On the Stand with Rachel Cowen - McDermott Will & Emery

On the Stand with Rachel Cowen



Rachel Cowen, the global co-head of the Employment Practice Group, focuses her practice on various employment discrimination and wrongful termination cases in federal and state courts. She has experience both prosecuting and defending employee mobility and trade secret litigation on an emergency injunctive basis through more than a dozen trials.

In this Q&A, Rachel shares the best advice she received as a junior trial lawyer and how it’s influenced her strategy, and the two pro bono cases that had a profound impact on her career.

In Depth

Why did you become a trial lawyer?

It seemed like a lot of fun! I was an athlete growing up, and I enjoy the similar competitive aspect of trial.

Trial lawyers are storytellers. I love to tell stories, and I always like to have the floor.

What is the proudest moment of your career to date?

I have two, both pro bono outcomes. What lawyer can answer that question with just one?

First, I represented a young man wrongly convicted of murder. I had the honor of picking him up from prison after the state commuted his sentence in response to our work.

Second, I represented two women from Rwanda in a pro bono asylum case. They had been beaten and jailed for being gay. The judge stopped the hearing to rule in their favor. It was an emotional moment for everyone in the courtroom.

I’m proud and fortunate to have been able to help people.

What is the best advice you received as a junior trial lawyer?

Kevin Connelly gave me this advice before my first trial, which was with Mike Sheehan.

Mike is affable and comedic in the courtroom, and juries like him. But he’s very smart and strategic about his demeanor. Kevin said, “That’s Mike’s style, and no one else can be Mike. You have to be you. You have to find your own style and stick with it.”

Here’s what I took away from that: You can emulate aspects of other lawyers, but ultimately, you must pick the style that suits your personality. It wouldn’t suit my personality, for example, to win over a jury by using humor the way that Mike can.

My style is to take complex facts and explain them to the jury in a way that’s easy to understand. I’m the “explainer-in-chief.” And that builds trust with the jury because they believe I’m honest. That’s the approach that’s worked best for me, and I’ve stuck with it.

What is one thing people wouldn’t learn about you by looking at your bio?

People might look at my bio and think of me as a tough litigator. What they probably would not know is that I have a total soft spot for everybody else’s kids.

I’ll buy gifts for their birthdays. I’ll offer to babysit so the parents can get a night out. I’ll talk to them on the phone – you name it.

Everyone on my team knows it: Show me pictures of your kids, and I’m done.

If you could try any case, what would it be, and why?

I would try the wrongful conviction case that I handled. If the young man had had better trial counsel, he would never have been sent to jail. It exposed how unfair the justice system can be and how much of a factor wealth or status can play in outcomes.