Queer Spaces

Queer Spaces – Cohen and Green

Queer Spaces is an ongoing series spotlighting aspects of the queer community with a focus on events, businesses and spaces that are welcoming and supportive of LGBTQ+ folx. We interview owners, administrators and employees from queer friendly fashion lines, coffee shops, resource centers and anywhere else we can find to somewhere to shine a spotlight on the community and those who support us.

To kick off our Queer Spaces series, Dannie and Zoë sat down with Elena Cohen and Remy Green, of Cohen and Green, a queer femme law firm in New York City.

Cohen and Green is a new law firm, having officially entered the scene on October 5, 2018, and with an eye toward aiding the queer, POC, and underserved communities around them.

We were excited to talk with them about their work.

Who are you and what is your business?

RG: I’m Remy Green, this is Elena Cohen, we are Cohen and Green, a small, queer law firm in New York. We do various work, largely litigation for queer or other politically left-leaning clients. We spend time suing the police, seeking accountability for various institutions that are traditionally not held accountable. Does that sound right?

EC: That sounds right to me.

RG: We also have been working with a friend of ours who has joined our firm as a council on providing queer family planning and end-of-life planning.

What inspired you to get started?

EC: Like, as lawyers?

DL: You can go all the way back, but specifically looking at Cohen and Green. But feel free to go as far back as you want.

RG: Elena’s incredible and I wanted to alter my life to be around her more.

DL: Love it!

EC: I’ve been a solo practitioner since the end of law school, or since the period where I got admitted after the end of law school, doing lots of work representing protesters in criminal cases, civil rights litigation like suing the police when your rights are violated, representing people who are otherwise impacted and underserved by the criminal justice system.

I’d been doing that and then Remy was working at a big law firm and we realized there were all these other people who needed help, or that don’t need it but could be helpful and assist. Plus, there were all these other ways we’d like to get justice. So they left the firm they were working at, a move that transitioned into our partnership.

RG: There are a lot of ways we are able to enable each other to actually focus on our real work. For example. we try to take things off of the other’s plate that the other does better, and our partnership also let us hire our assistant Micah, who is also a queer woman who helps both of us.

How do your personal value influence your business?

EC: I mean, it’s all about our personal values. We want to help queer people to be treated fairly, we want more justice, and to help make the world that we want to see happen, happen.

We work really hard to do it and that’s pretty much what all of our work is about, with the occasional paying client that isn’t about that so that we can pay bills. So this is entirely a labor — at least for me — of trying to make my ethics happen.

RG: I think one of the interesting qualities of law practice in general, especially when you are focused on serving underserved communities, is that there is more work than you can ever ever get done. And what that ends up meaning in practice is that there is a whole world of work we could be doing and the things that we each really want to do, just end up being the things we do, because we are selecting from a whole panoply of worthy cases. For me at least the ones that make me really mad are the ones we take.

EC: I get talked into taking most things, I would say that’s not the case for me.

RG: There’s also that. There’s also the people who are good at convincing me that something’s important get me to do a lot of work.

Is there anything in that that’s surprised you, in that process? In the work that you’ve been doing or the scale of it?

EC: I’ve been doing it a lot longer.

RG: That’s true.

EC: Has anything surprised you?

RG: This is probably unique to law practice, but it has been very surprising to me that the person that I am litigating against, often times, has very little to do with . . .  the individual and their attorney don’t have a lot in common a lot of the time. So like some of the worst people we are litigating against have some very lovely attorneys. And some of the best people we’re litigating against that we might have had hesitation about “Should we sue these people?” or  “Should we be this aggressive with this organization that’s great?” sometimes their attorneys are just pieces of shit.

When you said does anything surprise you, that surprised me.

EC: I guess maybe something that at the beginning — at the beginning if I’m trying to remember — that surprised me when I started doing this type of work, one thing is that some problems can be incredibly hard, but a lot of things that seem like giant deals and issues for people can actually be solved pretty easily.

Sometimes it just takes one letter from a lawyer, or one phone call, or three days of work to fix a situation that can seem really intractable. I will say that that surprised me. That you’re hearing these things from really stressed people. I feel like at times you’re like “that’s actually really easy to fix.” Of course, sometimes things take like 11 years and don’t get fixed even though they seem really easy, but I think as a lawyer I expected that. When things can be easy, that surprises me.

