Attorneys At The Succeeding In Spite Of Top Dismal Diversity Trends
Derek Sells, Managing Partner, The Cochran Firm
Derek Sells’s interest in law took root as he observed his parents fight for integration in the Bay Shore School District in Suffolk County. His mother, Grace, was a nurse and his father, Merton, was a real estate entrepreneur. Buttressed by their spirit of exercising their legal rights, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in history from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and resolved to see that others understood their rights. That understanding, he contends, gives you a level playing field to pursue your goals.
In law school at Yale University, Sells organized a “street law program” with fellow students to provide legal outreach and education to the wider New Haven community. The program was a way to build a bridge between his elite school and the economically disadvantaged community that surrounded it, he says. “As a Black law student I encouraged law students to go to area high schools to help Black students be informed and to understand their legal rights in dealing with the police, with merchants, with credit and anything having to do with the issues affecting them,” Sells says.
His passion for “leveling the playing field” underpins his record of winning judgments with substantial monetary awards for his clients. That passion also is in keeping with the vision of effecting social change held by the late Johnnie L. Cochran, founder of The Cochran Firm, where Sells now is managing partner.
Two cases attest to Sells’ passion and concern for social change. In the case of Michelle Evans, a Cornell University student who was run over and killed on campus by a drunk driver, Sells argued for and won as part of the resolution a mandate that the university create a perpetual scholarship in Evans’ name. In the case of 11-year-old VaSean Alleyne, who also was run over and killed by a drunk driver in Queens, Sells and Alleyne’s mother lobbied the New York State Legislature, resulting in the 2005 VeSean’s Law, which changed death by drunk driving from a misdemeanor to a felony.
“As a lawyer I’m proud of all my accomplishments. I’m proud of the work I do on a daily basis. The Alleyne and Evans cases will last a long time, but there is still a lot to do,” Sells says. The Cochran Firm already engages in pro bono work, but Sells is also a member of the Coalition for Concerned Legal Professionals, a voluntary non-profit group committed to providing legal representation for people who cannot afford it. In keeping with his “street law” outreach program, he gives presentations at various churches and at the district attorney’s office and high schools in Queens. “Every so often, I return to my old job at the Public Defender’s office in Washington, D.C., and give time there. The one thing I’d like to be remembered for, is [that I was] an honest, fair-minded and zealous advocate for my clients.” Sells says. Sells is married to Mina Malik, a Queens district attorney who accompanies him on his outreach missions. The couple has two sons.