Criminal defense attorney, Rick Cofer, sits down with Jake Gilbreath to discuss approaching family law and divorce cases when a client has pending criminal charges. Jake and Rick share their experience handling these overlapping situations, clients’ frequently asked questions, and what they have learned is essential for these cases in Texas.
Your hosts have earned a reputation as fierce and effective advocates inside and outside of the courtroom. Both partners are experienced trial attorneys who have been board certified in family law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.
Jake Gilbreath: Welcome back to For Better, Worse, or Divorce. I’m here with criminal defense lawyer extraordinaire, Rick Cofer. So, Rick, just like we do in court, tell us your name, tell us who you are, tell us where you grew up.
Rick Cofer: Rick Cofer, Cofer & Conley, on behalf of the accused. I grew up in Plano, Texas. It’s no Waxahachie, but it’s not bad.
Jake Gilbreath: It’s close geographically, right?
Rick Cofer: It is. You’re a child of Ellis and I am a child of Colin County and there’s just one metroplex separating us.
Jake Gilbreath: Well, I want to get into how you became a lawyer for the defense. But first of all, you and I met in law school, as I remember correctly. So, tell us about your hopes and dreams and why you decided to become a lawyer and go to one of the best law schools in the nation.
Rick Cofer: You remember incorrectly. We met when I was an undergraduate.
Jake Gilbreath: That’s true.
Rick Cofer: I would’ve been 19 years old. Young Jake Gilbreath is 21 years old and he chooses to run as a Democrat for the legislature against the longtime Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. We had a mutual friend named April Adams, who’s apparently doing quite well now. And she said, “I want you to meet my friend Jake Gilbreath” and I gave you I think, $50 or $100.
Jake Gilbreath: You did.
Rick Cofer: And I think you got more votes than any Democrat had received in a generation, which was about 18%.
Jake Gilbreath: Yeah, it was little, I think it was 21%, but yeah, Ellis County, Texas. I’ve talked about that on the podcast. That is how we met.
Rick Cofer: That is how we met. Pre law school. Then, we did go to law school together.
Jake Gilbreath: We didn’t see each other that much because I think we were both working throughout law school.
Rick Cofer: We did both work and either you were ahead of me by a year or I was ahead of you by a year.
Jake Gilbreath: I think you’re older than me.
Rick Cofer: You had better grades.
Jake Gilbreath: How old are you?
Rick Cofer: I just turned 40 in March.
Jake Gilbreath: See, I just turned 39, my friend. You’re the older one.
Rick Cofer: It’s kind of killing me. Things hurt.
Jake Gilbreath: I mean, it’s all downhill from now, it’s fine. It’s 8:00 am in the morning, you and I are both chugging coffee. So, Lord, it’s been that long since you’re in law school. Okay.
Jake Gilbreath: So, I think you’re a year ahead of me because you’re older, my friend. So, tell us about the career of Rick Cofer though. How did you end up where you’re sitting right now? I will say in all seriousness, I believe Rick’s the best criminal defense lawyer in central Texas. We’ll talk about it in a second, I think you’ll take cases outside of central Texas, depends on it. But my criminal defense work in the firm gets referred to Rick.
Jake Gilbreath: So, tell us how you became… and people always ask, “How the hell did you become a family lawyer?” How did you become a criminal defense lawyer?
Rick Cofer: Like you, I was a precocious who loved politics. And I pieced together really quickly that it was very difficult to make a career in politics. But it seemed like the people that did law, generally did well. So, I went to law school without much of a plan of what to do after that, other than that I wanted to make a little bit of money. And I’d got a degree in, I think, historical poetry, something like that. They weren’t selling jobs down at the history factory. And my first job out of law school was working for a prominent criminal defense lawyer. And from there, went into prosecution for a decade-
Jake Gilbreath: In Travis county, right?
