Cousin Has the World in His Hands as Head of Global Employment Law Practice

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By Gayle Cinquegrani

Feb. 19 — Brian Cousin has a big job. The Dentons partner heads what he calls “the largest global employment practice” in the world, which soon will number about 450 lawyers in 35 countries.

Eighty of the employment lawyers are in the U.S., about 60 are in Canada, 100 in Europe, and 160 in China. Soon there will be 25 in Australia and 20 in Singapore.

“We have had rapid growth,” Cousin said. Indeed, since he joined Dentons in 2011, the firm has more than quadrupled its roster of labor and employment lawyers..

Dentons’s globalization “coincides with a trend in the marketplace,” Cousin told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 8. “It’s very hard to have corporate compliance … if you have 20 different law firms in 20 different countries” giving different advice, he said.

As much as possible, it makes sense to have one law firm, even for multinational clients. “To the extent you can have uniformity and consistency, that would be a very appealing thing to do,” Cousin said.

It gets “complicated,” however, because laws differ among countries. With the firm’s network of lawyers throughout the world, it “can have a sort of a central nerve system,” he said.

Cousin uses monthly telephone calls to keep in touch with the various offices. The local offices hire associates without his input, but he uses video interviews to help screen potential lateral partners. “We’ve superimposed an executive management team that manages the entire firm,” he said. Consequently, Dentons lawyers “get a feeling here that we’re really one firm.”

Affiliating With Local Firms

When a client need arises in a country where Dentons doesn’t maintain an office, it affiliates with local law firms. For example, Dentons doesn’t have an office in Panama, but the firm’s chief executive officer for Latin America would be able to find a suitable lawyer there. “We create these teams of lawyers, and they’re very tailored” for what the client requires, Cousin said.

Cousin works from the firm’s New York office. He doesn’t travel much—about three or four major trips per year— but he’s “starting to travel more” as his children get older.

He prides himself on his litigation experience. On his LinkedIn account, he describes himself as “a real trial attorney,” and when asked about his most memorable case, he rummaged through a mental list of “litigation cases” that “mattered a lot to the client.” Finally, Cousin named Bogage v. Display Grp. 21 LLC, N.J. Super. Ct., Middlesex County, No. L1075-10, verdict 6/7/13.Bogage was a six-week jury trial that Dentons won, a firm spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA.

In that case, Dentons represented a business, Stallion LLC, formerly known as the Strive Group, that had fired an executive for allegedly padding his expense account. The employee, William Bogage, who also was a part owner of the business, asserted claims for breach of contract, fraud, conspiracy, defamation, and tortious interference with contract and prospective economic advantage, and sought compensatory damages in excess of $10 million plus punitive damages.

The judge granted Stallion’s motion for directed verdict with respect to the defamation, conspiracy, and tortious interference with contract claims. The jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Stallion with respect to Bogage’s remaining claims of breach of contract, fraud, and tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, and with respect to Stallion’s counterclaims for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty and fraud.

The case isn't over yet, though. Two appeals are pending before the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court. One was filed by Cousin to appeal the trial judge's denial of attorneys’ fees and costs to Stallion. The trial judge held that as the defendant, Stallion couldn't be considered a prevailing party under the fee-shifting provision in Bogage’s employment agreement.

Bogage is appealing the trial court’s denial of his motion for a directed verdict on the breach of contract claims.

If the trial court judge’s decision on the attorneys' fee-shifting issue stands, it would create new law in the area of contractually agreed-to fee-shifting, with an impact on thousands of executive contracts already in existence as well as executive contracts negotiated in the future, a Dentons spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 11.

Reading by Flashlight

Besides the legal precedent at stake, the case is significant to Cousin because of the unusual logistical problems it presented. The six-week jury trial in New Brunswick, N.J., occurred soon after Hurricane Sandy struck the area. The storm had knocked out the electricity in Cousin’s house, so he “was preparing for trial by reading transcripts by flashlight.” The numerous year-end holidays also interrupted the flow of the trial.

Cousin relished the challenge. “When you have the opportunity to go to trial, and then the trial lasts for six weeks in front of a jury, and then you win, that’s a really special thing,” he said.

Cousin tries to ensure that associates in his practice group learn litigation skills. “These days not a lot of trials happen. So many cases get settled,” he said. In addition to the rarity of trials, clients’ frugality during the past few years makes it “even harder than you’d imagine” to involve associates in litigation. “Clients are watching,” he said, often insisting that a partner rather than an associate do the courtroom work.

Sometimes Cousin will accept a smaller case so his associates can get some useful experience. “I try to give people as much responsibility as they can handle,” he said. “I train associates, and I try to put them in situations as soon as they can take it.”

Despite his enjoyment of trial work, Cousin acknowledges that in employment law, “advice and counsel is critical.” He takes many pro bono assignments from the Lawyers Alliance for New York, which connects pro bono lawyers with not-for-profit clients. These matters provide associates with “great experience counseling clients” and performing such tasks as writing employee handbooks and drafting employee offer and termination letters. “I try to let the associates run those engagements as much as they can,” Cousin said. “You wind up with a better, seasoned lawyer.”

Litigation Experience Is Useful

Cousin himself does a lot of advising and counseling, including contract work for individual executives. He says his experience in litigation cases is “really handy” when he's representing clients who are negotiating their employment contracts for top corporate posts.

In particular, he says, he has “a big advantage” in non-compete and choice of law issues. These issues can become significant because high-level executives tend to change jobs every three to five years, he said.

Maintaining ties with these executives is part of Cousin's business plan. “Those executive contract matters turn into business” representing the corporation where the executives go to work, he said. “Based on that trust that they put in you,” it becomes easier to pitch other lines of work.

Cousin went to college at Columbia University in New York. He majored in sociology and considered getting a graduate degree in that subject but ultimately decided to attend law school at Rutgers in Newark, N.J.

He said Rutgers had a great mock trial program, in which he advanced to the final round of competition. He was less successful in his foray into politics, however. “I ran for student government, and I lost,” he said.

Cousin's other interests include sports. He’s coached his sons’ baseball and basketball teams for 10 years. In addition, he's served on the board at his temple.

He also enjoys watching movies. “I love Terminator, the whole series. I love Arnold Schwarzenegger in those movies.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Gayle Cinquegrani in Washington at gcinquegrani@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Karen Ertel at kertel@bna.com