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Black attorney's lawsuit accuses Cochran law firm of bias

March 03, 2007|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

For decades, the law firm founded by the late Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. has been renowned as a black-run institution fighting for civil rights and against police abuse -- not to mention getting O.J. Simpson acquitted of murder charges.

But now, in a development that has dismayed some in Los Angeles' African American community, attorney Shawn Chapman Holley has sued the firm, claiming, among other things, that its leaders discriminated against her because she is black.

Holley said that after Cochran's death in 2005, leadership of the firm was turned over to white men who began to discriminate against black lawyers and black clients.

Neither she nor her attorneys would comment on the suit, although she released a statement through her lawyer:

"In deference to the memory of Johnnie Cochran and in deference to his family, I do not intend to engage in a public airing of our disagreements. The lawsuit speaks for itself, and this matter will be litigated in the courts."

Randy H. McMurray, a partner in the firm, denied Holley's charges.

"We probably have the most diverse law firm in California. I don't know what race we would be discriminating against," he said, noting that he and another partner in the L.A. office, Brian Dunn, are black.

News of the suit raised eyebrows among some members of the city's black establishment.

"Racial discrimination at the Cochran firm?" asked public affairs consultant Kerman Maddox. "When you think Johnnie Cochran, you think best and brightest in the black community.

"I'm shocked. If true, that would be a devastating blow to the legacy of Johnnie Cochran."

Cochran, the great-grandson of slaves, founded his firm in 1965. He was best known nationally for his successful defense of Simpson against charges that he murdered his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman.

But for decades before those 1994 killings, Cochran was well-known in Los Angeles for a string of cases in which he won historic financial settlements and helped bring about lasting changes in police procedure.

By the time of his death two years ago from an inoperable brain tumor, his firm had gone national, with offices in 20 U.S. cities.

Other changes brought controversy, including a merger with a national criminal defense firm, headquartered in Santa Monica, and the departure of Holley and another black partner, Eric Ferrer, who also had worked extensively with Cochran.

Holley, who worked with Cochran for 17 years, was appointed two years ago to be a liaison between the civil and criminal sides of the firm, according to her suit.

She claims that she became concerned about the quality of criminal representation being offered to clients. But when she raised her concerns with the partners at the Cochran firm, they ignored her, then demoted her, she says.

According to the suit, the demotion was approved by five managers of the firm, four of whom "are Caucasian males."

Then, in January 2006, according to her suit, she was fired.

McMurray, the Cochran firm partner, denied terminating Holley.

"She was not fired," he said. "Our perceptions of her leaving the firm are different."

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