Cynthia Coffman tapped ‘Best Public Sector Lawyer’

The Colorado Statesman

Chief Deputy Attorney General Cynthia Coffman didn’t even know that she was being considered for Law Week Colorado’s award this year for best public sector lawyer, but when she found out that she’d been tapped for the honor, she viewed it as a warm recognition of her 15 years of public service.

“It’s an affirmation for my career…” Coffman acknowledged. “This feels personal, and something I have earned through a lot of years of working in the public sector. So, it has special meaning for that very reason.”

Cynthia Coffman, pictured here at the state Supreme Court this week, is Law Week Colorado’s “Best Public Sector Lawyer.”
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Coffman was considered in a category that also included “People’s Choice” awards given to Fernando Freyre, a high-profile defense attorney with the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender, and David Broadwell, the long-time Denver assistant city attorney.

A model of professionalism (and fashion), Cynthia Coffman takes part in a fashion show presented by the Colorado Federation of Republican Women in October of 2009.

Winning a “Barrister’s Best” award is a recognition by the state’s weekly law publication of Coffman’s dedication and successful service to the State of Colorado. Meg Satrom, managing editor of Law Week Colorado, said “Barrister’s Best” honorees are chosen by staff members based on their insight working with the top attorneys across the state.

Cynthia Coffman is elated in January of 2007 when her husband is sworn in as Secretary of State, but she remains her own person.

At 51 years old, Coffman has dedicated just about her entire career to the public sector, which offered her an advantage in the annual competition, Satrom explained. And given her marriage to political heavyweight U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, and her ability to work closely with conservative Attorney General John Suthers, Satrom said her staff was impressed.

Coffman — who was Cynthia Honssinger before she married Mike Coffman — entered into a union with him in May 2005, shortly after taking her position in the Attorney General’s Office. The two started dating in 1998 while both were working at the Capitol. [Mike Coffman was a state senator and state treasurer during that time]. Their courtship evolved over many enjoyable dinners at the Imperial Chinese Restaurant on South Broadway, according to staffers close to the dynamic couple.

“Her husband and her boss being who they are, she still manages to hold her own with both of them,” said a light-hearted Satrom.

“We’ve never spoken to someone at the Attorney General’s Office where her name doesn’t come up in a positive light,” she continued.

While the editorial board did not cite any specific cases in awarding Coffman the honor, Satrom did point to her work in the non-profit sector, especially for the Center For Legal Inclusiveness, which is dedicated to advancing diversity in the legal profession.

Taking into account the entire package — Coffman’s impressive public sector law career and her side work for the Center For Legal Inclusiveness — Satrom said her team felt it was appropriate to award her the adoration.

“The reason she went into the public sector in the first place is impressive,” she said. “It makes you want to be more than just an engaged voter.”

Dedicating her career to the public sector

Coffman’s storied background in public sector law launched soon after graduating from law school at Georgia State University in 1991.

Almost immediately, Coffman — who went by Honssinger at the time — went to work for the Attorney General of Georgia where she served as an assistant attorney general. It was with that office that she got her start as a courtroom attorney, representing the Georgia Department of Human Resources, Division of Public Health and Office of Child Support Recovery and Enforcement, and the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

Following her stint with the Attorney General of Georgia, Coffman says she took on one of the most memorable jobs of her career. She became an attorney with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, serving as counsel for finance and risk management between 1995-1997. During that time Coffman experienced one of her most interesting tasks — following the 1996 bombing of Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta during the Summer Olympics.

“I was visiting victims in the hospital and working with insurance carriers who were trying to deny coverage for the criminal act,” Coffman explained of her work. “That was a very interesting job.”

Coffman subsequently followed the path of countless East-coasters looking for a higher quality lifestyle in the proud mountains of Colorado. She called the move a “geographic choice,” migrating to the Centennial State in 1997 without a job and having only one friend living in the state. But the prospect didn’t scare her, and she landed a job soon after.

Colorado Legislative Council hired her for a position working as a staffer for the Senate Judiciary Committee. During that time she drew upon her experiences with the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice and protecting victims following the Centennial Olympic Park bombing.

In 1999, she dove into what would become some of her most important work for the people of Colorado, signing on with the Department of Public Health and Environment as an attorney. It was here that Coffman took on the role of director of legal and regulatory affairs before she was promoted to deputy executive director of the department.

She spent nearly five years working on the environmental side of public policy law, addressing water quality and natural resource issues. Her work with the office came at a time when the state was dealing with increasing concerns over water and air quality, with regional haze becoming a growing problem year after year.

Looking back at her time with the Department of Public Health and Environment, Coffman believes that the state made progress then, and continues to make progress today.

“We closed several of our Superfund sites since that time… places like the Rocky Mountain Arsenal that have been turned into parks and wildlife areas,” Coffman explained. “There’s always going to be environmental issues, but major cleanups have progressed.”

In 2004, Coffman left the Department of Public Health and Environment to serve as chief legal counsel for then-Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican. She advised the Owens administration mostly on budget issues, she said.

“It can be a little tricky, but it’s a lot of fun,” she fondly recalled. “It was a great challenge, and I think that it helped that I had worked in the Legislature and understood the processes, and knew some of the people… It’s easier to get things done when you have those relationships.”

A balanced approach to public policy law

Despite what some might think, Coffman says she was able to put politics aside working for the governor’s office.

“I was able to be a little less political and a little more tactical in explaining to folks the reasons outside of the politics of why a particular law made sense from the governor’s perspective,” she said. “It was very challenging and extremely enjoyable.”

“In some cases it’s very clear that something is a legal issue,” Coffman added. “In other circumstances you can’t look at things through the legal lens without seeing the politics at the edge of your vision.”

It is this balanced approach to public policy law that Coffman says she has brought to Suthers’ office as his current deputy attorney general, a position that she has held since March 2005.

For his part, Suthers is grateful not only for Coffman’s exceptional legal mind, but for her ability to take an unbiased approach to managing his office as well. The balance, explains Suthers, comes in the form of both a streamlined work ethic, with a compassionate undertone.

“Cynthia has done an outstanding job as the Chief Deputy Attorney General. There are a lot of good lawyers who are lousy managers. Cynthia is a lawyer with a broad base of knowledge, who is also an excellent manager,” Suthers praised Coffman.

“I think our management styles complement each other,” he continued. “In the day-to-day running of the office, Cynthia exhibits a nurturing quality that I frankly lack. I believe our employees greatly appreciate that.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com