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Nearly thirty years ago I traded the soft, burled mahogany curves of my 1922 Steinway “A” grand piano for the less accommodating steel and glass geometry of midtown Manhattan office towers. From the outset these facades mesmerized me, but not with any spell comparable to that cast by Chopin Nocturnes or Bach counterpoint. Educated in seminar rooms amid leaf-canopied lawns and in red plush, gilded concert halls, mine had been a cloistered existence of great books and masterworks, of practicing, teaching and listening to solo piano and chamber music. And I had raised my son – the best work of all.
Then, rather abruptly, a mysterious impulse coupled with an undefined sense of incompleteness led me to study law. Law school did not alter the unworldly environment inside my head. It was study after all. It was thrilling. It fired the imagination and explainedeverything. It offered me endless stories. Even better, law study led me to the chambers of the great federal judge, Jack Weinstein, for whom I clerked at the end of the famed Agent Orange litigation. I followed Judge Weinstein’s intellectual camp as avidly as I had trailed Horowitz, Gilels and Rubinstein at the end of the golden age of piano playing. His courtroom was more real than reality. His trials were allegories – each a morality tale with lessons of justice truly administered and conflicts resolved. Every day, my judge righted at least one wrong. He wielded his power like a benevolent deity.
Entranced by this ideal new world, naïve and inexperienced, I had no idea that upon entering practice I was about to take an abrupt, right-angle turn from the ivory tower of the Eastern District federal court into the glass-faced forest of steel-girdered skyscrapers where lawyers ply their trade, most of them avid to fight another day. My plunge into law practice was a dive into an ice bath of reality, an often-painful enlargement of my natural terrain.
There’s not much romantic about what I do – except perhaps the writing, where I get to polish my clients’ stories to a gleam. People bring me their conflicts, and I’ve learned to fight for them. I’ve learned to tell their tales so that, whoever the “other side” may be, my versions of their truths seem inevitable and foreordained. I use my performance skills to command the court’s attention the moment I stand up to speak. These are accomplishments.
I doubt I’ll ever tolerate happily the obsessive geometry of my present landscape. It mirrors the credentials-bound inflexibility of traditional law firm life. Bisected and trisected into grids, those glass facades reinforce for me the hard realities of inhumanity and dishonesty and all that bad behavior that I’ve witnessed for 30 years – the stifling inability to compromise that gluts the court system with wasteful fights and keeps many an indoor law firm’s atmosphere as grim and unbending as the steel-bound structures that surround it. But not mine.
It took fifteen years’ working around the clock in prestigious, impersonal corporate law firms before I found the courage to establish my own firm. “Go forth,” a friend and mentor advised me in 2001, and he continued, “When I first met you, you were merely an associate. Now you are a samurai!” Fifteen years later, securely established, I am happy to say that here we truly like the company we keep. Here, we can choose our fights, and we have the luxury to promote or oppose only those interests in which we can believe and face ourselves in the mirror.
Working with and for people enlivens my hard work and gives me satisfaction. When I leave home for the office in the morning, I wait for the elevator in front of two apartments, each housing a noted, practicing professional pianist. I name the pieces they are playing, offer a few silent suggestions on phrasing and dynamics and thank my stars that I don’t practice in solitude anymore – even though nothing in this green world is better than Bach.
— Stephanie Cooper