Once when Ty Cobb, a partner at Hogan Lovells, was trying a case before a particularly cantankerous judge, he wondered if he should worry when the judge asked him to approach the bench. Cobb was a young lawyer at the time, cocky and given to cracking the occasional joke to the jury. It was only his third time before this particular judge, who was known for dressing down lawyers for missteps. The opposing counsel rose with Cobb, but the judge waved him away. When Cobb approached, the judge smiled at him. “Are those new boots?” he asked.
Typical for Cobb, who, unlike his baseball namesake and distant relative, has a tendency to set everyone at ease. The judge, the jury, even witnesses he’s discrediting can be taken in by his down-home charm. His long gray hair spills over his collar, and he sports a full beard and handlebar moustache. “I’ve only had a beard a few times,” he says, “but for some reason this has lasted a couple of years.” He tugs at his whiskers. “We’ll see if I carry it into my dotage.”
“He is an excellent trial lawyer,” says James Ulwick, a partner at Kramon & Graham, “somebody that can connect with juries on a gut level. They see him as somebody who is like them or somebody they would like to be—a bit of a smart aleck, but never in a mean-spirited way; always in a way that is endearing. If you’re a defense attorney and you’ve got the jury laughing, you’re a long way toward an acquittal at that point. He’s got a showman’s personality and he uses it to his great advantage.”
As for the footwear, Cobb explains, “Except for hiking boots, I’ve only ever worn cowboy boots and tennis shoes. I’m fundamentally a cowboy and I’m definitely all about Kansas.”
The cowboy persona is not an affectation. On this particular day, in his office in Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Square building, just a whisper away from the country’s political heart, Cobb is wearing not only the boots, but weathered jeans frayed at the hem and an open-throated, pale blue shirt. “I grew up right here,” he says, pointing to a row of framed photos on his office wall that display his Great Plains heritage. One 19th century photo shows a mule team pulling a wagon across the Arkansas River. Other pictures display early settlers posing in front of their stone and wooden cabins with their few possessions spread on the ground before them. It is a world far removed from the one Cobb inhabits now.
As a federal prosecutor, Cobb quickly became chief of the criminal division, and subsequently the head of the Mid-Atlantic Region Organized Crime Task Force and was once a candidate for U.S. attorney. As a white-collar defense lawyer, he has represented several elected representatives and White House staff, CEOs and members of the CIA. He is the big gun on whom powerful people rely. “Ty Cobb gets results the old-fashioned way,” says Robert Weber, former general counsel for IBM. “He gets his fingernails dirty doing the hard work, he is relentless and he deeply cares about his client. Plus, he’s afraid of nothing.”
High-profile clients often mean high exposure. But Cobb tries to limit that for his clients. “Nobody wants to be infamous,” he explains. “I’ve had a couple of cases where a client started out as infamous and they needed somebody to protect them in the press, so I’ll do it there.” He’s made defensive stands for clients such as Mary McCarthy, accused of leaking classified CIA information. His work has landed him on television programs such as Meet the Press and Face the Nation.
Cobb’s criminal defense and securities litigation practice has taken him to almost every state and several dozen countries, where he has advised boards of directors wishing to avoid trouble and represented executives who’ve already found it. Once, he had just returned from Japan, where he was working a case for Toyota, when he was paged in LAX. His office wanted him to rush to D.C. to meet with a new important client whose government contract had just been suspended as part of a Justice Department investigation. He arrived late that night and was seated at a table with a handful of aged lawyers on retainer with the company. When asked their opinion on the matter, Cobb says, “I heard a lot of advice that seemed not as aggressive as the situation required.” Then Cobb spoke up. “You need relief tomorrow,” he said. “You can’t wait 10 days or two weeks to have this administrative exercise play out. You need this lifted tomorrow. I can get that done.”
He’s worked for them ever since.
The other Ty Cobb, the famous baseball player infamous for his temper, is actually this Cobb’s grandfather’s distant cousin. “It’s not a big part of my identity,” he says. “I mean I like the name. People remember it.” Then, he adds with a laugh, “Now it seems like only my creditors remember it.”
