“I always tell them, if you have a real interest in something and you think it’d be fun, you’re going to have a better job if you follow that, rather than the luck of the draw,” said Cowden, a co-chair of Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice in Kansas City.
Cowden points to his own experience as proof. He primarily defends companies in the aviation industry and handles cases in the areas of product liability and commercial law.
“Ever since I was a little boy, I loved airplanes, I loved cars and trucks,” he said. “Those were the things I liked to learn about, so aviation in particular has been a field that I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
Cowden is a 1970 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Law. On the day he graduated, he was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army, but he didn’t immediately start his service.
Instead, he joined the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, working under former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, another ICON Awards honoree.
The week after he was sworn in as a member of The Missouri Bar, he had to return to the Supreme Court for his first arguments before the high court, Cowden said.
“I was more nervous for that court appearance than any time since,” he said. “It was truly baptism by fire.”
After a yearlong stint in the Attorney General’s office, he served in the Army, where he was assigned to the Judge Advocate General Corps.
When he left the Army, he joined the Kansas City firm Morrison Hecker, where he worked for 18 years. He left in 1989 to join Baker & Sterchi, the forerunner of the firm where he remains today.
Cowden said he is most proud of the “bet-the-company” type of cases he’s taken on, including one involving an airplane manufacturer in the 1990s, which was tried in Alabama. The suit followed a plane crash resulting in deaths.
“I knew if we lost the case, the company was going to declare bankruptcy,” he said. “We tried the case and we won the case, so the company survived.”
Cowden said he also is proud of a case in which he temporarily switched over to the plaintiffs’ bar — a wrongful-death case involving a man who died in jail.
Cowden said the young man had come to the United States from Africa after his village raised funds for him to obtain a college education and return to lead the village. The case settled, and the young man’s family used part of the proceeds to send another brother to the United States in his place.
“It didn’t turn me into a plaintiffs’ lawyer, but it was very satisfying,” he said.