Each year, incoming law students enter the halls of this nation’s law schools with particular dreams about the course they expect their career to take. Some law students have bold dreams of becoming in-house legal counsel for a professional sports team. For some, this dream becomes a reality. David Cohen is one such person.
Today, Cohen serves as General Counsel for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He is the only individual hired by the team for this purpose.
So how did Cohen get to become General Counsel for the Angels? His story is one not only of his educational background and knowledge, but of making the most out of personal and professional relationships.
Cohen’s road to becoming General Counsel of the Angels began in high school, long before he ever set foot in a law school classroom.
“I started off as a high school student without direction. It all goes back to high school for everyone, doesn’t it? My high school athletic trainer took me under his wing and showed me the ropes of athletic training and I decided that it was something I wanted to pursue as a career. So I went to [college at] West Virginia, which had a really good and established athletic training program,” said Cohen.
In his young age, Cohen’s career goal was to become an athletic trainer for an NFL team. At the time, he did not envision himself as an attorney for a Major League Baseball team.
“My goal at the time was to be an NFL athletic trainer. So I sent resumes out to all of the NFL teams. I got a bunch of rejection letters on really nice letterhead back. I was kind of disappointed by that. I thought, with all of my experience at a decent program and with decent grades, I would have had a good shot for an internship,” explained Cohen.
Not willing to believe that the door to a career in professional sports was closed to him, Cohen sought out the advice of others to learn how he could obtain a career in professional sports. He began by reaching out to the curriculum coordinator at West Virginia.
“The curriculum coordinator told me those positions [of NFL athletic trainers] are set in stone before anyone applies. So I said, ‘How do you get into sports?’ [The coordinator said], ‘You have to develop some connections.'”
Set on finding a career in professional sports, Cohen went back to the place where his career path started: his high school.
“I went back to my high school athletic trainer. I grew up in the Baltimore area. He connected me with the head athletic trainer for the Orioles, who introduced me to their minor league athletic training coordinator. Next thing I knew, the summer after my junior year, I had an internship with their AA team, the Bowie Bay Sox. That was 1994. I spent the summer there and really enjoyed it. I then went back to school, finished and then took my certification examination in November 1995 and passed it. In January 1996, the Orioles called me and said they had a low-level position in the Gulf Coast League in Sarasota, Florida. I took it, went to Florida and spent a season down there. During the off-season, I had a chance to get a full-time job with a full-season club. I changed colors and went to the Expos [organization]. I spent five years with the Expos [organization]: two years in Fayetteville with Cape Fear, half a season in Jupiter with the Florida State League and two-and-a-half seasons with Harrisburg. I also got to work the Maryland Fall League in 1998 and the Arizona Fall League in 1999,” noted Cohen.
Around this time, Cohen was ready to take the next step with his career and move into the big leagues.
“In 2001, I started to think, ‘O.K., I’ve been in AA for a couple of years, how do I get to the big leagues?’ I looked around and saw some people who had done everything from creating an injury tracking system for their team to coordinating the medical spreadsheet for the Arizona Fall League, to doing something else unique. So, I looked at things and said, ‘Workers compensation is becoming a bigger and bigger part of sports, so maybe I should go to law school.’ I started law school at Widener in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in the fall of 2001,” said Cohen.
Throughout law school, Cohen did not complete the typical clerkships that many law students endure during their summers. Rather, he worked as an athletic trainer with the Boston Red Sox’s short-season team. He also spent time working with the law firm who handled the Red Sox’s workers compensation cases. Ultimately, because of his wife’s desire to relocate to her home state of California, Cohen completed his legal education at California Western School of Law in San Diego.
Cohen’s path to the Angels began to be paved during a telephone call in 1997, when he was working with the Expos organization and prior to the time when he entered law school.
“During my first year with the Expos, which was 1997, we were having some change-over with the person who did workers compensation. During the season, the old person who was leaving (and ultimately ended up with the Blue Jays), was on a phone call with the new person, as well as all of the athletic trainers and the Vice President of Baseball Operations [for the Expos, Bill Stoneman]. We all got on a call and went through the medical status of everyone on our club and brought the new person up to speed with all of the injuries,” said Cohen.
While at the time, that conversation likely seemed like business as usual for Cohen the athletic trainer, later that year, a piece of mail he received would make it a conversation that stood out in his mind.
