Skip to main content

Cozen: A God Among Us

January 07, 2014
Philadelphia magazine once ran a story about Stephen A. Cozen titled “The Inside Man.” Inside? Outside? Whatever side, “The Man” fits.

“He was a star. Cocky. Untouchable,” says Sandra W. Cozen, recalling her first sighting of her future husband. They were in elementary school at the time.

“Steve Cozen doesn’t back down from a challenge, and he doesn’t make empty promises,” says Philadelphia Police Athletic League Chairwoman Sylvia Nisenbaum. “He delivers.”

“I’m sure there are times when my self-confidence morphed into arrogance, and I paid the price for it,” Cozen admits. Asked for an example, he pleads The Fifth. “Losing just drives me to be better the next time.”

Which may explain why, when hundreds of lawyers and businesspeople gathered in February to honor Cozen as Drexel LeBow’s 58th Annual Business Leader of the Year, Greece-native and LeBow College Dean George P. Tsetsekos introduced the honoree by wondering aloud, “If Steve were a Greek god, which one would he be?” Greek gods are popular, Tsetsekos explained, because of their “unbreakable confidence.” Left unsaid but clearly understood by the chuckling audience was the question: “Remind you of anybody you know?”

Cozen is chairman of the Philadelphia-based law firm Cozen O’Connor. What began in 1970 as a four-attorney firm handling small-time insurance claims and meeting the payroll week by week is now a 20-city, two-continent firm with nearly 600 attorneys, $300 million in annual revenue and enough chutzpah to sue Saudi Arabia after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

“My friend and mentor, Howard Gittis, taught me that there was nothing contradictory between practicing law at a high level and engaging with the business of practicing law at a high level,” Cozen says. “It’s just that few do both well.”

Cozen found passion for the law as a student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, but he enrolled in law school only because his parents, citing their young son’s obvious gift of gab, told him in childhood that he was going to be a lawyer. Upon graduation,

Cozen went to work for his lawyer uncle, Sydney C. Orlofsky, representing insurance companies trying to recover payouts they had made on claims. He soon teamed up with partner Patrick J. O’Connor — the two met as opposing counsel — and decided their firm would operate as a corporation, not a partnership. Cozen credits much of Cozen O’Connor’s success to that decision.

The advantages, says Cozen, are many. Tax-free profit-sharing plans for all employees. People at all levels have input into decisions. Firm finances are transparent to shareholders and employees. Promotions are granted based strictly on merit. A small team of executives makes decisions more efficiently than can a partnership’s management committee. It was classic Cozen: trust your instincts and then work hard to make sure your instincts  are right.

“Lots of law firms have lots of rules just so they don’t have to make hard decisions,” Cozen says. Mandatory retirement is his favorite example; everybody leaves at a specified age, regardless of their relative contributions to the firm. “Look, I get that the practice of law is this ‘genteel partnership’ kind of thing. But you have people’s lives at stake. We employ 1,500 people, and what we do affects their lives. We want to be fair to everybody. We don’t shy away from honesty.”

Attorney Joseph A. Gerber, one of the original Cozen O’Connor Four and now the firm’s chairman of client relations, brags that experienced lawyers who join Cozen O’Connor inevitably tell him: “You have no idea what you have here.” But he does. “We give everyone a platform to realize their full potential. I am proud of this culture; it’s no different now than when we started with four lawyers.”

“People never want to leave his law firm,” adds PAL’s Nisenbaum, herself an attorney. “Steve is upstanding, awesome, tenacious, smart, persuasive.” Drexel President John A. Fry gazed at the hundreds of people at February’s award luncheon and said: “There aren’t a lot of people who can inspire this kind of turnout. But that’s what Steve Cozen does best — he brings all the right people to the table.”

As Cozen O’Connor grew in size and influence, the firm represented insurance companies involved in some of the country’s major disasters: the collapse of a Kansas City hotel walkway; the One Meridian Plaza high-rise fire in Philadelphia; the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident; the bombing of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. All of it — and none of it — prepared Cozen for Sept. 11, 2001.

Cozen spent much of that day on the telephone with executives at the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies and the Ace Group, both major Cozen O’Connor clients and principal insurers of the World Trade Center. He persuaded the companies that the 9/11 attacks did not fall under the “act of war” exclusion in their policies, and he committed himself to finding the party legally culpable for the billions of dollars and thousands of lives lost on that day. His firm undertook a worldwide investigation that included interviews with former Al Qaeda militants. Cozen’s conclusion: the parties who funded Al Qaeda made the attacks possible; those funders included major Saudi banks and charities; those parties should be held legally responsible. “The justice system fails if we don’t pursue this,” he says.

