Trying criminal cases is heated, stressful, and intense; after all, people’s freedom is on the line.
It’s courtroom drama at its highest level.
Taking on the role of a federal prosecutor, otherwise known as an Assistant United States Attorney, requires not only skills and experience, but also courage, insight, aggressiveness, and composure.
When John Cooke, who recently joined leading Silicon Valley litigation boutique Bergeson, LLP as a partner, decided to pursue a career in law, he knew he wanted to go the extra step to become a federal prosecutor. The difference in that extra step is that a prosecutor has a special obligation beyond seeking victory: a prosecutor must seek justice even if that makes winning the case more difficult or impossible.
“The first priority of a federal prosecutor is to ensure that the criminal justice system operates fairly and produces just outcomes,” Cooke told California Business Journal. “Trial lawyers in private practice also have obligations to the administration of justice but they don’t have the overriding systemic responsibility that a federal prosecutor must carry. As a prosecutor you’re always concerned that there’s an even playing field, that the evidence is true and reliable, and that the outcome that is being produced is a just outcome, as opposed to merely a successful outcome from the client’s perspective.”
With a 12-year career as a federal prosecutor, Cooke participated in intense courtroom litigation as he prosecuted cases alleging fraud, money laundering, cybercrime, public corruption, and violent crimes. In one of his trials, in 2019, he took on several of the 35 members and leaders of a violent Chicago street gang charged in the case with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as RICO.
It was a six-week trial that led to convictions for RICO conspiracy, including conspiracy to commit murder and to engage in witness intimidation. Winning the trial led him to an opportunity to coordinate the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s racketeering investigations during a time of increased violence in Chicago.
“It was a difficult case,” he says, “due in part to the numbers of defendants, witnesses, including victims, and years during which the RICO conspiracy took place. But it was a fascinating and troubling look into gang violence in Chicago throughout an era that began in the early 1990s.”
“High-stakes litigation” means turning over the fate or direction of your organization, or your own fate or direction, to a judge or group of jurors who know you only through the facts and arguments that the lawyers are allowed to present. It is in developing those facts and in creating those arguments that an experienced trial attorney can give his or her client the best chance of success.
“Everything in criminal practice is high stakes,” Cooke says, “because it has an effect on the freedom of the people charged with criminal conduct, on their reputation, and on their pocketbook, especially in white-collar matters.”
Cooke also worked in “high stakes” civil litigation for the United States, prosecuting fraud matters under the False Claims Act, such as overbilling Medicare, and defending federal agencies in employment and other disputes.
Cooke has tried a dozen cases to verdict, both criminal and civil, and has successfully briefed and argued cases before United States Courts of Appeals. “It’s a thrill to tell clients’ stories and to advocate effectively for them,” he says. “It takes perseverance, credibility with judge and jury, creativity, good judgment, love of the work, and passion for it.” What sets Cooke apart is the depth of his experience in three areas: his trial and other courtroom experience, in civil matters as well as criminal cases; his experience working with what he believes is the greatest collection of trial attorneys in the country, Assistant U.S. Attorneys; and his experience advocating in one of the most sophisticated and competitive venues in the country, the federal district court in Chicago.
The key to winning trials, Cooke says, is developing a strategy that is both comprehensive and nimble.
“Winning a trial requires you to have a vision for your client and to develop a strategy for that vision. In every case, I determine my trial strategy by thinking what facts, witnesses, evidence, arguments will be compelling and most persuasive to a judge and jury. I poke holes in them, test them with other people, discard some, build better strategies—testing, refining, and strengthening the strategies until all other opportunities to advocate for my client have been exhausted.”
Cooke joined Bergeson, LLP in January, 2022, leaving his position as a federal prosecutor to return to civil litigation. The firm, which has been among Silicon Valley’s leading law firms since its founding in 1990, handles all aspects of business litigation, with emphases in intellectual property, commercial litigation, M&A dispute resolution, securities and derivative litigation, white-collar defense, media law, and employment law. The firm also has extensive experience conducting internal investigations on behalf of audit committees and special litigation committees for public and privately held companies.
“Multiple elements attracted me to the Bergeson firm,” Cooke says. “It is a litigation boutique made of real trial lawyers. They are highly skilled, seasoned lawyers who have the trial lawyer ethos that I encountered working in the U.S. Attorney’s Office . I’m working with like-minded people at Bergeson, very able trial attorneys, like the ones I saw in the government, it’s just in private practice. Trying to replicate the working experience and quality of lawyering that I found in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I found that at Bergeson.”
At Bergeson, Cooke represents clients in high-stakes civil litigation, criminal and regulatory matters, and corporate investigations. The fast pace of Silicon Valley means having to keep up with the frequent changes in business and technology.
“To be effective advocates for our clients, trial attorneys in Silicon Valley must not only quickly understand their clients’ unique position and needs, but also see how their position and needs might change as early as tomorrow and identify ways to add value in fast changing circumstances,” he explains.
Cooke’s favorite cases are always the ones he’s currently at work on.
“I like handling business disputes and white-collar matters that can benefit from someone with substantial trial experience,” he says. “I help clients navigate the dispute up through trial if that’s necessary and can use my experience to guide a resolution short of trial.”
A work-life balance can be elusive. Cooke says that during the racketeering trial, his life and the life of the trial were one in the same, but he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I love the work,” he concludes. “The stress doesn’t feel like negative stress. I’m focused on doing the best for my client. It’s exciting to have to think about it, it’s a privilege.”
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