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Ciny Cohn, '89 

Fighting for Justice on the Digital Frontier

By Clarissa Sansone
Nov. 1, 2012

Here's some heartening news: even those MLaw grads not in the top 10 land fascinating jobs. Cindy Cohn,'89, is living proof. "I was nowhere near the top of the class," Cohn told students at a recent Inspiring Paths presentation, organized by the Office of Career Planning. The legal director and general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a civil liberties organization, Cohn confided what her secret to success was (not): "How did I get here? It wasn't by being a stellar student." Her focus had not been class ranking, but "to try to help create justice." To this end, she said, "Michigan helped me in a really big way."

Cohn took advantage of the variety of practical offerings at Michigan Law both to gain valuable experience and to rule out careers that weren't for her. She praised CALC as "a great clinic"—"I actually got be someone's lawyer"—but found she was not suited to child advocacy. Prof. Bruno Simma taught Cohn human-rights law, and through a Belfield / Bates scholarship, she had the opportunity to work for the UN Centre for Human Rights in Geneva. But "it moves too slowly at the UN," said Cohn, who went on to work at a large firm ("I was a lousy fourth or fifth associate on a case"), and then a small firm. "I learned how to be a lawyer at a small firm," Cohn said.

Being at a small firm also enabled her to take on a case involving new technology and something called the Internet. With this and similar cases that followed, Cohn realized that emerging technology was the field in which she could create justice. She began working with EFF in about 1995 on her first Internet case, and through that case, "we changed the law" and set standards for the Internet and new technology as a whole. "By then I was hooked," said Cohn, who joined EFF full time in 2000 and describes the work of EFF as making sure "civil rights go with you when you go online, and aren't degraded."

It was the culmination of her Law School experiences that brought Cohn to a career she loves. She reminded students to "be open and flexible" while in law school, but to also "keep focused on what you want to do." And: "Work for things—the jobs that are the most fun and fulfilling just don't come that easy."

Listen to Cindy Cohn's talk (authentication required).


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