The Federal Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed the lawsuits filed by Cozen O’Connor based on jurisdictional considerations; Cozen remains convinced his clients will get their day in court.

That single-minded resolve shows itself in other ways. He describes the Samuel D. Cozen Court in Drexel’s basketball arena as “easily the best floor in Philadelphia” (Cozen’s father, Sam, is Drexel’s most successful men’s basketball coach; the floor was funded by a large gift from Cozen.), unless the “best floor” is at the Samuel D. Cozen PAL Center (opened in 1995, again thanks to a large gift from Cozen). Being a cantor at the synagogue is one thing; Cozen gave his wife and children a professionally produced DVD of himself singing a half-dozen songs — including “My Way.” (“I think it’s pretty good, actually,” he says.) Cozen exercises four mornings every week. (“My day is so busy that it’s hard for me not to be very purposeful about what I do.”)

Is there anything Cozen does half way? “I try not to,” he says. “When I play golf, winning isn’t the important thing, playing well is. Everything else is about winning.”

Cozen’s wife, Sandy, says there are only three things that can rattle the otherwise unflappable lawyer: when something he is using breaks; when one of his beloved Philadelphia sports teams does something stupid; and politics. He admits to all three but assigns politics its own level of intensity.

“I get very animated about politics because so much of what we hear today is based on demagoguery and falsehood,” he says. “I don’t mind anybody taking a position different from my position; it’s their interpretation vs. mine. But people are not entitled to their own ‘facts!’

“Look,” he continues, “I support the president, whoever that president is. I want him to do well because I want the country to do well. But I am a big supporter of this president. I think he’s done a fabulous job. The biggest issue that we have in this country, even though people don’t want to deal with it, is the disparity between rich and poor, which is leading to the destruction of the middle class. In any other country but America, you’d have tanks in  the streets!

“When Gov. Romney was being castigated by his opponents for his days at Bain Capital, I thought that was very unfair. That is part of the free enterprise system. Some fail, some succeed. His job was to build equity and return profits to his investors. And he did that.

But where he is subject to attack is when he claims that his experience in the private sector was as a job creator, because he clearly didn’t create new jobs!“

Sandy’s take on this passion for politics: “Steve would  have liked to have been a politician, but he’s married to the  wrong woman.”

Her husband’s take: “I’m certainly not married to the  wrong woman!”

Cozen explains: “I always had a desire to participate in government, but not to be the out front guy who runs for election. My relationship with government has always been being out there supporting, financially and otherwise, people, Democrat and Republican, I thought were the best possible candidates. I have had long relationships with Ed Rendell and Arlen Specter. They were very effective political figures.”

Forget for the moment that Specter started and ended his political career as a Democrat; the O’Connor half of Cozen O’Connor is a mover and shaker in GOP circles. “Patrick is more Republican-leaning,” Cozen concedes, “which is interesting because he grew  up as a Democrat in Luzerne County. Now that he made some money, he probably got mugged one day and decided to become  a Republican!”

Perhaps the only person who ever engendered self-doubt in Steve Cozen is his wife of 50 years.

“When I was 14 and Steve was 15, he asked me out for New Year’s,” Sandy recalls. “I was so excited. The popular Steve Cozen asked me out! I’m doing my hair and my mom comes in and says Steve’s mom called to say he wasn’t feeling good and wouldn’t  be coming. Steve’s mom called! I didn’t hear from him again until the spring, when he asked me to his junior prom. And I said:  ‘NO WAY!’”

“That was probably the first time I ever heard ‘no,’” Cozen admits. “And she was right. I had treated her badly. I deserved that. But then we got together at camp that summer. That was 56 years ago.” See, even when Cozen loses, he eventually wins.\

“I’m his best fan and his worst critic; that’s what wives do,” Sandy says. “I’m taken by him on a regular basis. Not just about how much he’s driven, but how it’s so important to him to do the right thing. Steve’s the kind of guy that if you call him at 3 a.m. with an emergency, he sits on the edge of the bed and talks to you as though it’s 3 p.m. He just makes you feel safe.”

“I do think I have a capacity to react very immediately with great concentration on the happening of any particular event,” Cozen says. “I think that’s one of my undertakings in life. That’s what I’m supposed to do.

“But the bottom line is that all of us are very blessed and it is our obligation not to be self absorbed, not to take ourselves too seriously, keep our family and friends close, and try to make this a better world; a better place than we inherited.

“If we have in some small way succeeded in doing that then we have the right to feel pretty good.”

Read more news