Alumnus of the Month

Q&A with Kathy A. Cochran ’75

At a time when the doors of most major Seattle law firms were effectively closed to women partners, Kathy Cochran ’75 did not take no for an answer. She rose to prominence in the law community in short order, being the first woman partner at Reed McClure, one of Seattle's first law firms, founded in 1890. Cochran then co-founded Wilson, Smith, Cochran and Dickerson in 1988, with a few of her litigation partners at Reed McClure.

Cochran is widely regarded as one of the best defense trial lawyers in the U.S., representing clients in an assortment of litigation on matters relating to pharmaceutical liability and medical malpractice.

In addition to her law practice, Cochran is heavily involved in the law community. She is a Fellow at the American College of Trial Lawyers. She is also a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates, a speaker at the American Bar Association’s annual convention, Past Chairperson of the Washington State Bar Association’s Mandatory CLE Board and was a member of the Washington Association of Defense Counsel’s Board of Trustees from 1982 to 1983.

Furthermore, because of her expertise in health and medical law, Cochran has held multiple positions at the Defense Research Institute. She was Chair of its OTC Drug Subcommittee and its Website Committee, and a member of the Steering Committee and Medical, Drug & Device Committee.

Cochran’s creativity, work ethic and passion have been recognized by her peers on multiple occasions. The local law community has voted her as one of the top lawyers in Washington State. She was also elected as Defense Lawyer of the year in 2007 by the Washington Defense Trial Lawyers Association.

Many express great admiration for her use of graphic design in cases. Cochran creates visuals that help the jury understand complex scientific issues and realities of the medical profession.

For a pharmaceutical case, Cochran used a “Polka Dot Board” to argue that her client’s drug product did not cause decades of psychosis. To demonstrate the claim, she prepared a graphic showing all the other medications the patient had taken It was a complex graphic with a simple message – this guy has taken a LOT of medications his entire life. The defendant’s product is only a tiny part of his story.

“I used a board with an optical illusion once – you could look at it and see a vase, or you could look at it a different way and see two faces. The vase required a simple explanation, whereas finding the two faces in the image required a more complex visual process. This board allowed me to argue Occam’s Razor, the principle being that among competing hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions should be selected. That provided a very nice platform under the facts of the case, and I believe convinced the jury of the merits of my client’s position.”

UW Law Professor from Practice William S. Bailey of Fury Bailey, PS cited Cochran’s work in his publication, “Show the Story: The Power of Visual Advocacy”.

“She is one of the most creative lawyers in practice today, a talented visual artist who draws upon these skills in putting together her cases. There is nobody around who is more versatile in presenting information than Kathy,” he said.

1. After graduating from UW Law, what was it like entering the law community at that time?

“When I entered law school, someone asked me if I planned to be an ‘attorney-ette’, so I was pre-disposed to expect some level of prejudice because a woman practicing in a litigation firm was a fairly new thing at the time. My concerns were confirmed when I argued my first motion and opposing counsel objected to a woman arguing that his client’s case should be dismissed on summary judgment. The judge didn’t respond other than to say “proceed”, which struck me as a rather weak endorsement of my presence. Later, when I was in court on motions calendar in front of a different judge, he interrupted my argument to compliment me for not crying! He did this in front of a courtroom of male lawyers, and I couldn’t help but notice the tittering behind me as I stood at the bar simply trying to argue my motion. I confess that all of these snapshots left me with a bit of a chip on my shoulder for the first year or so in practice. I began expecting prejudice when none really existed, risking feeding a “battleaxe” stereotype. I realized I had developed a more abrasive style that didn’t come by nature. I eventually learned that most practitioners and clients were open to working with a female lawyer but were merely experiencing the novelty of that fact. As for those who were not so open, I found that using a sense of humor went far to dispel any false notions, and working hard at providing quality service would win most people over.

The practice has changed markedly since 1975. In 2012, I believe that women in the courtroom are effective and influential partly BECAUSE of their gender. I urge everyone who is supposedly a member of a minority (by gender, ethnicity or age) to find ways to turn that status into an advantage, always aiming to dispel any false presumptions. It works, and the profession is better because of that diversity.”

2. What are some of your most memorable cases, and why?

“I was proud to represent the hospital in a case where a co-defendant product manufacturer had knowingly withheld safety information, causing a life-threatening injury to plaintiff. Though my client began as a defendant, it ended up as a co-plaintiff asserting claims of unfair trade practices, fraud, and intentional misrepresentation. This was a very unusual scenario and unique in my career. My client wanted to do the right thing and was not motivated by anything other than the safety of its patients. It was a pleasure working in such a situation, where dollars and cents were not the measure of success and where I could know my efforts were unmasking a significant problem. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the jury awarded an eight-figure verdict to the co-plaintiff and also awarded my client everything I had asked.

I recall a well-publicized seven-week trial in 1983 involving the claim that a medication had induced a psychosis, thereby causing 27 involuntary hospitalizations at Western State Hospital over a period twenty years. What was true was that the plaintiff was a very intelligent person with borderline personality disorder and a propensity to manipulate everything and everyone around him to his advantage. His manipulative behavior extended to our system of justice and his desire to be a “victim” in a sensational way. I explored decades of his personal and medical history with the jury and was able to convince them that this man had a mental health problem that was completely unrelated to any medication. I found that case very challenging and interesting. It introduced me to the field of pharmaceutical product liability litigation. This specialty has presented me scores of opportunities to learn about the drug development process in a heavily regulated environment. It has also exposed me on more than one occasion to brilliant scientists and even Nobel Prize winners. It is a fascinating way to earn a living – to learn cutting edge science at the sides of people who are contributing to breakthrough medicine and technology.”

3. Are there any cases that you are particularly proud of?

“I tried a case in 1984 on behalf of a hospital against a very reputable plaintiff’s lawyer. He had some recent results that were very good, so many of his colleagues dropped into the courtroom on occasion to watch the master at work against a relative novice in the courtroom (me). This was a three week trial involving a claim that a severely premature infant would not have had cerebral palsy but for the alleged failure to administer a medication (then considered experimental, now commonly given). After closing argument, the court reporter told me that my closing argument was the first in her long career that made her change her mind about the outcome of the case. She had been pulling for the plaintiff, but decided my client was entitled to prevail. This was the first time I really believed that something I did in closing argument actually drove the result, which was indeed a defense verdict for my hospital client.

4. How did the Polka Dot Board aid you in that particular case?

“The judge let me show this board only to the witness and not to the jury, finding that the chart was argumentative. Though I disagreed, I was able to show the chart during final argument. I believe that the curiosity generated throughout that seven-week trial (what is she showing the witness and why isn’t she showing us?) caused the jury to pay extra attention to this display. It was riveting in its simplicity. The jury wasn’t allowed to take it back to the deliberation room, though they asked for it. I believe that this graphic was one of the best I’ve ever used.”

5. What is the most difficult aspect of being a lawyer in your field?

“Litigation is stressful. It involves firm deadlines you can’t always control, high stakes, and the possibility of acrimony in highly charged situations. This is a specialty driven by how hard you work. You can’t leverage your time, you just have to spend it.”

6. What is the most gratifying aspect of being a lawyer in your field?

“The medical malpractice litigators in Washington are exceptionally collegial and very competent, so professionalism is the rule of the day. The opportunity to continuously learn about the complexities of medicine (because science is always evolving) is exciting and rewarding, and I find ways to apply that knowledge well beyond the boundaries of law.”

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