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?

In other words, Cozen rejected the paintings not because of what they said, but because of what they were: namely, the products of someone else’s vision, someone else’s guts and energy. And instead he commissioned a monumental replica of one of mankind’s most religiously significant structures, one constructed by King David himself — the original underdog. An outsider who became an insider, you might say.

Cozen could probably relate. He began his legal career not as a hot-shot associate at a big firm, but as a lowly investigator of catastrophes. He was an insurance lawyer who specialized in fires. He was a compact Jewish guy with a round head and the build of a welterweight fighter, and he would go out to the site of a fire and trudge through the wreckage in boots and a hard hat, sometimes while the fire was still smoking, looking for clues to how it started.

He’d learned how to do this from his Uncle Syd, a lawyer who represented fire-insurance companies against the fire-starters. Cozen used to work for Uncle Syd on the weekends while he was attending Penn law school — and it was before Cozen was even officially a lawyer that he cracked his first big case, the Carroll Rosenbloom case. An insurance company had accused Rosenbloom, then the owner of the Baltimore Colts football team, of burning down his own house in Margate to pay off gambling debts. Rosenbloom was a client of Uncle Syd’s. In paging through the case file, Cozen recognized the name of the key witness against Rosenbloom — the husband of a sister of a high-school buddy. Cozen sent a private investigator to interview him; the witness crumbled, recanted his story, and the case against Rosenbloom was dismissed. Soon after, Cozen was summoned to a meeting with the dean of Penn Law. The dean told him, “You must have friends in high places,” and pulled out an envelope with Cozen’s name on it, full of enough checks from the Colts to pay his entire three-year tuition.

This was a blessing, because Cozen’s family didn’t have much money. His father was Sam Cozen, a public-school teacher who coached basketball, first at Overbrook High School, then at Drexel. At Overbrook, Sam coached a young Wilt Chamberlain. Cozen idolized his father for his grit and his savvy (and does to this day, keeping a Chamberlain jacket in a closet in his law office and an oil painting of his father on the wall). So when Cozen went looking for a mentor in the world of the law, he gravitated toward a man who shared those same qualities: Howard Gittis.

Gittis. The man behind the curtain, the consigliere with the cigar and the twinkle in his eye; Gittis, the leader of Wolf Block in its heyday. “Howard was as crazy about Steve Cozen as he was about any of his own partners,” remembers Mark Aronchick, a lawyer who learned at Gittis’s feet. “He used to brag about him all the time.”