“I was in graduate school during the off-season working on a Master’s degree. In December 1997, I went to my mailbox one day and there was a fraternity magazine there. So I started thumbing through it, and there was a nice article about that Vice President of Baseball Operations [Bill Stoneman]. He was in my fraternity [Beta Theta Pi] at Idaho, while I was [in the fraternity] at West Virginia. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s kind of neat.’ I picked up the phone and sent him a congratulatory voicemail. He thanked me. He was about to go on vacation and had not had a chance to see it, because the mail was slow. I thought he couldn’t go on vacation before seeing this nice article about him, so I faxed it up to him before he left. He remembered me for that. It just goes to show, find connections anywhere you can,” explained Cohen.
Throughout the years, Cohen kept in touch with Stoneman. In 1999, Stoneman became General Manager of the Angels.
Several years after Stoneman became General Manager of the Angels, Cohen was entering his third year of law school without any idea of where his legal career would take him.
“After the 2003 season with the Red Sox, my contract expired on September 15. I was starting my third year of law school and I thought, ‘Well, what am I going to do now?'” said Cohen.
Luckily for Cohen, that question was answered.
“My phone rang one day and it was that old risk manager from the Blue Jays that I had kind of kept in touch with. She said, ‘Bill Stoneman is looking for your phone number. They’re looking for someone to help out with workers compensation!’ So I picked up the phone and I called him. We ended up interviewing and he hired me. I started in January 2004 as a third year law student. My first title was ‘insurance risk manager.’ My job was to get some of the workers compensation related losses under control,” noted Cohen.
A series of events would take Cohen from ‘insurance risk manager’ to General Counsel of the Angels.
“I was supposed to graduate in the spring of 2004 but, I graduated in the summer instead. I took the February 2005 [California] bar examination and passed it. About one year later, a former player [Jose Canseco] wrote a tell-all book about steroids in the game. The Commissioner of Baseball [Bud Selig] appointed someone [George Mitchell] to investigate the use of performance enhancing substances in the game. I had started picking up some contracts and looking at things here and there—doing a bit of labor law and a bit of sponsorship deals. When that came through [the investigation into the use of performance enhancing substances in MLB], I was in a very unique situation as the only lawyer here, but also because of my background, I understood the clubhouse and the mentality. I had also done a lot of my Master’s research on performance enhancing substances, so that kind of got me looked at more in the way of a lawyer than a risk manager. I’ve been here since and it’s been a wonderful eight seasons,” said Cohen.
Cohen’s ability to make lasting and meaningful connections arguably served as a catalyst for him landing a career many dream of. However, once in the seat as General Counsel for the Angels, Cohen did not relinquish his networking skills. As a newly minted attorney who was the only in-house counsel for the Angels, Cohen often reached out to others to seek advice on legal issues the club dealt with.
“I talk a lot about the benefits of being involved—not just being a member of an organization, but being involved. You can’t be involved in everything, but choose one or two key organizations to be involved in. I got involved in one of the ABA sections, so I was able to connect with a lot of lawyers in a lot of areas. Whenever I had a question, I just picked up the phone and called them. They were very good about helping me out. I also found good outside attorneys to help me. You can’t underestimate the value of those connections I made through being involved,” Cohen explained.
Cohen is also an advocate for what he calls, “doing nice things for people.”
“Little things make a difference. I really think Bill [Stoneman] remembered me, because I took the time to make sure he saw something. For him, it meant a lot. For me, it was ten minutes of my time. Look at the dividends it paid,” said Cohen.
Years later, the high school student “without direction” sits in a corner office housed at Angel Stadium which overlooks a section of the stadium. He is aware of the hard work and relationships that got him to this position.
“I never thought I’d be in California, let alone at Angel Stadium. When you’re a high school student, you think your plan is going to stay your plan and that’s going to be where you’re going to be. I thought I was going to be an NFL athletic trainer. Did I take a totally different career path? Yes. I’m happy about the way things turned out. I’m really lucky. Everyday, I walk in and make sure that as long as it’s not covered in dirt, that I see the field. Because it’s a reminder of where I work and what’s our core business, but also, how lucky I am that I get to come to work here everyday and see that field,” said Cohen.
Get the free weekly newsletter so you can win the game.