Rick Cofer: …In Travis County. Travis County District’s Attorney’s Office. And I loved working in prosecution. I loved working in government. But you can only work in government for so long or you make it your life career. I did not want to be a career lifetime prosecutor. And I loved trying cases and this was sort of the next step.
Jake Gilbreath: So, tell me, before we get into that, what division were you in? What type of cases did you prosecute down at the DA’s office?
Rick Cofer: Started out like everyone, doing a lot of driving while intoxicated, a lot of assault and family violence, progressed over time to a full suite of felony charges, from drugs to capital murder, with a tour of duty in juvenile, handling a lot of child abuse and sex offenses. And I have a little cottage industry now representing juveniles. So, individuals who committed some type of sex crime when they were under the age of 17, we do that all over the state of Texas, and also a lot of adult sex offenses.
Jake Gilbreath: So, talk to us about the transition. So, you made the decision to go into private practice from working at the DA’s office. I mean, I knew you when you were at the DA’s office, you were a feared prosecutor and now you’re going to work for the other side. So, how do you break the news to everybody? Tell me about the transition to deciding… Because you didn’t just do that, you went out on your own.
Rick Cofer: That’s right. I think you and I have a shared philosophy that lawyering is lawyering. In your practice, whether you’re on the side of what I would say is the good spouse, or the side of the problematic spouse, both sides have a story to tell. And in criminal law, there are huge differences between working as the government, the prosecutor, or the defense.
Rick Cofer: When you’re the government, you swear an oath to see that justice is done. That’s a really cool job. You wake up every morning, your job is to go do justice.
Jake Gilbreath: Do justice. Don’t mess it up.
Rick Cofer: Right, exactly. It’s not try, it’s see that it’s done. On the defense, I’m not representing the interests of the State of Texas or the people. I’m representing the interests of the man or woman sitting in front of me. And my job is to tell their story. And everyone has a version of their life that makes sense to them, because just about nobody thinks they’re a bad person.
Jake Gilbreath: So did you go off on your own? Did you get a law partner? How did you develop into Cofer & Conley? I guess let’s pause for a minute and make a plug for your very talented law partner.
Jake Gilbreath: Tell us about Jeffrey a little bit.
Rick Cofer: Jeffrey Conley, like Jake Gilbreath, family law attorney extraordinaire. We do a lot of work with Gilbreath Walters and sometimes on opposite sides, sometimes when there’s a conflict, I will refer something or they’ll refer something.
Rick Cofer: But to back up, I went into private practice, basically hung a shingle. And I remember I found a desk on Craig’s list, and it said, it’s 100% teak desk for $75. Okay, well I need a desk, I went down to pick it up and it was just Walmart plywood stapled to… well it was a crappy desk.
Jake Gilbreath: Well, and let’s be real, Rick Cofer or Jake Gilbreath’s not going to roll up their sleeves and build their own desk.
Rick Cofer: No, that’s right. That’s right.
Jake Gilbreath: I think we would mess that up.
Rick Cofer: And so I just had a kind of ratty office with a ratty desk, and started practicing law, and things grew over time. And eventually I reached the point where I knew that to continue to grow and build the practice I wanted, I could not do it alone. And I had been very blessed to come into contact with Jeffrey Conley, brilliant lawyer, had been from Georgia, had moved to Austin about five years ago. And we were not childhood friends like you and I, and we were not bosom buddies.
Rick Cofer: And I think the success of our practice and our partnership is attributable to a relationship that’s rooted in professional respect, personal admiration, but it is not an emotional relationship. It’s not a, “oh man, he’s my best friend.” And I think that’s actually been a huge strength of ours. Just like, I’m sure you and your partner have disagreements every now and then, we have our disagreements occasionally, but they’re very rare and they are resolved quite easily.
Jake Gilbreath: I always feel sorry for people that sit in on the lunches or dinners with me and Brian, because we just sit around and talk about the business. Because that’s what we want to do all day, right. We love what we do. We love the practice of law, we just want to talk about it all day. And I’ll say, and then we’ll sort of get back to how you’all have grown and everything.
