Johnnie Cochran is one of the most recognized names in law today. He is a respected attorney of more than 40 years who vaulted onto the international stage during the controversial O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995.
Cochran talks to The Early Show about his new book, "A Lawyer's Life," which chronicles his court cases and reflects on his growth as a person and a professional.
Simpson was just one of his famous clients. He has also represented in the past: Geronomo Pratt, Michael Jackson, Sean "P-Diddy" Combs, Todd Bridges and Reginald Denny — to name a few.
Read an excerpt from "A Lawyer's Life":
Before becoming involved in the Simpson case I'd seriously considered retiring—though admittedly my wife Dale never for even a moment took me seriously—but at least the thought was in my mind. But my success in the Simpson case provided me with the kind of high-profile celebrity and visibility few attorneys have ever enjoyed. Court TV hired me to cohost a nightly TV show. Characters in movies made reference to me; in one of the Lethal Weapon movies, for example, Chris Rock warned a suspect after reading him his Miranda rights, "…and if you get Johnnie Cochran I'll kill you." In Jackie Brown Samuel L. Jackson told a compatriot that the lawyer he was hiring was so good, "He's my own personal Johnnie Cochran. As a matter of fact, he kicks Johnnie Cochran's ass." I appeared as myself in the Robert De Niro/Eddie Murphy film Showtime. I appeared often as a guest on shows ranging from the very serious Nightline to Larry King's show to sitcoms like The Hughleys. Saturday Night Live and Seinfeld parodied me. I was at the center of the uniquely American celebrity blitz.
It was fun. At times it was a lot of fun. And I knew that accepting it good-naturedly, even participating in it, helped soothe some of the angry feelings from the Simpson case.
But I never forgot who I was, what I believed to be my purpose in life, and those things that I had fought for my entire professional career. As a result of my efforts in the Simpson case I was given the extraordinary opportunity to express those views publicly, loudly, and often. The Simpson case gave me the platform to try to change some of those things that need to be changed in this country. Many of the cases I accepted were vehicles to force those changes to be made. They were not all racial discrimination cases, some of the most important civil cases concerned basic property rights, for example. But whatever the dispute, it was the Simpson case that put me squarely in a position to make a difference. And that was precisely the reason I became an attorney.
I am a black man. I am the great-grandson of slaves, the grandson of a sharecropper, the son of a hardworking businessman. I am at least a fourth-generation American: This is my heritage and my country and I am so very proud of it. I believe in the goodness of this nation even when I have been so often exposed to the worst part of it. I believe completely in the legal system as it was designed to function by the Founding Fathers, although I know from my experience that too often it doesn't work that way. Many of my battles in American courtrooms have been a simple attempt to extend the benefits of that system to those people who for so long have been excluded. My career did not begin—nor did it end—with the trial of O. J. Simpson. I didn't create myself to try that case and no one can truly know who I am merely by virtue of my work in his defense.
I am also an attorney. A lawyer. Just about as long as I can remember the only thing I wanted to do with my life was practice law. My mother wanted me to be a doctor, but I wanted to be a lawyer. That was probably the first case I won; my parents supported me in pursuit of my dream. I can't remember the precise reason that I decided on the law, but I know that it had much to do with the fact that I liked to argue. Liked to argue? I loved it, I absolutely loved it. In high school I excelled in debate. I don't remember a single question we debated, but the questions didn't matter as I was able to take either side of almost any reasonable statement. But I do remember that incredible surge of power and satisfaction I felt when I made a strong argument and dragged people over to my side of the question.
I learned to defend my ideas and beliefs at the Cochran family dinner table. My father, Johnnie L. Cochran Sr., set the intellectual standard for his children. He had been the valedictorian of his class at Central Colored High when he was only fourteen years old. He expected us to work as hard as was necessary to reach our fullest potential. And he seemed to think our fullest potential was always a little fuller than we did.
My mother, Hattie B. Cochran, was the disciplinarian. If we did something wrong, if we got out of line, it was mostly my mother who would apply the punishment. Once time I talked back to my mother and the next thing I knew my parents had packed a small bag for me and were taking me to reform school. Reform school! I hadn't even said anything bad, I just answered back to her. If I close my eyes I can see my two sisters, Pearl and Jean, sadly waving goodbye to me as I left for that reform school. Fortunately, my parents gave me a second chance. I learned in that house in the projects of Alameda, California, the value of the English language and the importance of using it correctly to make myself heard. I had to just survive.
I do remember with great clarity the day of May 17, 1954, one of the most important days of my life. I was sixteen years old, in the eleventh grade at L.A. High School. On that day the Supreme Court of the United States issued its decision in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The court ruled that the long-accepted practice of "separate but equal" that had legally permitted segregated facilities to exist in this country was unconstitutional. "Separate but equal" was inherently unequal. This decision marked the beginning of the end of legalized racial discrimination. And the man who had made that happen was a black lawyer named Thurgood Marshall, the only man besides my father that I idolized, who later became the first black man on the Supreme Court. I didn't know too much about what a lawyer did, or how he worked, but I knew that if one man could cause this great stir, then the law must be a wondrous thing. I read everything I could find about Thurgood Marshall and confirmed that a single dedicated man could use the law to change society.
When I was growing up, first in Shreveport, Louisiana, and later in Los Angeles, the law was not a profession easily accessible to "Negroes." Black people were considered qualified mostly for blue-collar work. Service jobs. Labor. A few black men, like my father who was an insurance salesman, worked for black-owned companies serving the black community. Black men rarely were able to enter elite professions like medicine or the law. In fact, the only black lawyer most people knew about was Algonquin J. Calhoun, a bumbling caricature from the Amos 'N Andy Show.
So I became a lawyer to change society for the better. I wanted to be like my idol Thurgood Marshall. In retrospect that seems pretty audacious, but I truly believed that if I worked hard enough, if I was smart enough, if I wasn't afraid to stand up and say loudly to the whole world what I knew to be true, I could do that. Me, Johnnie Cochran, the great-grandson of slaves, I could cause society to change.
Excerpted from "A Lawyer's Life" by Johnnie L. Cochran and David Fisher (Contributor). Copyright © 2002 by Johnnie L. Cochran. Published by St. Martins Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.
Copyright 2002 CBS. All rights reserved.