When a new reporter is about to get a first taste of Barry Cohen, Tampa's best-known lawyer and one of its most colorful, I like to tell this story:
I was a green courthouse reporter working a big story back when Hillsborough courts were a wilder frontier — judge after judge in trouble, a state attorney who played the parimutuels, and each trial weirder than the last. (Best. Job. Ever.)
Word spread of a news conference at Cohen's office. Print, TV, radio — everyone went. And as Barry held forth in his trademark suspenders, I began to realize: He had nothing whatsoever to do with the court case at hand — just something to say about it.
And when I whispered this revelation to another reporter, he whispered back — slowly, as if I were a daft child — "It's Barry Cohen."
At 74, he has never really been out of the news, though things have quieted some since the days of missing baby Sabrina (he successfully represented the parents) or the teacher who hit four children on a darkened street and drove off (and didn't go to prison.)
And no doubt he much prefers the legacy of the big-verdict headlines that line his office walls to the latest one about the financial pickle he is in.
As the Times' Peter Jamison reports, court filings indicate Cohen owes financial firms $35 million from high-interest loans against anticipated legal fees in big-bucks civil cases. Some liken this practice to the silk-stocking version of a payday loan; others will tell you it is both legitimate and risky.
While that's a bunch of money to most of us, Cohen does not sound worried. He sounds like Barry Cohen. He points to documents from lenders indicating negotiations and repayments are being worked out.
He asks if I could float him a few bucks and laughs.
Like him or not so much, and both parties exist when you are this kind of lawyer, it's hard to miss the fight in Barry Cohen. He will tell you the story of a night when he was 8, watching his father cook for a country club, sweating and being bullied by men in ties.
(He also says this was the first time he actually saw ties, which could explain his penchant for the dapper — vests and two-toned shoes and Clarence Darrow watch pockets. He shops at an Ybor City vintage clothing store called La France, and says when he was recently trying a case in Nashville, he was stopped by people admiring his long leather-and-corduroy gold-buttoned top coat and bowler hat.)
He has had a particular talent for, well, talent, surrounding himself with the brightest, though it was usually him speaking to the cameras when the case was done. Those lawyers went on to big things, too, among them a circuit judge, a city councilman and other attorneys prominent in their own right.
So now his naysayers get to snicker over this latest headline, and his friends will rally. And Barry Cohen is Barry Cohen, saying he has big cases coming that will take care of the debt, and that he is not worried.
And some news: Recently he took on the case of the family of Andrew Joseph, a 14-year-old boy thrown out of the Florida State Fair and hours later killed when he tried to cross Interstate 4. He's eyeing law enforcement, the Fair Authority and "anyone else I can find who's culpable for this terrible, terrible tragedy," he says.
Which sounds like vintage Barry Cohen to me.