When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, many Bay Area businesses closed their doors permanently, unable to survive the global shutdown. But thanks to the kindness and generosity of nationally known attorney and local landlord Joe Cotchett, a handful of retail stores and office tenants in Half Moon Bay, California, were able to weather the monthslong storm. When the COVID-19 shutdown started, Joe immediately cut their rents completely, and then cut them in half for several months.
I want to set an example and show others the importance of giving back.
“I saw so many community members suffer when owners refused to help their tenants or stores,” recalls Joe, a Peninsula resident and longtime Mills-Peninsula Hospital Foundation donor. “How would it look if the buildings I am fortunate enough to own were empty, shuttered? We must all row the boat together. Fortunately, all of my tenants weathered the storm.”
Such acts of kindness are not a surprise to anyone who has met Joe. A man with a commanding presence, he’s nationally renowned as a fearless litigator and a formidable opponent in the courtroom, but he’s spent most of his legal career fighting for the underdog. Giving back to the community is part of his DNA; it’s also one of the core values of his law firm, Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, LLP.
“My personal philanthropy and gifts from the firm are aligned,” Joe says. “Once a month we look at how we can help the community, whether by giving to education, social justice, community organizations or healthcare. I want to set an example — especially for the younger people at my firm — and show others the importance of giving back.”
After more than 50 years of practicing law, Joe knows that helping the underrepresented, often on a pro bono basis, always comes back to help more people in the end.
“We have represented accident victims, veterans groups, women in the armed services and consumers, helping them to get a fair shake,” Joe says. “And every time we help improve conditions for members of our community, we all win.” With a hearty laugh, he shares that he’s also not afraid to use a little peer pressure to get his friends, colleagues and employees to see the benefits of giving back and getting involved.
Before attending law school at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, Joe graduated from California Polytechnic State University with a degree in engineering. He then went on to serve in the Army as an officer in Airborne Special Forces and later the JAG Corps. He was awarded the distinguished Legion of Merit for his service spanning over 30 years in the Reserves, which involved many air operations.
A Career Filled With High-Profile Cases
At 82, Joe shows no signs of slowing down. He built his reputation winning high-profile cases, including the largest ever jury verdict at the time, involving the savings and loan scandal of the 1990s. Joe represented 23,000 plaintiffs in that case; an Arizona jury delivered penalties of $3.3 billion, along with many verdicts against big Wall Street companies. Over the years, he has tried more than 100 jury trials around the country.
More recently, Joe secured a $500 million settlement against Apple for their practice of reducing battery life on aging phones — a case that will deliver a refund to more than 100 million consumers. Data privacy is the next area he is handling on behalf of consumers; he has brought several major cases to date.
“The patterns of greed and the erosion of ethics across business and government continue to play out in our society,” Joe laments in conversation and in one of his books, The People vs. Greed. He has written a number of books that are used nationwide in the legal profession.
For many years, Joe’s professional passion and commitment to equity has served as a training ground for up-and-coming attorneys. He’s helped to break down barriers for underrepresented litigators and judges. He hired a female attorney before she was even allowed to try cases, and diversity continues to be important at his firm.
Working at the Intersection of Education, Medicine and Law
Currently, Joe’s interest in the intersection of education, medicine and the law is helping to break new ground at his alma mater, UC Hastings. His generous support of the law school has paved the way for the development of an innovative academic village. Starting in the fall of 2023, the academic village will bring University of California, San Francisco, students from several disciplines — legal, medical, pharmacy and dentistry — to live together on campus, to foster strong lifelong connections between those future professionals and their disciplines. The cornerstone of the multibuilding village is the new Cotchett Law Center.
“I want to elevate knowledge about where the law is going and about where medicine is going, so bringing our next generation of professionals together makes me very excited,” Joe proclaims. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to teach doctors what they can do responsibly, and to train lawyers to think about how to build regulations that help patients and encourage innovation?”
Hastings Law Chancellor and Dean David Faigman credits Joe’s vision for kick-starting the academic village project. The project is building on an 11-year partnership with UCSF, in the Consortium on Law, Science and Health Policy, to encourage even more interaction between health science and law students, to forge a stronger understanding of medical and legal processes and protocols in the future.
“Doctors quickly come to understand the social determinants of health that impact their patients and the legal matters that can play a big role,” Faigman explains. “Frankly, patients may not be taking their medication if they are fighting with a landlord. Our early work setting up a legal clinic at UCSF to help senior citizens has shown us how powerful it can be to align these professions.”
Faigman hopes the new academic village, a vibrant professional campus in the heart of San Francisco, will organically lead to creativity and collaboration. “If a brilliant physician creates a wearable medical device, they will benefit from a lawyer explaining the regulatory framework for the development of the product sooner rather than later,” he says.
Many expect the deeper integration of students with a growing mix of specialties will also yield an entrepreneurial culture that extends beyond coursework. For example, Joe wonders, “Could we have developed vaccines for COVID-19 even more quickly if lawyers had been involved to advise on rules and regulations to work around?”
A Lifelong Community Supporter
Joe’s enthusiasm for the UC Hastings project circles back to his love of education and for the communities he serves along with his philanthropic pursuits. He has been a longtime supporter of UC Hastings, Cal Poly Tech, Mills-Peninsula and the San Mateo County Historical Association, as well as many schools around the country.
Joe’s affiliation with Mills-Peninsula goes back to the days of the San Mateo American Heart Association and Mills Hospital. Joe says he supports Mills-Peninsula because he knows that the stronger a community hospital is, the healthier all residents will be. In fact, Joe helped to raise funds and awareness for heart-related issues in the early days. And he proudly states that his family members, including all five of his children, have worked with him over the years to help others.
Joe’s energy is infectious and he puts his power to work by finding opportunities to make the world a better place for all. As U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, a close friend of his, says, “Joe is a modern-day version of Robin Hood. He takes on the bullies and the businesses that fleece consumers, wins in court and then shares the bounty. He sees injustice and stalks it until he can crush it. We are very lucky he is so passionate about the people and institutions in San Mateo County.”
Joe says his gifts to healthcare and education fulfill the same vision: “It’s about keeping an eye on the future and proactively educating people about the importance of their health — because that is life and death, so it is important to us all.”