Jake Gilbreath: But yeah, Jeffrey kind of came on the scene about four or five years ago, like I said from Georgia. I mean I knew him before trying a case against him and he was working for a different lawyer at the time before he partnered up with you and we did a jury trial against him. And boy he’s charming.
Rick Cofer: He is.
Jake Gilbreath: And both sides did a very good job, but he was really charming for that too. I thought he did a great job.
Rick Cofer: He has that quality that great politicians have, which is he can walk into any room and everybody loves him and he is effortlessly likable and charismatic on top of the fact that he just has brilliant trial instincts.
Rick Cofer: Usually there’s an inverse relationship between how much a lawyer says he or she is a trial dog, versus how much they actually go to court. And Jeffrey is one of those that thrives inside a courtroom, but is not the type to brag about it.
Jake Gilbreath: Yeah. Back to you, the Cofer of Cofer and Conley. So tell me how y’all grown. Because it’s not just breaking his Walmart desk anymore.
Rick Cofer: No, we were really a product of COVID. Jeffrey and I had kind of plotted out, partnering up, and what we wanted a law firm to look like for about six or nine months in 2019. And we had this whole timeline, we thought we were really clever, we put it all together. And we filed our certificate of formation on March 23rd, 2020. Just could not have-
Jake Gilbreath: Literally the day that the courthouse closed.
Rick Cofer: Yes could not have picked a worst time. He had quit his very well paying family law attorney position two or three weeks prior. And then of course the world sort of collapsed. At the time it was terrifying. In hindsight, it has been a huge strength, because we were born out of COVID and we were able to build to be much more remote friendly, and technology friendly, and to be very nimble.
Rick Cofer: The original plan was to focus much more on our immediate environments of Austin Travis County, Williamson county, Hayes county. I just finished running our… and I’m sure you did the same thing, our first half of 2022 numbers. 40% of our cases are in Travis County, 60% are outside, about 12-15% in Williamson, about 10% in Hayes, which means that almost 40 odd percent of our cases are the Texas Hill country, West Texas, and I mean, we go to…
Rick Cofer: Golly, Thursdays are always our worst day. Every court loves to have settings on Thursdays. And so I was looking at next Thursday and we’re going to Bay City, we’re going to Huntsville, we’re going to Victoria. And then of course Fredericksburg in the Hill Country.
Jake Gilbreath: Well, and that’s the sign though, right? I mean, at the end of the day, this makes us sound older, but gone are the days of where if you’re going to have a lawyer, it’s got to be the three choices I’ve heard the lawyer is in your town. And you go to this one, that one, or that one, depending on what your case is. I mean, folks, Myers… It’s the same with the family law. And I’m sure Jeffrey sees this too, is people just want a good lawyer.
Rick Cofer: That’s right.
Jake Gilbreath: And at the end of the day, that comes down to knowing the law, of course, and it comes down to courtroom skills, which we have, Jeffrey has, and then a lot of it comes down to, this is something that y’all do really well, I want to touch on, is communication.
Jake Gilbreath: It’s just shocking people that listen to the podcast will get sick of me talking about it. But it’s just shocking as far as communication goes, to what I like, I appreciate about you and Jeffrey. I think I had a criminal defense question the other day and I think I called you on the way to work at 7:45 in the morning, which you were probably a little cranky about. And you picked up, you talked me through it. I mean, I send clients to you. It’s like, “well, Jake here’s my cell, have them call my cell.”
Rick Cofer: I do that withyou. When I started, I very much wanted to bring the mentality that I like in customer service to my own practice, where if you call a business office line, a human being answers and you can get your question dealt with. I don’t like automated systems, I don’t like being put on hold. And we’re not necessarily an emergency department, but if your client’s calling you really early, or really late, it probably has the feeling of an emergency to them.
