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Johnnie Come Lately

Six years after O.J., Johnnie Cochran is living on 57th Street, teaming up with Al Sharpton on police-brutality cases, and vowing he's done with criminal law. His final challenge: making sure the D.A. doesn't lay a glove on Puffy.

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The Vice-President, in one of his final acts in office, has just finished addressing the newly elected members of the Congressional Black Caucus and their guests, on the occasion of their swearing-in to the 107th Congress. Someone in the audience shouts, "Gore in four!" and the 38 congressmen seated onstage at the Library of Congress auditorium rise to applaud the vanquished candidate one last time. Al Gore smiles, ruefully shakes his head, then proceeds to shake hands onstage with each of the black House members.

Meanwhile, the event's master of ceremonies, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., has retaken the podium, anticipating his turn for a photo op with the vice-president. When Gore heads for the exit, pointedly bypassing the superstar lawyer, Cochran grabs the microphone at his disposal. "Hello, Mr. Vice-President," he booms in his exaggerated baritone, and he expectantly thrusts out his hand. Gore can't avoid it. He brushes palms -- so fleetingly that, if he's lucky, the Washington Post photographer might miss the moment -- and swans out the side door. The crowd giggles nervously, but Cochran is -- as always -- impervious to the slight, his beaming smile intact.

He hasn't started his sermon yet, but from the altar of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, the Reverend Calvin Butts has already acknowledged the presence of both the Lord and the esteemed Johnnie Cochran, Esq. -- the latter seated second row center. Ever since Cochran popped up in New York four years ago, he has attended Abyssinian from time to time, and Butts enjoys bantering with his celebrity parishioner from the pulpit on Sundays when the lawyer joins the flock. When the keyboardist kicks in at the grand piano ten feet away, Cochran, sitting beside his wife, Dale, sings along gustily to his favorite hymn.

God has smiled on me, He has set me free. God has smiled on me, He's been goo-oood to me.

To hear him tell it, God has almost always smiled on Johnnie Cochran. Although born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Cochran lived in California from the age of 6, and attended the same L.A. high school as Dustin Hoffman. As with many native So Cal-ians, something in the obstinate good weather has varnished him with an impermeable, slightly corny cheer. The button on his lapel reads expect a miracle.

Some believe he may play the race card in the Combs case. But many lawyers doubt a "Poor Puffy" defense would work.

For a sunny California guy like Cochran, it's been hard to be hated. Especially by white folks, when he's made a point of operating smoothly in the white world, not going the Panther route like his client Geronimo Pratt, jailed for 27 years on evidence the FBI concocted because it didn't like his politics. Work with the system was always his motto. That's why it doesn't sit right with him to be seen as a divisive figure. The man who single-handedly picked the scab of national race relations is a master of understatement when necessary. "I'm sure there was lots of anger at me at the time. But it's changed. Even the harshest people will say, 'You did your job.' I refuse to be defined by people out there. That's why I moved to New York. Because there are other things happening."

These days, Cochran lives with his second wife in a modern 57th Street high-rise, and works out of a lower Broadway office in a formerly all-white law firm that now bears his name alone: the Cochran Firm. At 63, Johnnie Cochran is being reborn as a New Yorker. The city's pace is more in tune with his biorhythms than L.A.'s anyway. As Peter Neufeld, Cochran's Dream Team cohort, put it, "He's got the speed gene."

Cochran's life can be neatly divided into Before Simpson and After Simpson. In the former period, Cochran grew up near the Pacific Ocean (but never surfed), went to law school, and then spent decades facing down the LAPD in brutality cases before such cases were common -- and when $25,000 was deemed a huge award. Cochran built up a solid reputation in L.A.'s black community as the man to see if the cops abused you, and his fame grew to the point that even Michael Jackson called him when he got into a little trouble with an underage playmate. Also in the years B.S., he married, fathered three children, divorced, endured a palimony suit, and remarried.

A.S., Cochran has emerged as the nation's preeminent black lawyer, a global celebrity, larger than himself. Felonious rappers, violence-prone athletes, African potentates, black businessmen, average Joes with slip-and-falls and contract disputes -- and increasing numbers of white people -- all want Johnnie's card. He has seven offices around the country, including one in New York, where he joined an established plaintiff firm composed of a group of Jewish guys from Brooklyn whose names are no longer on the letterhead. And that's okay, because they have never been so busy or so rich. The firm has an 800 number and 60 attorneys. It receives thousands of calls each week from aggrieved citizens, and sifts through them to pick out the winning cases.

Cochran had spent little time in the city before 1997, when Steve Brill offered him his own show on Court TV, an invitation that required Cochran to spend five days each week in the network's Third Avenue studio. Brill remembers having to furiously lobby the recalcitrant Cochran to make the move. "He was worried that he didn't know anyone in town," Brill says. Eventually Cochran caved. Brill's wife, Cindy, introduced him to a broker who found him a $750,000 condo in a building next to Carnegie Hall. Pairing Cochran with a former Atlanta prosecutor named Nancy Grace, the show got respectable ratings but very mixed reviews. His social life doesn't seem to have suffered.

His firm's Christmas party in December was a social coronation of sorts. The party at the Essex House attracted 2,000 people, a cross section of New York society, entertainment, and sports figures, including Sean "Puffy" Combs, Michael Jackson, George Pataki, Roy Black, Bill Bratton, Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, and Mark Green. Brill says he turned to another friend on his way out and remarked on Cochran's rapid adjustment: "I guess Johnnie knows people now."

To help with the transition, Cochran hired a New York driver-bodyguard with a cabbie's knowledge of the city's back streets, a taciturn six-and-a-half-footer named Ernest. With Ernest behind the wheel of his silver Chrysler, Cochran rides from speaking engagement to settlement conference to airport reception and back again, always attracting a crowd. Something about his brand of celebrity apparently makes him more approachable for New Yorkers than, say, Gwyneth Paltrow or Jerry Seinfeld. Johnnie rather likes it.

His favorite New York place is Trattoria dell'Arte -- "uptown in my neighborhood" -- where he eats several times a week. For business meetings with Dream Team colleagues Barry Scheck and Neufeld, it's always Nobu. With his New York pals Bill Cosby and businessman Earl Graves (with whom he boats in the Hamptons and skis in Aspen), it's the "21" Club, or City Hall near his office. His days and nights are packed with grip-and-grin appearances and speaking engagements and lunches and dinners, where invariably he is asked for his autograph. "At top restaurants, people stand on line," says Graves. "White people! People who are supposed to be angry with him about O. J. Simpson. When we go out, it takes him ten minutes to get to the booth to eat because of all the autographs."


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