Attorney of the Month Award for Pima County
By Michele Mirto
Southern Arizona Legal Aid’s monthly award is a distinct honor: of the nearly 1000 attorneys who volunteer their time with SALA each year, only 12 receive the Outstanding Pro Bono Attorney award each year.
Melvin Cohen was selected to receive SALA’s Outstanding Pro Bono Attorney of the Month Award for September 2016. Mr. Cohen began volunteering with SALA in 1986. Over the last thirty years Mr. Cohen has dedicated his time and expertise to helping SALA clients with contract and home ownership cases.
Recently, Mr. Cohen completed a home ownership case for a SALA client. The client was elderly and vulnerable. He lost his home to a caretaker who had taken advantage of his condition. Mr. Cohen tried a bench trial, and obtained transfer of title to the home back to the client. Mr. Cohen and his firm of Mesch, Clark and Rothschild, dedicated four years and five hundred and forty-five hours to the matter and achieved a wonderful result for the client.
Q & A WITH Melvin Cohen
Where are you from? I grew up in the “rust belt,” from Pittsburgh to Steubenville, Ohio. Therefore, I did not know that betting on sports and playing numbers was illegal until I went away to college. My wife, Molly Senor, our two standard poodles and I arrived in Tucson in the summer of 1973 having assumed I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law to start the six month residency required for the Arizona Bar. Fortunately, the Bar dropped mining and water law. I studied for the Bar listening to lectures on a tape recorder in the old U of A Law School, close to the Loft Theatre.
How Did You Start Practicing in Arizona? I was very lucky to have been hired as a law clerk and then a Deputy County Attorney by Pima County Attorney Civil Division. Pima County was undergoing significant growth, implementing a merit system for its employees, and enacting a building code, floodplain code and hillside slope ordinance, while building many projects, including Kino Hospital and Ina Road Waste Water Treatment Plant. I had an early experience with election problems. The computer rejected all ballots, so we had to hand count the computer cards, dealing with “hanging chad” and “pregnant punches” well before Bush vs. Gore.
After several years, I left government and we traveled for a little more than a year. For some unexplained reason, while sitting on a beach in northern Greece and living for less than $5 a day near a village called Metamorphosis, down the road from Paradisio, I finished reading “Bleak House” and decided it was time to start turning back to Tucson to resume my legal career. At that time, the world was essentially at peace. Rather than complete our travels by going to Africa and east to Asia, we ultimately turned around and came back to Tucson. We never finished that last leg of the trip and I will never be young enough to endure sleeping in cheap hotels, hostels, and campgrounds around the world.
Best vacation destinations? Any place that has good art, good museums, good food and good markets. Travel gives you an opportunity to see the best and worst of humanity, the potential beauty and creativity and the endless depravity and destruction that cultures throughout the ages have borne upon others. It seems to be an endless cycle.
What have I learned from my VLP experiences? I work just as hard for my VLP clients as I do for other clients. Unfortunately, I find that I am neither as efficient or knowledgeable as I would like to be. Therefore, the term “practicing” law.
Things I do when not working in law? I am currently on the Board of Literacy Connects and the Southern Arizona Leadership Council. I volunteer at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging conducting regular Sabbath and holiday services. My physical therapist keeps me in the best condition they can, with a substantial regimen of light weights, rubber bands, aerobic exercises and strengthening the core. I am a student of Tai Chi and try to read a variety of literature ranging from the New York Times daily newspaper, mysteries and ancient Jewish texts. For 19 years I was honored to study Tai Chi with Dr. Zee and ancient Jewish texts with Rabbi Lou Silberman, both elders and masters. There is a great coincidence between both disciplines.
I will forever be a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers. Among my most prized possessions is the picture of me and Roberto Clemente with the University of Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning in the background.
What is special about living in Tucson? When I was a law student in Pittsburgh, I heard that in Arizona you could actually see the sun in the morning and a sunset in the evening. We are a community filled with people who enjoy living here.