have heard.”
One thing that can make the practice hard is that there’s no space in a divorce action for coming to terms with who was right or wrong about the breakdown of the marriage. And that can become a big barrier to settling a case because people on both sides would prefer that there was some resolution of who was responsible or who bears more blame.
How do you think about work-life balance?
When I started here at Cohen Clair Lans 15 years ago, I showed up pregnant. Then, after I came back, I had to leave the office at 6 o’clock every day. As a conscientious lawyer, that makes you feel guilty.
But then on the other hand, if you go home at 7 or 8 o’clock, you feel guilty too. So what’s my big lesson? Nothing. You feel guilty either way, so you might as well feel guilty in the way that is comfortable for you or that is the one that makes the most sense for you.
Work can take up all the time there is, and if you don’t want that to happen, you have to push back. And it can be hard and make you anxious. But you have to believe that what you’re doing is the right thing. To me, it’s important everybody sees women can work and have kids as well. I want to show my colleagues. And I want to show my kids.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a lawyer?
Kindergarten. I teach Sunday school at our church to second graders. And I love it. But they are a little too feisty for me.
What’s the last great book you’ve read?
I have multiple answers. Moby Dick was my pandemic read, but I only made it halfway through. And I’m stuck there.
The other is a book my husband gave me for Christmas called Hamnet, a novel told from the perspective of Shakespeare’s wife. The only thing I had ever heard about Shakespeare’s wife was that she was older, and I always had in my mind that she was a shrew. I don’t even know why. But it’s a beautiful book and probably the only literary fiction I made it through in the pandemic.