Something else too is that so many attorneys I think are really, there are people who are worried about being solo practitioners,  and want work for more established firms and not really pick their own cases because they don’t think that they have the expertise, and I think it’s really important to know what you’re doing and to have mentors and to make sure that you’re doing everything as good for your clients as possible and ethically.

But,  most attorneys are figuring out cases as they go and asking people for help and stuff like that. And this idea that you have to be a perfect expert in an area of law before you start trying to help anyone, I just don’t think is necessarily true, especially when you’re helping different people and queer people.They’re going to have an issue and that issue can be complex and involve a lot of different areas of law.

Like we have something going on right now with an issue with an ex, but it’s going to involve landlord-tenant because they were on a lease together, and then it’s going to  involve family court because you might want to get certain types of restraining orders without involving the police like you have to when you file a criminal complaint.

It’s important for people to learn and grow, not just be afraid that you don’t know an area of law and then can’t help someone. That said, I don’t think attorneys should just say that they can do something when they can’t, but a lot of the time you can get mentors, you can find people who do this, you can get experience and expertise and you can figure it out.

RG: Don’t say you’re an expert when you’re not, but, with a lot of cases involving underserved communities, the relevant expert doesn’t exist.

EC: Exactly. There’s no one who really knows what to do with a lesbian ex who was emotionally abusive, but not physically. You can spend all of your time contacting lawyers who know what to do with this, but nobody does in our rent controlled apartment.

RG: We have another case that’s kind of at the intersection of end-of-life planning and city accountability. And is also at the intersection of queer end of life planning and city accountability. And I don’t think that anyone who has done those two things exists.

EC: I guess I do.

RG: I guess, hi, it’s us now.

We are the experts our community has.

EC: In some ways, and in other ways it’s really important to have these networks. I have so many mentors and knowing who exists and knowing who the rest of the community is and who can help is really important.

RG: And the amount that those exist outside of formal mentorship structures is actually impressive. I have found those relationships much more effective than any formal mentorship I have ever had.

How does the queer community support you?

RG: Many of them give us money.

EC: I don’t know if I would say “many”.

RG: Some of them give us money.

EC: Usually people in the queer community give us money equal to or less than the value of our services.

RG; The New York Anti Violence Project, there are a bunch of attorneys that are very close friends of mine that work there. They are all queer, I know them through the queer community and I cannot tell you how many times I have leaned on them regarding legal questions, and just the day-to-day how to be a lawyer, “teach me please”, questions.

EC: Definitely other queer attorneys and queer legal organizations, both sending us clients and us being able to send them clients, and sharing skills and sharing resources like meeting spaces when we can… things like that. Some of my queer clients threw a fundraiser for me, because I do criminal defense for their group. So they threw a fundraiser for lawyer fees which was very sweet.

RG: I just know that there is a lot of very lovely good will out there. Well, you asked what surprised me and I didn’t answer it with the right answer I think. As soon as I left a big firm and we started doing this, the number of people who just reach out to me and either say nice things or … a lot of people have offered to give me money for work. The general sentiment of support in largely non-financial ways, but like “it’s great the things you are doing” that exists from the community is there. It is noticeable and very good.

How do you work to keep your space queer friendly and inclusive?

EC: One major thing is — and I know not all attorneys have the resources or abilities to do this — we really try to look at what we are charging. Price is a giant issue  of access for queer people and hiring attorneys is expensive, but attorneys also need to be able to be paid for their work. There was this sign that a queer attorney I know had in their office that said “billing is a radical act” and understanding that if you’re a queer person and going to keep existing you need to get paid some time. Also really just figuring this out and seeing what we can do and working with clients to figure that out and figure out how representation can somehow work within budgets, what we can really be able to do probono and lobono, and just be very very aware of how much price is an issue of access.

RG: Probono means legal services for free for public interest. Lobono typically means an arrangement that is far below what the market value of your services is, but you’re still charging something so that it is not fully probono. In case that was not in the vocabulary.

One of the things that I try to do to make spaces more accessible both in what we create and in shaping things for the next people who come — and I misstep frequently in it — but I try to provide education and experience for legal spaces in handling trans people, and how to address them. What pronouns to use, how to do it. I recently issued a subpoena for information from a trans woman and the process server on the subpoena identifying the person identified her as “(wo)man.” One might have just let that go because that document had no meaning but I called the process server and said, “hey, look I happen to know this is a transgender woman you just served. I’m not accusing you of anything, but you should know that that is not a great way to refer to a human being.”