Rick Cofer: And so early on-
Jake Gilbreath: Something bad has probably happened.
Rick Cofer: Yeah, and so early on, I was like, “oh, here’s my cell phone number. Here’s my cell phone number.” And then pretty quickly realized, well not quickly, about after 18 months, a lot of things that people feel are emergencies, maybe aren’t. And over time I’ve really shifted much more, I think like you, to try to run communication through the office. However, there are really genuine emergencies. And what I found is people want to be heard, they want to be responded to.
Jake Gilbreath: Well, they want to be able to jump on that virtual meeting or that phone call. It’s not, “oh, you want to talk to Rick? Well, Mr. Cofer will see you in two weeks at 3:00 PM on a Tuesday.” I’ve seen y’all just be a really responsive. Are somebody at your office, so talk to me about, how many lawyers you have working with you. Because let’s say Rick’s not available. Let’s say Rick’s trying a two week jury trial and Comal County, Texas, he’s not available, what’s your bench look like?
Rick Cofer: That’s part of the model, is we really rely on teamwork. And we’ve been blessed to bring on the team lawyers who are hopefully much better than I am. My goal, I think similar to yours, I want to be the worst lawyer at my law firm. I always want to hire people that I think are better than me, at least in that area that they focus on. And so we have Geoffrey Puryear, who’s a former District Judge, longtime Assistant District Attorney, he joined the practice.
Rick Cofer: We have Mark Pryor who’s a 20 year lawyer. Longtime ADA had been a white shoe lawyer at Vincent and Elkins. We have a number of younger, who are now really becoming mid-level associates who are quite talented in the areas they focus on. So the goal is if you have a white collar case, or a child abuse case, or your routine driving while intoxicated case, it’s not a one size fits all. We’re making sure that you are getting the resources on your case from the people that are the very best at what they do.
Jake Gilbreath: So talk to me briefly about… I guess let’s talk a little bit about family law and criminal defense. Because a lot of times you’ll be getting a call from me because I’ll have a client and he or she’s being accused of a crime, but they’re also going through a divorce. A lot of times it’s because of a family violence issue, but obviously we have sex abuse crimes being alleged in the divorce. Sometimes there’s legitimacy to it, sometimes totally made up and it’s part of a scheme of alienation, sometimes it’s in between.
Jake Gilbreath: So how do you approach it? Let’s say either Jeffrey’s got a family law case and you’re doing the criminal defense or I’ve got a family law case. How are you interacting with the family lawyer of the case and then kind of coaching the client to deal with the civil aspect of what’s going on his or her life, while at the same time they’ve got criminal charges pending?
Rick Cofer: We do a lot of work that has overlapping criminal and family law elements. Nine times out of 10, the family law case drives the boat. And there are two main reasons for that. One is that unless we are resolving the criminal matter with a dismissal, we can’t really put the client in the position of making an admission of any type of violence or bad acts. Because that can contribute to a disproportionate division of the community estate, can make the divorce very problematic.
Rick Cofer: The second reason is when there is a divorce or a child custody matter, and there is animosity between parents or players in the family law case, emotions are high. Virtually every criminal matter in which there is a complainant or a victim on the other side, the district attorney or prosecutor will call that person and say, “well, I’m thinking about dismissing Joe boy’s case. What would you think about that?” And if the husband is really mad at the wife in this divorce, that husband is much more likely to say, “oh, well no I don’t think so, and hang her high and she’s the worst thing ever.”
Rick Cofer: Typically after a divorce is settled out or a SAPCR suit effecting parent child relationship is sorted out, people’s emotions cool, they become a little bit more reasonable. And then I, as the lawyer can go in on the back end, on the criminal matter, and talk with the complainant with the permission of their lawyer and say, “you want your ex-husband to have a job and pay child support and be a good father for your children. Wouldn’t that all be further enabled with treatment and counseling and therapy for the problems you’ve identified? Wouldn’t that be better than for example, making him a convicted felon?” And that’s a different conversation. I will say this, but I have learned, I think divorce lawyers have the harder job.
