Alumni Profiles

Alumni Profiles

Learn more about our most accomplished alumni. They are a distinguished group of leading public officials & judges, law firm partners, public interest advocates, and business leaders. In each of our BLSLawNotes magazine issues, we profile a few of our best and most loyal assets - our graduates.

Read more about alumni in the news.

  • Harriet Cohen
    Harriet Cohen

    It’s a Tuesday in early March and Harriet Cohen ’74, one of New York City’s most revered matrimonial lawyers, is gazing out her window. Actually, it’s more than a window. It’s a wall of glass that wraps her corner office at Seven Times Square in morning light. From her bird’s perch, she is afforded one of the most coveted views of the city. Central Park and Times Square frame the view to the North, the Hudson River opens up the West, and directly below, several window cleaners hang tethered to the 38th floor by a clamp and a long twisted muscle of rope. “Oh dear!” she gasps. “I thought my work was hard!”

    While Cohen is not out on a literal ledge dangling stories above Times Square, in many instances over her three-decade career, she has rescued clients hanging by a thread. Known for her skill as a compassionate yet steely negotiator, Cohen has a high-profile client list—including the likes of Andrew Cuomo, Laurence Fishburne, Linda Lavin, and Ronald Perleman’s ex, Patricia Duff—that is a testament to her experience and reputation.

    Cohen has been called a “formidable divorce force” by the New York Observer, and has been regularly named to the NY Metro Super Lawyers list in the field of Family Law. Outside the courtroom, she has been called upon by the Governor to serve on the Child Support Commission of the State of New York and by the Mayor to serve on the Foster Care Commission. A regular contributor to the New York Law Journal, she is the author of the book, (Avon 1994).

    But Cohen is not only a mediator of others’ marital splits. She was 40 years old and heading into her second year exams at Brooklyn Law School when her husband of 21 years walked out. “I had four daughters at home, and he just left,” she recalled. The painful divorce, which she personally handled when she graduated from BLS, was among the factors that led her to devote her career to the practice of family and matrimonial law.

    Cohen, who grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, is the eldest daughter of four children born to Eastern European immigrants. Her father made Hula Hoops, while her mother stayed home with the kids and made a point of imbuing them with a sense that anything was possible, especially with an education. Cohen excelled academically and skipped grades in high school, enrolling in college at Barnard at the age of 16 and graduating at 19 with a degree in classics.

    One week after graduation, she married her high school sweetheart. By the time she turned 30, she had four children, a Masters Degree in Latin from Bryn Mawr, and was working as a math teacher at the local high school. But she had a gnawing desire to do more. “When I was home with my children I became active with the League of Women Voters and it seemed to me that we were powerless. I thought, I have got to do something that gives me some credibility. So I went to law school.”

    Mentored by professors like I. Leo Glasser, Cohen flourished at Brooklyn Law School, and found support from a group of women with whom she served on the Brooklyn Law Review: Joan Koven, Helen Neuborne, and Gail Alpern (now Schneider). “We had a study group, and we were such brainiacs,” she said. “I remember our lunches at this greasy spoon around the corner where we never talked about anything other than the law.”

    Cohen graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1974, and she started out as a generalist, but moved on to focus on matrimonial matters. “I was advised to stay away from matrimonial law because it was considered “women’s work,” but I found myself drawn to it. It was helpful to have lived through a complicated matrimonial situation myself, but I really just loved the field. You are constantly learning, and no case is the same as the one before.”

    Cohen joined the Phillips Nizer firm, where she was mentored by Louis Nizer, considered one of the most outstanding trial lawyers of the twentieth century, and went on to run the matrimonial and family law practices of several prominent Manhattan law firms before starting a firm of her own, Cohen Hennessey Bienstock & Rabin, in 1994. In early 2011, she dissolved her previous firm, moving 13 lawyers over to Seven Times Square to form Cohen Rabin Stine Schumann LLP.

    For all her expertise in matters of divorce, Cohen has not soured on the idea of marriage. “It is very complicated, and it takes a lot of luck and a lot of hard work. But I still believe in marriage for everyone,” she said, pointing to the framed photograph of her late second husband, Arthur Feinberg, to whom she was happily married for 32 years. “He was the love of my life. Marriage is a beautiful thing.”

  • Julie Kay
    Julie F. Kay

    In 2001, Julie F. Kay ’95, a revered staff attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York City, made a rather unusual decision. She moved to Ireland. The reason, she explained, was simple: “I needed a change of pace, and I wanted to live somewhere different.” When Kay arrived in Dublin, and she and her husband (Thomas Fergus ’95) had settled in, she decided to look around for work. “I figured, worst comes to worst, I’d work in a pub,” she recalled. Things didn’t work out exactly as she planned. Instead of pouring pints, she changed Ireland’s centuries-old abortion law.