Cobb is the oldest of eight children. His father was a World War II fighter pilot who went into the radio business after the war, beginning as an announcer but working his way up until he owned two radio stations and a small cable TV group; he would go on to chair the Board of the National Association of Broadcasters. He was a hard worker who taught lessons with actions: Don’t whine. Work hard. Don’t look back.
That work ethic and those lessons transferred to his son, who began his own lawn-mowing business at 8. By 13, he was working for the town of Great Bend, taking care of its baseball fields. Like his namesake, he was a star on the diamond, and was offered baseball scholarships at universities around the country. He was also accepted at Harvard without a scholarship. His father offered him this advice: “One thing I’ve noticed in my 18 years of observing you is that you have a very quick mind, and not-so-quick feet.” Harvard it was.
He worked three jobs at Harvard and played on its baseball team as a walk-on. As college was wrapping up, the plan was to become a writer. Cobb says he spent much of the first two years out of school as “a starving writer, mostly riding my bicycle around the country.” But then his dad got sick. So he returned to D.C. “About two weeks before he died he begged me to go to law school,” Cobb says. “I told him I would, thinking there’d be time to back out. But then he died and I was stuck. So that’s why I went to law school.” He pauses, affected. “I don’t think I’ve ever told that story, except to family.”
After graduating from Georgetown Law School, he continued to play ball, this time for a high-level, fast-pitch softball league. “He was once thrown out of the game for arguing with the umpire,” says Bill Scott, who retired about 12 years ago from Collier, Shannon and Scott. “So he got seated in the stands and continued to berate the umpire until they threw him out of the stands as well.” It was a moment worthy of his grandfather’s cousin.
When he was a law clerk to a federal judge, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland in Baltimore asked him to play for them, which he did to great success. “Timmy Baker was the U.S. attorney, and he played third,” says Cobb, a shortstop. “He was pleased with the way I backed up third. So just before baseball season the following year, he called me up to see if I was ready to be a U.S. attorney. The sequence suggests that the offer may not have been entirely on merit.”
Ulwick, who was a U.S. attorney in the same office, says Cobb’s courtroom performance impressed more than his fielding. “Ty was a very charismatic and almost flamboyant prosecutor,” he says. “Once he was working with the FBI on a bank robbery, and the defendant’s last name was Hawkins. Ty, being the way he is, started referring to him as ‘The Hawk.’ Next thing you know, when they indicted him, they gave his real name and then, ‘aka The Hawk.’ As far as I know, the guy had never before been referred to as ‘The Hawk.’ It was just something Ty made up. Well, the guy liked the nickname. He thought it was cool. So he showed up at one of the court appearances with a T-shirt that said ‘The Hawk.’”
Another lifelong friend Cobb made in the Baltimore office was Ed Norton. As the founding president of the Grand Canyon Trust, Norton wanted to protect the Canyon from the Bureau of Reclamation, an agency in the Department of the Interior. Norton alleged it was operating the Glen Canyon Dam in a way that led to deleterious downstream effects. “Our goal was to force the federal agencies—the Bureau of Reclamation and the Western Area Power Administration—to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement on the operation of Glen Canyon Dam, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act,” says Norton. “The federal agencies refused to prepare an EIS. Thus, we contacted Ty Cobb.” The idea of all that land, all that blue sky—it appealed to Cobb. So he put in 1,600 hours of pro bono work on a lawsuit aimed at getting an injunction against the WAPA.
“This was a complicated case with a complicated history, and some not entirely clear law on the discretion of the federal agencies,” says Norton. “Before we filed that case, I had talked to environmental organizations and brought the case to a number of environmental law firms. [Several] said they thought the case was not winnable.”
Yet Cobb managed to get the injunction, resulting in an environmental impact study and significant changes in the dam’s operation.
“Ty has a laser-like ability to pick out what are the key issues in the case and focus on those,” says Norton. “He [got] the witnesses to concede the key factual issues in the case. The trial itself was determinative. His courtroom performance in this case—that’s why we won.”
After the lawsuit, Sen. John McCain spearheaded a statute in Congress called the Grand Canyon Protection Act, which affirmatively stated that the Glen Canyon Dam has to be operated in a manner that protects the downstream environment. Thus the Grand Canyon is protected in perpetuity. That’s enough to make a Kansas cowboy smile.
--This article originally appeared in the 2015 issue of Washington DC Super Lawyers, published by Thomson Reuters.