EC: Other things we do is we hire queer people, so if we need things served, and like when we planned our holiday party and other tasks. We also really try to hire and work with queer people of color and people of color. Even things from who your accountant is going to be and who are the attorneys who are going to help out your firm, and we’re working now on getting a plan to have meals made and delivered, so that we’re not ordering Seamless in and having the waste, because it comes in plastic every day. We’re working with a woman of color to have vegan meals delivered to the office that she makes. We try really hard not to order from Amazon too much just where possible supporting local queer people and people of color is what we’re trying to do.

It’s a lot of decisions and a lot of work. I’m sure you know too, things are not geared toward not paying giant corporations.

RG: Making a decision at all requires time, which is something we don’t have much of.

Was there a gap in the community that you were looking to fill and do you think you’ve accomplished that?

RG: It’s hard to say what we’ve accomplished, we have not existed very long.

EC: We have helped people though. We’ve had a bunch of cases where we’ve helped people. We’re sending out a newsletter or something like that.

RG: Theoretically, yeah. We should go back to that.

EC: Yeah. when we have time.

There is a giant gap in the community. Services for queer and trans people, and legal services, like I said, there’s not a lot of people who have expertise. A lot of what exists, if it exists at all, is really expensive. And we have so much more demand than cases we could possibly have. We get contacted by people all the time. It’s the two of us and our paralegal and we’re all very hard workers, but human beings have capacity. There’s absolutely a need here and it’s shown by how many people from other attorneys have referred people to us. Just nobody has really tried to do this and also to have queer and trans people and femmes be the ones working on your cases can mean so much to people. There is a big need, and we are trying to help, but I think the need is so much more than the two of us can do and our firm can do.

RG: You touched on something that I think is assumed by anyone who has traveled in legal spaces. A lot of the queer that exists in legal spaces is masc.

EC: Yeah, there is a lot, a lot of masculinity.

RG: And it speaks well to our industry that there actually is a big gay presence in our world, but it is almost entirely white gay men. And so I think, to the question “is there a gap you’re trying to fill” there are just not people who look like us in a lot of places. And I think to some extent we’ve shown up. In that sense, we’ve been successful.

What are some challenges that you’ve experienced in creating a queer friendly group?

RG: I mean, it’s hard to separate that from the challenges that probably exist for starting any business, from the challenges that exist for just genrally practicing law in let’s say a legal system that’s on its way out, or possibly on its way out. I think first and foremost the biggest challenge is I don’t have enough hours in the day.

EC: Yeah, it’s hard to do the actual legal work and set up a business doing it. All of the, who is going to do each part of everything and be the manager of all of it. To find time to do that with the actual case. All the work is a ton.

RG: And on top of that, someone has to put food into my mouth, physically. Like, you and I are both human beings and human beings have to do certain things over the course of the day, and those take time, that’s all.

EC: Yeah, I think time constraints are definitely a thing. And there are so many people we’d like to help so much, but some cases are easy and other cases are really really complicated, and by saying that you’ll help someone, it’s going to take 40 hours that week, right? If someone is having a crisis, it’s your entire week and if there’s just two of your doing it, can you really not work on anything else you need to work on to help this person who is having a crisis who you absolutely want to help?

It’s upsetting because I do think I could help someone, and I don’t know if there’s anyone else they are going to be able to find who can help, but here’s no way that either one of the two of us can do this right now. In that case, we we work with a lot of other people, we try to set other people up with, see if someone else would be willing to take a case. We try our best to make sure that everybody gets what they need, but there’s a lot.

RG: One of the interesting challenges is because of the nature of a partnership is that we try to take things off of each other’s plate and help each other, it is almost counter productive to go to the smartest person I know with questions about a case because, theoretically, I’m supposed to be taking it off of her plate. The firm is supposed to accomplish so much work in a week and every time we discuss something between us we’re actually taking up double the time.

Where to Find Cohen and Green

Cohen and Green provide important resources to the LGBTQ+ community, and we were so excited to get the chance to sit down with them. You can contact Cohen and Green through their website. On social media you can find Remy on Twitter, and you can follow their progress with #femmelaw.

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