Shaylyn Cochran of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC has steered a settlement with BarBri Inc. on behalf of a group of blind bar exam takers, moving the test prep giant to make its offerings accessible to test takers with vision disabilities and earning her a spot among the employment law practitioners under 40 honored as a Law360 Rising Star.
BIGGEST CASE OF HER CAREER:
Cochran credits a massive job discrimination case against Sterling Jewelers as one that helped her sharpen her lawyer skills.
"It's been a case where I really have grown up as a lawyer," Cochran said. "I went from being the person that was taking notes in meetings to now being a person who does a lot of the primary drafting on our big briefs and manages our discovery strategy and parts of our trial strategy."
The Sterling Jewelers case began in 2008, when a group of women claimed in arbitration that they were paid less than men and denied opportunities for advancement. It has had a winding path through several tribunals, and briefing is underway in the Supreme Court on the company's request to reverse an appeals court's ruling that said it could proceed as a class arbitration.
The case has helped Cochran realize how lucky she feels to have the opportunity to pursue civil rights work at a major law firm.
"I feel like I have the cheat code," she said. "I'm doing civil rights work at a private law firm, where I have the resources to do this work. I also have the resources to live comfortably. If you would have told me that I could make this a reality when I was in law school, I would have said that's not possible."
WHAT MOTIVATES HER:
"It really is a desire to help people," Cochran said. "In high school and college, I was writing about social justice issues and really reckoning with myself that I wanted to be more directly involved with some of the people I was writing about."
That outlook took on new life in law school when Cochran enrolled in a practical clinic. For two years, she represented clients in family court, often helping domestic violence victims find safety for themselves and their children.
"I'm not just articulating or fighting for an issue now. I'm fighting for Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Johnson's right to divorce her husband who's abusing her to be able to get full custody of the kids and not be pressured into walking away because she's in a domestic violence situation," she recalled, using a fictitious name for a client. The experience of going to court to speak for a client helped Cochran embrace a lawyer's power to help, she said.
The country's reckoning with how it treats Black people is a reminder that civil rights aren't a matter solely of criminal justice or employment, Cochran said. Everything from education to housing to transportation equity plays a role, she said, pointing to a group of cases she's working on in which Chicago-area staffing agencies are accused of systematically excluding Black workers from job opportunities.
"When you think about segregation in Chicago, all those things are interconnected," she said. "If we really want to see meaningful change in our country, we can't just talk about policing."
WHY SHE'S AN EMPLOYMENT ATTORNEY:
Job discrimination matters because it has broad effects that touch more than just the employee who experiences it, Cochran said. They can affect a household income and impact parents' ability to provide education for their children, spiraling into its own set of challenges.
"Civil rights in a broad sense is important to me and should be important to our society, but if we look at the ways that discrimination manifests, we see collateral effects to that," Cochran said. "Employment discrimination, being denied a job, not being paid the same, being denied a promotion, or being let go because of pregnancy discrimination not only affects that person but affects people in that household."
"We see collateral effects," she said. "Your earnings affect your ability to send your kids to school."
While fighting against systemic discrimination, Cochran finds hope in the country's civil rights laws.
"Civil rights laws have been able to stand the test of time. They're not perfect, but at their core is the fact that those principles and things that were passed decades ago before I was born," she said.
These laws have been interpreted and applied in ways that expand and fit needs where they arise, while holding fast to their intended purpose of ensuring justice for all, Cochran said. "I would like to think that Title VII and most of our civil rights laws are flexible enough that that can accommodate our situations and allow for justice," she said.
Ms. Cochran's complete Rising Star profile can be viewed here.