    Shortly after arriving in Ireland, Kay began working as a legal consultant to the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) where she was charged with coordinating a new initiative to advance women’s reproductive rights. On behalf of the IFPA, she developed, researched, briefed, and filed three test cases in 2005, ABC v. Ireland, challenging Ireland’s ban on abortion before the European Court of Human Rights. Four years later – and eight and a half months pregnant with her second child – Kay flew to Strasbourg, France to argue the cases before the Court’s full 17-judge panel, the Grand Chamber.

    “The experience was amazing,” said Kay, who enlisted the help of several well-known international legal professors and barristers in preparing for her day in court. “To argue before judges from all over the world, well, that’s my idea of a good time.”

    It took almost a full year after arguing the cases for the Court to reach a decision. Two of the cases were dismissed, but the Court ruled against Ireland in the case of Miss C., a cancer sufferer who was forced to travel abroad to obtain a life-saving abortion. The landmark ruling declared that Ireland’s abortion law violates women’s rights and found that Ireland must make life-saving abortion services available. The Irish government, for the first time in history, must now enact legislation setting out how, and in what circumstances, women with life-threatening conditions can get abortions. “I am thrilled with the Court's decision,” said Kay. “I think it bodes very well for significantly reforming Irish abortion law.” Kay, who received a B.A. in Women’s Studies and Social Studies at Harvard, has always been focused on reproductive rights. “I was always interested in issues of social justice and discrimination, and in how the law can provide a solution to these inequalities,” she said. “Quite frankly, I see law as a powerful way of changing things about the world that I think are unfair.”

    After college, Kay moved to New York City, where she worked for a child advocacy organization. When she decided to apply to law school, she was drawn to Brooklyn Law School because of its commitment to public interest work, its renowned clinical programs, and because of professors like Susan Herman and Elizabeth Schneider, known for their work on women’s issues. “I came from a college that was enormous, and at Brooklyn Law School I was so impressed with how involved and accessible the teachers were and how they helped with placements,” said Kay, who was an Edward V. Sparer Public Interest Fellow and an Executive Articles & Research Editor of the Brooklyn Law Review where she wrote the note, “If Men Could Get Pregnant: An Equal Protection Model for Federal Funding of Abortion under a National Health Care Plan.”

    Kay worked at the Center for Reproductive Rights as a Sparer Fellow her first summer, and was sponsored for an in-house fellowship at the Center after her clerkship with United States District Judge Mark Wolf in Boston. She spent five years at the Center for Reproductive Rights before moving to Ireland. In 2005, she returned to New York to work for Legal Momentum, the country’s oldest legal defense and education group for women and girls, where she rose to senior staff attorney, leading the organization’s Sexuality and Family Rights Program. She left Legal Momentum in April 2009 to continue her work with ABC v. Ireland.

    With the historic victory in ABC v. Ireland behind her, Kay is reflecting on her career and her next steps. “This case was definitely the highlight of my career,” she said. “Now I just need to figure out what comes next.” There’s always pouring pints.

  • Charles Ortner
    Charles B. Ortner

    Pay a visit to Charles B. Ortner, the charismatic co-head of the Entertainment Industry Group at Proskauer Rose, and you can’t help but notice the guitar. It’s partially crushed, it’s scribbled on, and it’s hanging on the wall beside his desk. Naturally, the guitar has a story. It once belonged to Ortner’s client Trent Reznor, the legendary Nine Inch Nails leading man who just won an Oscar for his delicate and haunting musical score to The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s nail-biting account of the genesis of Facebook.

    Five years ago, Reznor was sued in a copyright case, and Ortner, one of the country’s leading entertainment lawyers, set out to defend him. To get inside the artist’s process and better serve his client, Ortner spent a week with Reznor at his New Orleans music studio while he composed.

    “It was a fascinating time,” recalled Ortner, who won the case on appeal, vindicating Reznor’s name. Reznor learned of the victory as he was about to perform. “He was so thrilled,” said Ortner, “that he took his guitar, smashed it and autographed it to me. The inscription reads: “Thank you for everything, Chuck! Trent Reznor.”

    Reznor is but one of the many celebrity musicians who have benefitted from Ortner’s skill as a litigator and an advocate. Madonna, U2, Green Day, Sting, Michael Jackson, and Lady Gaga, also count on him to tackle their legal woes.

    Ortner, who is also the national legal counsel to the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, Inc. (the GRAMMY® Award organization), has influenced nearly every corner of the entertainment and media legal and business landscapes. Chambers USA, a leading independent lawyer rating service, has described Ortner as a "legendary music expert [and] one of the premier lawyers in the copyright world." He is also listed in Best Lawyers in America, Expert Guides to the World’s Leading Lawyers for Technology, Media and Telecommunications Law, New York Super Lawyers and Lawdragon.

