Barely a year after Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.'s death, major changes at his Los Angeles-based law firm have startled and angered many in the city's black community.
Though Cochran became internationally famous for his successful defense of O.J. Simpson on murder charges in 1995, he previously made his reputation in legal circles and in the black community for taking on police abuse and civil rights cases.
His fame allowed him to expand the Cochran Firm into a national presence with more than 125 attorneys in more than a dozen cities, though the heart of it remained his mid-Wilshire office. And the work of the firm, whether in Los Angeles, New York or Maui, Hawaii, remained civil rights cases and representing plaintiffs in civil litigation.
Though that emphasis continues, according to numerous people familiar with the workings of the firm, there have been significant changes in the last 13 months: the addition of a controversial national criminal division, headquartered in Santa Monica; the departure of two well-known black partners -- Shawn Chapman Holley and Eric Ferrer -- who had worked extensively with Cochran; and the perception that Chapman Holley and Ferrer were forced out by Cochran's three surviving co-founders, two of whom are white.
While many details remain unclear, the changes have prompted concern in Los Angeles' black community, which cherishes Cochran as a legal champion for the underrepresented and the abused.
"You can go to the barbershop, you can go to the supermarket, the church and hear the rumor about white folks taking over Johnnie Cochran's firm," said Los Angeles political consultant Kerman Maddox.
"He's our last remaining hero. There are attorneys, and then there is Johnnie Cochran. All of us feel some kind of kinship with Johnnie."
For others, the main concern is whether the new criminal defense division will tarnish the reputation Cochran established over several decades taking, and winning, major police abuse cases -- even getting rules governing police procedure changed.
In the decade between his victory in the Simpson case and his death of a brain tumor at age 67 last March, Cochran was involved in winning settlements for victims of civil rights abuse or police abuse across the country, including Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who was sodomized with a plunger by New York City police. He also was instrumental in helping get former Black Panther Geronimo Pratt's murder conviction overturned.
"Quite honestly, the perception in the community is that Shawn Chapman Holley and the rest of the legal team that helped Johnnie and the activists he worked with have been betrayed," said community activist Najee Ali. "The new changes, they're tainting Johnnie's legacy. They're now going into an area of law that Johnnie never advocated -- the defense of rapists and child molesters....
"This has nothing to do with color. It has everything to do with respecting Johnnie's legacy and supporting those whom Johnnie mentored, tutored and to whom the baton was passed."
Cochran's family, including his widow, Dale Mason Cochran, has spoken out about the controversy.
"We are disappointed in the personnel changes that have occurred in the Los Angeles office," family members said in a statement released Wednesday by Cochran's brother-in-law Bill Baker. "We are currently conducting an inquiry into some of the criticisms that have been published and we have been assured of the cooperation of the firm in both determining the facts and ensuring that the firm continues to uphold the mission, legacy, and name of Johnnie L Cochran Jr."
Baker would not discuss whether the family holds a financial stake in the firm.
Brian Dunn, a partner in the Los Angeles office, would not comment on Chapman Holley's departure, noting that she had retained counsel. But of Ferrer's departure, Dunn -- who is also black -- said: "I can say with 100% certainty that Eric resigned.... He did not want to have a part of the new partnership."
Ferrer denied that.
"I did not quit," said Ferrer, who worked for years with Cochran on some of his most notable cases. "The things he prided himself on were the civil cases. That's what I focused on. That's what I lived and breathed the law for. I will continue to uphold these values whether I'm in the Cochran law firm or not." Chapman Holley declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the lawyer who runs the year-old criminal defense section denies that it is a referral service.
"We are a law firm. We have eight lawyers that work out of [the Santa Monica offices.] We have employee lawyers that work out of Bakersfield, Fresno, Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area, L.A. County and Orange County," said Vince Imhoff, the managing partner of the criminal defense section. "We have partnership agreements with some lawyers throughout the country -- probably about 200."
Critics expressed concern that the wide expansion into the criminal arena has left the Cochran Firm vulnerable to quality issues with some of its lawyers.