Steve Cozen Profile: The Inside Man

Whether he’s suing big corporations in disaster cases or Saudi Arabia over 9/11, Steve Cozen has built his career siding with the underdog. Now, with his hands in both casino deals, has the ultimate outsider become the quintessential insider?

SORRY, I HAVE to take this.”

Steve Cozen answers his cell, grins, and abruptly melts into his chair one day early this winter. A second ago he was the big man in his big man’s office, speaking of serious things — fires, explosions, global terrorism — but now his whole body slackens and he’s someone else entirely: Rowhouse Joe, kicking back some brews at Chickie’s & Pete’s.

“DANNNNNNY BOYYYY! … Yeah, the Steelers won and the Eagles got their butts whooped. He-he-he! … Well, when you’re governor, we’re gonna have the Steelers against the Eagles.”

There’s a pause. Then Steve Cozen tells Dan Onorato, who is probably going to be the Democratic nominee in the 2010 Pennsylvania governor’s race, that he’s gonna have to call him back: “I’m in a meeting.” Cozen clicks the call dead and turns back to me like there’s nothing weird about what just happened, like he spends every Monday morning blowing off the Anointed before returning to matters of The Law.

“You know Dan Onorato?” he says, in case I missed it. “He’s gonna run for governor.”

And it’s not weird. It’s really not. Nothing is weird anymore when it comes to Steve Cozen. At a certain point, a man’s success grows so great as to become surreal, distorting common notions of influence and power and skill until they conform to the new shape.

Cozen is a lawyer. He runs a law firm that he founded in 1970, now called Cozen O’Connor. The “O’Connor” is Pat O’Connor, a straight-talking, bulldoggish Irish trial lawyer. Cozen O’Connor began with just five lawyers. Now there are 550 lawyers in 23 cities worldwide. There are bigger firms headquartered in Philly, and older ones. But there are no firms right now sitting as pretty as Steve Cozen’s. At age 70, he is the most wired lawyer in the city, chairman of a firm full of enough boldface names to fill a bowling league: David Girard-diCarlo (former ambassador to Austria), Mark Alderman (ex-chairman of Wolf Block), Charlie Kopp (ditto), Tad Decker (former chairman of the state’s gaming control board and the firm’s current president and CEO — Cozen’s handpicked successor). And his balance sheet reflects the sort of cash that such rainmakers can command. Last year, as the economic storm whipped through the sea of the Philly legal community, Blank Rome laid off 79, Dechert more than 200, Morgan Lewis 216; firms cut salaries, froze new hires, and killed their “summer associate” programs for promising law students. The venerable white-shoe firm Wolf Block sank entirely after 106 years in existence. Yet in the very same weather, the Cozen O’Connor firm, which fired dozens of administrative staff but no lawyers, raked in record revenues. “We had our best year in our history,” Cozen tells me, his hands unclasping for a moment to rub the gold cuff links on his gleaming white shirt. It was such a good year, in fact, that Cozen could afford to take aboard about 70 Wolf Blockers without causing the slightest wobble on his own ship — “None. Zero.”