January 17, 2002
Balancing the Scales
Orthodox lawyer Neil Cogan leads colleagues in study of Jewish law and American statutes.
What is the duty to assist those in danger under Jewish law compared to American law? The question is no mere academic exercise to Neil H. Cogan, dean of the Whittier Law School, who spoke on the topic last week as the inaugural speaker of the recently formed Jewish Lawyers of Orange County.
More than 50 lawyers attended the Newport Beach luncheon at the Pacific Club, the second Jewish professional group organized under the Jewish Federation of Orange County. In addition to a 10-person advisory panel, the group's honorary chair members include Todd Spitzer, a county supervisor; Joel Kuperberg, Irvine's city attorney, and Kenneth Wolfson, counsel to developers of the Foothill Ranch and Rancho Santa Margarita.
"What the committee wanted was to tie into Jewish life," said Jeffrey Rips, the Federation's campaign director and group organizer. Like the Federation's other professional group, who are real estate executives, the lawyers' group intends to meet three times a year. In addition to socializing and networking, the goal is for each event to also count as credit toward the State Bar's continuing-education requirement. Whittier Law School certified the first event met credit requirements.
The school's dean said such academic-sounding discussions can take on contemporary relevance when considering the extraordinary lengths the U.S. government sometimes takes to aid its citizens throughout the world. Yet, unlike Jewish law, which compels intervention to assist those in danger, most American statutes are absent a legal obligation and instead encourage autonomy, he said.
"Having talks about Jewish law or Japanese law or Islamic law, all of that is helpful because it helps thinking," Cogan said. "Lawyers have been trained to think outside the box before it was a phrase."
Cogan, too, will have to heed his own advice to achieve the goals he has set for himself and the school since relocating from Connecticut last July.
"I hope to take what is already a very fine school and build it into a state and national school," said Cogan, 57, who competed against 100 candidates vying for the job. The school's previous dean, John A. FitzRandolph, who over a quarter century led drives for accreditation, relocation and growth, died last March, less than a year after retiring.
The 35-year-old law school relocated to a new Costa Mesa campus in 1997 from Los Angeles' Hancock Park. Next year, two new teachers are to be added to the 27-person faculty, which includes three teaching deans. More than half of the school's 653 students attend full time and 42 percent are minorities. Among the graduating class of 2000, 86 percent were employed a year later.
Cogan's goal is burnishing Whittier's reputation by encouraging faculty scholarship and establishing specialized centers where students learn the rules of their profession. He has also added a summer abroad program, including an alliance with Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University.
"It's really support and encouragement that will make a difference," said Cogan, editor of three works on constitutional subjects and author of numerous articles cited by law reviews.
When tapped last March for the job, Cogan had been on sabbatical, serving as a visiting scholar at Yale University and coordinator of a distance-learning venture at New York University School of Law. For the previous seven years, Cogan was a professor and dean at Quinnipiac College School of Law in Connecticut.
Cogan, one of the few Orthodox law school deans in the country, often must balance observant practices with the modern workplace. For example, bringing along kosher-prepared food to a lunch meeting would be gauche. "I have to meet people. I can't bring a brown bag to a restaurant," said Cogan, whose typical order is a tuna fish sandwich. "I don't neglect any part of my job," he added.
Cogan lives in the Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles with two of his five children. His wife and three younger children will relocate later this year.
In May, the Federation will consider creating similar networking groups for the county's Jewish physicians and high-tech executives.