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'Idea man' wins bar's top honor

By Kristina Horton Flaherty
Staff Writer

Attorney Robert J. Cohen helped set up a network of legal services programs for senior citizens when such services were in short supply.

Attorney Robert J. Cohen

When looming budget cuts endangered legal services programs for the poor, he helped draft legislation to create California's IOLTA program and generate millions in funding.

And when the courts needed new ways of helping Californians handle basic legal problems, the Santa Ana attorney spearheaded the creation of a self-help interactive kiosk system that has assisted some 17,000 people and has caught on in other states.

Cohen has spent much of his law career putting new ideas into practice and has helped thousands, say his supporters.

For his contributions, Cohen, 56, will receive the State Bar's Loren Miller Legal Services Award this month at the bar's annual meeting in Anaheim. Created in 1977, the award is presented annually to an attorney who has personally done significant work to extend legal services to the poor.

Those who know Cohen describe him as a humble, energetic "idea guy" who is always looking for new ways of providing legal services to the impoverished. "He's always looking for some new way that's more efficient, that's higher quality, that's more innovative so that we can help more people," says former State Bar board member Scott Wylie, who has known Cohen for a decade.

In short, Cohen believes that people can be redeemed if given a fair chance, says Wylie, an associate dean at Whittier Law School. "And that belief in redemption is what drives his desire to help people."

Cohen, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Orange County (LASOC), says he's long viewed the practice of law as simply "an extension of public service." Before becoming the first lawyer in his family, Cohen worked as a special education teacher in Chicago. But he wanted to make a greater difference and be involved in a whole range of issues that affect people's lives.

"Literally, at one point in my life, I had a social work school application in one hand and a law school application in the other," he says. He settled on law school, attending classes at night and teaching school by day.

Fresh out of law school, Cohen initially sought a job at the public defender's office in Chicago. When no jobs were available, however, he worked briefly for the state's attorney instead. Then, in 1974, he landed his first job with a legal services program — the Senior Citizens Law Project in Las Vegas — and found his niche.

In 1975, he went to work for the National Senior Citizens Law Center in Los Angeles, which had received a grant to establish a network of legal services programs for the elderly. Meeting with the staff of area agencies on aging, local legal services providers and the Legal Services Corporation, Cohen helped set up such programs nationwide. "It was an idea that took off," he recalls.

Nearing the end of the 1970s, Cohen tackled another project. He began working with the State Bar's Legal Services Section to come up with more legal services funding for the poor. Heading up a special funding committee, he helped draft the legislation that created California's Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program, a program that has distributed $250 million in the last two decades to legal services providers statewide.

In 1980, Cohen was named executive director of LASOC in Santa Ana. In the years since, he has helped establish a local pro bono attorney program that later split off and expanded into the Public Law Center of Orange County. He set up a three-tier system at LASOC — a hotline, self-help clinics and services, and appointments for serious cases — that increased the availability of legal help. And he participated in a series of lawsuits aimed at protecting the rights of the county's homeless.

But Cohen's latest project — the I-CAN! network of interactive, web-based, self-help kiosks — may have attracted the most attention so far. Located primarily in courthouses, the kiosks use streaming video in three languages to explain how and where to file various court pleadings and legal forms. With the video's help, an individual can input the requested information, print out the appropriate form and then simply follow the filing instructions.

Recently, Cohen was demonstrating the machine to State Bar President James Herman when a woman with a black eye and swollen hand interrupted him. She was "so grateful," Cohen recalls. She needed a restraining order and couldn't find any help until she tried the kiosk.

I-CAN! programs now exist in Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento counties, among others, as well as in Oklahoma, Massachusetts and Virginia. Audiences in Australia and Canada recently were given demonstrations.

Cohen initially got the idea for the project from New York attorney Richard Zorza, a well-known consultant for legal services programs and courts. Cohen saw its potential and LASOC, together with the Orange County Superior Court, launched the project in the face of skepticism. Now Cohen sees even more possibilities for the future.

"This will in many ways, as time goes on, level the playing field for our clients being able to access not only legal services but a whole range of services," he says. "We're in our infancy now. It's like the Model T."

Others share in Cohen's enthusiasm. "Under the leadership of Mr. Cohen, this project has significantly improved access to the legal system, expanded services to self-represented litigants and improved court operations," Orange County Superior Court Judge W. Michael Hayes wrote recently, supporting Cohen for the award.

Supporters say Cohen, after nearly 30 years of legal services work, is still going strong. "Bob is one of those really rare people who not only has made legal services his life's work," Wylie said, "but who has retained the kind of joy and energy more indicative of someone just starting out."

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