Jeanne Cohn-Connor, ’84: Driving Change for the Environment and Women’s Rights

When Jeanne Cohn-Connor, ’84, addressed the annual Stout Luncheon at the Law School, her talk focused on “Making an Impact: How Women Lawyers Can Drive Change,” a topic that encapsulates her work. With her broad experience, skilled and innovative lawyering, extensive pro bono work, and other significant contributions, she has undoubtedly effected change throughout her career.

After many years as an attorney in New York City and Maine, she joined the Washington, DC, office of Kirkland & Ellis in 2005 with a practice focused on transactional environmental law. As a partner at Kirkland, she has distinguished herself as go-to counsel on the environmental aspects of massive transactional and Chapter 11 restructuring cases. Cohn-Connor served as lead environmental counsel spearheading the global environmental settlement for Tronox Incorporated and its affiliates in complex Chapter 11 proceedings. She advised on Hess Corporation’s significant sale of its Hovensa oil refinery and represented an alternative investment company in its acquisition of a master-planned community that was part of an approximately 500-million-dollar cleanup of contamination relating to historical mining operations. She also advised Sherwin Alumina Company LLC on negotiations with the government and regulatory and liability issues in its successful Chapter 11 filing. Her work has resulted in commendations from publications that include The Legal 500 US and Law360.

“I work with a great team of lawyers at Kirkland,” she said, “and we have come up with some very creative solutions in exceedingly complex cases. At the Law School, I learned how to take apart and resolve the most complicated situations, and this has helped me tremendously in my career. My approach is to be creative in applying legal concepts, be precise in my analysis, and leave no stone unturned in pursuit of the best possible outcome—all hallmarks of a University of Chicago education.”

Cohn-Connor has also maintained a prodigious pro bono workload. She managed a project, involving hundreds of hours of pro bono lawyer time, that resulted in the drafting and negotiation of amendments that Congress enacted to the Violence Against Women Act, expanding the Act to include critical protections for victims of domestic violence, including LGBT individuals, Native American women, and immigrants. These amendments also supported sexual assault victims on college campuses and reauthorized the critical Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

In addition, she has served as Kirkland’s head lawyer for its Kids in Need of Defense caseload, overseeing more than 30 cases representing unaccompanied immigrant children who are seeking to become legal permanent US residents. She represented a young immigrant female who was a victim of sex trafficking, and she provided legal advice to a nonprofit that aims to provide housing for child victims of human trafficking.

“Seeing our client thrive has been incredible, especially after the unbelievably difficult circumstances she endured as a trafficking victim, particularly when she was so young,” Cohn-Connor said regarding her work for this young immigrant client. “Work like this has been extraordinarily rewarding and is one reason why many of us went to law school in the first place.”

Cohn-Connor speaks frequently on topics related to environmental law, immigration, and women’s human rights and has been cited in many media outlets. Last year she hosted a panel in Washington, DC, at which she and four other Law School alumnae discussed insights from their own careers. She is also a founder and cochair of the DC chapter of the University of Chicago Law School Women’s Leadership Network, which aims to provide support and enhance professional opportunities for experienced women alumnae leaders in the DC area.

“Lawyers, and women lawyers in particular, have critical choices to make in how they conduct their careers and their personal lives,” Cohn-Connor said. “Difficult though it sometimes is, I believe it’s vital in your career to be true to who you are and your values, whatever road your career takes you down. The education that I received at the Law School provided me with an invaluable perspective and the foundation to succeed both professionally and personally.”