Friday, August 1, 2008




I just finished a wonderful lunch with Nate Cohn, one of San Francisco’s great criminal lawyers. Nate related some extremely interesting stories of his life as a new and struggling criminal lawyer in San Francisco back in 1948 and how Jake Ehrlich helped and inspired him in his practice.

Nate Cohn & James Farragher Campbell in 2008

As Nate began his career, after passing the Bar in December of 1947, he had three jury trials under his belt before the early part of 1948. He remembered one case where he was retained for $150 to represent a black woman from Mississippi who was charged with assault. It was around Christmas time, and having possessed the instincts of a criminal lawyer, he sold the Christmas angel to a friendly judge. This client was also a bail jumper on a felony case, which he packaged together with the misdemeanor, and took it all to the felony judge and got both cases dismissed. Such sleight of hand at the Hall of Justice did not escape the notice of the reigning monarch of the criminal bar, Jake Ehrlich. He took note of Nate Cohn and monitored his progress.

Within a short time, Jake approached Nate and congratulated him on what he was seeing this young lawyer doing in the criminal courts. In those days a preliminary hearing (a hearing before a judge who had to determine if there was probable cause to hold the defendant over for trial in the superior court) usually only took about a half hour or so. Now Nate Cohn was conducting preliminary hearings that were taking half days, full days and on some occasions a week to complete. Nate was turning the PX, as it is referred to by criminal lawyers, into a mini trial. Jake expressed his admiration for such diligent and tenacious advocacy and told Nate: “You’re going to be a great lawyer. I never saw anyone put so much time and energy to try to win a case at the PX.” Jake was absolutely correct, Nate Cohn went on to be one of the greatest criminal defense lawyers in San Francisco and across the country.

Pictured above Melvin Belli, Jake Ehrlich & Nate Cohn in 1965

It is no small tribute to Jake Ehrlich that he was always extending a hand to other lawyers in which he saw promise. The same can be said of Nate Cohn. He did the same for me as a young lawyer as Jake did for him.

Nate fondly remembers one day he got a call from Jake inviting him to lunch. Now this was something because it was public knowledge that Jake Ehrlich had lunch every day with Lou Lurie at Jack’s Restaurant. They had a big table right inside the door; the movers and shakers of the City on public display everyday. Nate admitted he was a little intimidated to receive such an invitation but got up his courage and went nonetheless.

Jake introduced a young Nate Cohn to Lou Lurie (Powerhouse of the City). “Lou, this is Nate Cohn, an outstanding lawyer.” Lou took an immediate liking to Nate and a new history began.

Jake advised Nate: “Beware of the ‘B & Ps”. The expression stands for “bleeders and pleaders.” These are unscrupulous lawyers who take money and then just plead the client guilty without giving them any defense.

Jake Ehrlich told Nate, “If you want a jury to go with you, look like a lawyer. Knock yourself out to look good for them, show them you respect them, they will respect you. Present yourself with a professional image. Have your clothes and case in order.” As we all know Jake was always impeccably dressed. He was a standout and there was no mistake on what his profession was to any onlooker. You knew immediately he was a top shelf lawyer.

One story about Jake that really touches my heart, and which hits close to home, is the time Nate went over to see Jake at his house in Marin. Upon arriving at the house he was shown out to the back yard to find Jake sitting next to the pool completely dressed in French cuff shirt, necktie and suit pants. Nate told Jake, “This is Marin; it’s very causal over here, why are you dressed like that?” Jake replied, “I don’t have any casual clothes.”

Even if you never met Jake Ehrlich, you would know him immediately. He had the most distinguished look of any lawyer in the City. He always sported a very bright white and exaggerated pocket square. To this day, I have had older people on juries tell me that they remember Mr. Ehrlich and how great he dressed.

Nate related that Jake told him a story about himself and how he tried to attract clients when he was starting out as a lawyer. When Jake was a young lawyer himself he would wait until he had a hundred dollars. He would then get a one hundred dollar bill, go to a good bar in the tenderloin (not like it is today), put the one hundred dollar bill on the bar and announce to the entire bar, “The drinks are on Jake Ehrlich the lawyer.”

Jake was named the “Ring Master” of a charitable group called the Saints and Sinners. Tommy Harris was the Jester and started referring to Jake as “Master.” Some say this is how Jake’s moniker (“The Master”) came about. One of their projects was to raise money for a school milk program. Nate had arranged for his mother to come down to Montgomery Street outside his office at 105 Montgomery Street and set up a small card table to sell tickets for this program. She would sell the tickets two or three days a week from 11:00 to 3:00 each day.

Jake would make it a point to stop by after his lunch and sit down and chat with her. Nate remembers how impressed his mother was that the “Master” would be so nice and spend this time with her.

Jake Ehrlich made favorable impressions on thousands of people in his life. He helped thousands of people. These are just a few little tales of his lasting magic on the City and its people.

Happily, I can report that if Jake were here today he would see his fine tradition of helping his fellow man being practiced by many San Franciscans. He would also see that many of his colleagues in the criminal defense bar practice what he did so well–extend a helping hand to our newer members who are just getting started.

Indeed, when he helped Nate Cohn, little did he know he was helping a young lawyer who went on to become one of the greatest criminal lawyers in the City’s history. Nate Cohn would go on to start the American Board of Criminal Lawyers (, the most prestigious group of criminal lawyers in the country.

Jake may have thought he was helping one lawyer, but it turned out he was helping hundreds.

The one statement that stood out in my mind that Nate made about Jake Ehrlich, as we were finishing our lunch, was:

“Jake was a great lawyer, a great gentleman and his word was his bond.”

What more could a lawyer hope to have as an epitaph?

[James Farragher Campbell has been a California based defense attorney since 1975. You can learn more about James by clicking here.]

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