    His talent has not gone unnoticed. In December, President Obama named Ortner to the Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “These impressive men and women will bring a wealth of experience to their new roles,” said President Obama in announcing the appointment of Ortner and the three other trustees.

    LawNotes Managing Editor Andrea Strong caught up with Ortner early this spring to learn more about his role at the Kennedy Center, his early days with Carly Simon, and why copyright law needs to change.

    BLS: You were recently appointed to the Kennedy Center Board of Trustees by President Obama and charged with a very specific mission. Tell me more about it.

    CO: I am very proud to be on the Board. I’ve been asked to help encourage younger artists to appear in various contexts at the Center and to attract the interest and attention of people in their 20s and 30s to supplement the current programming, which is by and large geared to a somewhat older demographic. It’s important to use this platform to encourage younger people to focus on the arts. I think that with the trend toward cutbacks in funding for the arts, it’s more challenging to support young people in this field. So we are looking at how we can expand our sphere of influence and get attention from people who haven’t been as involved in the past.

    We are developing a series of programs to appeal to younger audiences and we have already curated a number of very cool artists from different genres who are very enthusiastic about this project. The concept is to offer free concerts and the kind of engaging programming you might find at the 92nd Street Y: unplugged performances, intimate interviews so you can get into the artists’ head.

    BLS: When did you realize you wanted to be a lawyer?

    CO: It took a while. At first, I was very interested in science and biology, but when I went to college at Washington University of St. Louis I was forced to take all these humanities classes in addition to my science classes. As it turned out, I became very interested in history, and as the civil rights movement grew in the 1960s, and issues of poverty were on the forefront, and the Vietnam War protests were heating up, I developed an interest in being an advocate. Going to law school seemed like a natural fit.

    BLS: How did you become interested in entertainment law?

    CO: I was working at my second firm out of law school, a small litigation boutique called Gold Farrell & Marks, and I was assigned to defend Carly Simon. She was with James Taylor at the time and they were very popular. I began to represent Carly and work with her, and I found it just fascinating to be with creative people. Although my father was a business man, he was also a classically trained pianist and I grew up with music. I played three instruments—clarinet, bass violin, and piano. Practicing entertainment law was an opportunity to be with music people and do interesting legal work.

    BLS: Tell me about your first meeting with Madonna.

    CO: It was quite unexpected. I was representing a number of artists at the time. A young woman with blonde hair and a lot of crosses came into my office and insisted that I represent her in a matter. She was an unknown and the firm did not encourage me the representation of unknowns. But I decided to take her case, and I have been representing her since 1984. Since then, I’ve been told the decision was genius.

    BLS: Take us through typical day.

    CO: I hit the snooze button a lot! I travel back and forth to LA and Washington DC quite often. I am usually reviewing litigation, helping to develop strategy, working on legal papers, drafting and revising, preparing for depositions. I also spend a fair amount of time on the phone with the GRAMMY people. All sorts of issues present themselves, whether it’s business strategy, employment law, or by-laws issues. We are currently working on a deal to bring the GRAMMYs to China. I am also very active with cancer research charities, in particular the Myeloma Research Foundation, so I spend a fair amount of time on that. I also devote a lot of time to the Kennedy Center and democratic politics.

    BLS: You work with the GRAMMY awards, which sounds very glamorous. Tell me more.

    CO: I do attend the GRAMMYs every year and all the parties, too, which are a lot of fun, but there are a lot of challenges that the GRAMMY Awards face. I am involved with advocacy and public policy. We do “GRAMMYs on the Hill,” where I meet with members of the House and Senate to talk about legislative support, particularly for copyright issues and the impact of reduction of funding to non-for-profit art organizations. I have also assisted with corporate restructuring of the GRAMMY organization itself, and was involved in the negotiation and creation of the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles.

    BLS: What are the challenges facing the music industry at the moment?

    CO: The first is the continuing problem of massive of copyright infringement because of free downloads, music sharing, and piracy, which obviously affect the artist tremendously. Their earnings are being hit hard. The second issue is the way copyright law is structured. At the moment, when a song is played on the radio, the recording artist gets nothing and the record company gets nothing. Only the songwriter and the music publisher receive a royalty. We have been trying, with tremendous opposition from radio stations, to change the law, which applies only to terrestrial broadcasts not to satellite radio. We are trying to overturn the legislation from the beginning of time. It’s a very big deal.

    BLS: What about the future of music?