Jake Gilbreath: That’s funny, because I always tell people our job’s hard, but I don’t know if I can do criminal defense.
Rick Cofer: Absolutely. Because my clients who have allegedly committed murder or some other type of terrible offense, are generally the nicest people in the world. Super friendly, they come in and just a joy to work with. My clients on very low level criminal matters that have some related divorce, are just a ball of emotion.
Jake Gilbreath: Yeah, no I get it. I think the saying is that criminal law, you see sometimes bad people on their best behavior, and then family law, you see good people on their worst behavior.
Jake Gilbreath: So it’s hard, but it all comes down to just, I mean like you said, people have a story to tell, and they need to be able to tell that story and they need a lawyer that’s going to be there for them. I mean, it goes back to something I say on the podcast and I talk to clients about too, and I know you take this to heart and Jeffrey does. I mean, folks don’t want a lawyer that’s going to sit there and beat them up and say, “well, why did you do this? Or you’re wrong.”
Jake Gilbreath: They want somebody that’s advocate for them, and frankly, be there for the good and bad. We’re not going to sit there and tell people everything’s great and rosy, if it’s not. I mean, sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes they’re going through awful situations and it’s hard. And the last thing they want is some lawyer going, “well, this is your fault.” Or, “I can’t handle a difficult case. I don’t like your case. I’m getting out of here.” They need us when it gets hard, otherwise just represent yourself. But if it’s a hard case, then call one of us.
Rick Cofer: I’ve given a lot of thought to why people hire us, us as lawyers. And I analogize it to when I need my truck worked on, I know nothing about cars or engines, but the check engine light will come on, or every few years I need to pass inspection and I take the truck in, I know nothing. And I assume that the mechanic I go to is good. I have no idea if they are good or not, they have good reviews, but that doesn’t tell me the quality that work. And they’ll call and say, “oh Rick, the dilithium crystal, and the flux capacitator needs to be recalibrated.” Could be lying through their teeth. And I don’t know if I need $200 of work or $2,000 of work. But the mechanic I go to, I like, because they make me feel like I’m being taken care of.
Rick Cofer: Similar to our work, I think it’s really hard for potential clients and active clients to know if we’re doing a good job or not. Because a lot of times I will just hit a home run. I will have done the Lord’s work, pulled off a miracle, and they’re like, “why didn’t you do it two months ago?” Or other times maybe I hit a double instead of a home run. And they’re like, “not since Atticus Finch defended Tom Robinson, has there been finer lawyering.” Like, “I did a good job, but not quite that good.”
Rick Cofer: And what’s struck me is when people come to us, the job to be done it’s not exactly legal services. Yes, they’re buying legal services. But the job to be done they’re asking for, is “help me through this scary thing.”
Jake Gilbreath: I agree. Rick Cofer: And that’s why you and I see bad lawyers who are really good at the handholding, who then do terrible legal work. And our great strength, both you Jake Gilbreath, and me, Rick Cofer, is that we really do help clients through troubling moments, and perform great legal work.
Jake Gilbreath: That’s what we’re here for. Well, before I forget, tell me how people can get in touch with you.
Rick Cofer: Coferconley.com 512-200-3801. Google Rick Cofer. Google Austin criminal lawyer. Our search engine optimization is not as good as Jake Gilbreath, but we’ll come up.
Jake Gilbreath: All right. Well, I appreciate it. So that’s all we have for today. As always, if you like what you heard, do us a favor and leave a review. We appreciate feedback. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And thank you for listening.
For information about the topics covered in today’s episode and more, you can visit our website at waltersgilbreath.com. Thanks for tuning in to today’s episode of For Better, Worse, or Divorce, where we post new episodes every first and third Wednesday. Do you have a topic you want discussed or questioned for our hosts? Email us at email@example.com