    CO: The future is obviously very digital. In some ways Jon Bon Jovi was right when he said that Steve Jobs ruined the music industry. It’s not the way it used to be where artists recorded a whole album, and got multimillion dollar advances. It’s more about singles, which means less revenue. Artists are more dependent on touring and on finding new outlets and product endorsements. But ultimately, music is about hits. It’s about Lady Gaga. Look what she has done! If you have great artists, there is still a way to sell records.

    BLS: If you were speaking to a classroom full of law students aspiring to work in entertainment law, what advice would you give them?

    CO: I know this makes me sound like an old fuddy duddy, but I’d tell them to get training in general legal practice. I would advise against immediately going into a boutique firm. I would suggest that they work at a large firm where they would be assigned to big deals and where they would become sensitive to sophisticated issues. Bottom line: seek depth of knowledge.

    My reputation was enhanced by my training at Rosenman and Colin, the first firm I joined out of law school. Later on, when I was handed a file with a record company trying to sue the band The GoGos, knowing what I knew from litigating at Rosenman, I was able to get an injunction, and the case settled. The success of that case was based on my experience as a litigator, not an entertainment lawyer. I’d also recommend digging into intellectual property courses. These classes are critically important.

    BLS: You are working what would be a dream job for many. What would you do if you weren’t doing this?

    CO: [Long pause.] It’s hard for me to envision me doing anything other than what I do now.

  • Matthew Swaya
    Matthew E. Swaya

    For the past twenty years, Matthew E. Swaya ’81 has started every morning with a cup of Starbucks coffee—a tall Americano, to be precise. “I have at least one, sometimes more,” he said. As Starbucks’ newly appointed Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer, Swaya now leads the company’s Global Business Ethics and Compliance, Global Labor & Employment, and Global EEO Initiatives (Affirmative Action Compliance) functions. It’s no wonder he occasionally needs more than one.

    Swaya developed an early interest in labor law as a student of industrial and labor relations while an undergraduate at Cornell University, “I found the topic fascinating,” he recalled. “I was intrigued by the diplomacy and fairness, and finding a fair balance in the employment relationship. The ability to effect positive change in the work environment was really exciting for me.”

    At Brooklyn Law School, that interest grew into a passion. Swaya found a mentor in then BLS Adjunct Professor Sam Kaynard, who was the Regional Director of the National Labor Relations Board. “I thought when I started law school that I wanted to be a labor lawyer, but my classes with Sam really convinced me to pursue this area,” said Swaya. “He was a force in the field. He was the person who wrote the labor laws and enforced them, and we were learning not only the substantive work, but also the practical side, too.”

    After graduating from BLS in 1981, Swaya held several in-house positions before landing at PanAm and then TWA as a labor lawyer focused on union issues with respect to flight attendants, mechanics, pilots, and reservations agents. “I worked with the unions, negotiating deals and resolving disputes, and in that context you learn that your word is your bond,” said Swaya. ”You could be on the right side of an issue one day and not the next, so it was important to develop a relationship of collaboration and trust not only with your team but also with the unions on the other side.”

    In 1990, Swaya moved out to Seattle for an opportunity to work with Lane Powell, LLP as a partner in their labor law department. He joined Starbucks in 1997 and quickly rose through the legal ranks to become vice president and assistant general counsel. In December, he was appointed Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer.

    In this role, Swaya adds several new responsibilities to his already full roster of responsibilities as vice president and assistant general counsel. He now oversees legal and regulatory compliance throughout the company, and is also tasked with running the Partner Help Line (Starbucks employees are called partners) where the employees can register complaints about the workplace (anonymously if they like). He also vets conflicts of interest for board service, and spends a good deal of time training his staff on compliance issues.

    A typical day might include solving a difficult employment problem, coaching and mentoring his staff, meeting with senior leaders, and mentoring younger lawyers, which Swaya says is the most rewarding part of his job. “I like to challenge lawyers all the time, and help them see issues from different sides,” he said. “Hopefully that helps them be better lawyers. I am constantly trying to help my team grow and thrive as leaders, too.”

    Swaya himself is well-known for his skills as a negotiator and advocate, as well as his grace and effectiveness as a leader. He is an elected Fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers; Election as a Fellow is the highest recognition by one’s colleagues of sustained outstanding performance in the profession, exemplifying integrity, dedication, and excellence.

    His approach to the law, he explained, is very much informed by Starbucks’ core values of fairness, respect, and integrity. “As a legal advisor, it’s very easy to say that the law allows us to do this or doesn’t allow us to do that. The harder part is you have to look at your legal role through a lens of respect, dignity and support. The law may say you can do “X”, but I may say “maybe not” if that means not treating someone well. That matters a lot.” Probably just as much as that perfect cup of coffee.

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