How a profane joke on Twitter spawned a legal army

Their saga begins in 2019, far from Long Island, in a Texas defamation case that took an unintentionally comic turn, then blew up on Twitter.
Last Updated : 26 May 2024, 09:41 IST
Last Updated : 26 May 2024, 09:41 IST

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Here’s one way to build a legal team: Interview graduates from the top law schools or firms, then hire the most qualified.

Akiva Cohen, a trial lawyer at a small New York firm, tried a different way: Spend way too much time on Twitter, talking trash about other lawyers’ cases, then hire the people who post the smartest, most biting comments.

Now, from his suburban family room on Long Island, Cohen, 45, is leading this small team of Twitter adepts against an almost comically outsized adversary in a $500 million lawsuit against Elon Musk.

Their saga begins in 2019, far from Long Island, in a Texas defamation case that took an unintentionally comic turn, then blew up on Twitter.

That January, a voice actor named Vic Mignogna, who made a career dubbing English dialogue for Japanese anime cartoons, was accused on Twitter of sexual misconduct. He denied the allegations and sued three of his accusers for defamation.

His lawyer, Ty Beard of Texas, sent notification letters to the defendants, citing the tweets he considered defamatory.

He wrote that a tweet by one of Mignogna’s accusers, which made a scatological reference to his client, was “defamatory and false,” because “that is another name for feces, thus it is impossible for him to be a ‘piece of’” the word at issue.

Beard was not done.

Of another tweet attacking Mignogna — “What would Jesus do? Light him on fire and send him to hell” — Beard wrote that this too was defamatory and false on the following grounds: “There is not a single place in the Bible where Jesus states that he would ‘light someone on fire and send him to hell.’ Jesus spread the message of love for everyone, not vindictiveness and defamation.”

Theological considerations aside, this is the sort of thing that made Twitter the theater it was.

Cohen was scrolling through his Twitter feed on June 5, 2019, when he saw a screenshot that someone had posted from one of Beard’s letters. For Cohen, Twitter at the time was a water cooler where he could exchange useful or useless information with other lawyers. Beard’s letter was sheer delight — a reward for the many hours he had spent reading dry posts about legal issues.

He retweeted it, figuring that some of his lawyer friends would have a good laugh at another lawyer’s expense, then return to the serious business of lawyering.

A lawyer in North Carolina retweeted Cohen’s post, adding, “Who is Vic? And why does he have a moron representing him on a bumptious defamation claim?”

The battle was on.

“It was just sort of a one-off joke,” Cohen said. “And then it turned into a war.”

Posts about legal cases on Twitter, which is now called X, typically draw little participation from nonlawyers. Mignogna’s case was something different.

“It triggered this avalanche of people who were fans of Vic Mignogna, who came in looking to defend Vic’s honor,” Cohen said. Some waged harassment and threat campaigns against Mignogna’s accusers and other women who had criticized him.

Cohen, joined by other lawyers on the thread, started to gleefully dismantle Beard’s legal arguments, sniping alternately at him, Mignogna and Mignogna’s supporters. “And it just sort of exploded from there,” Cohen said.

Comments on the thread piled up — 1,000, 2,000, 5,000. One lawyer claimed his cellphone got so many notifications that it thawed a frozen burrito in his briefcase.

Someone decided the thread needed a name. Thus was christened the Threadnought.

“It was kind of at the intersection of different cultures,” said Ken White, a California lawyer and titan of legal Twitter who posts as PopeHat. “You’ve got the anime culture, and then you’ve got this online troll culture, and then you’ve got law Twitter culture. And they intersected with spectacular results.”

‘I Don’t Like Bullies’

Cohen is a partner at a boutique New York law firm called Kamerman, Uncyk, Soniker & Klein, where in 2019, he handled a modest book of litigation cases. Like many people who are warriors online, he is genial in conversation: a New York Jets fan, a former high school drama kid, a son of a nurse and a Jewish philanthropy worker. All he ever wanted to be, he said, was a lawyer.

When he started posting about the defamation case, it seemed like something fun to do in his spare time. But things soon got more serious.

Mignogna’s supporters posted Cohen’s home address and photos of his house and his children. Someone, perhaps noticing that he wore a yarmulke, sent a Chinese pork dish to his home.

Other lawyers who had posted on the thread got similar treatment, he said. “We pretty quickly realized as a group that we were taking a lot of the vitriol that was going to be aimed at more vulnerable people,” Cohen said. It gave the lawyers reasons to keep posting about the case. It also brought them closer together.

Lawyers on the thread — strangers in real life — began to have conversations unrelated to anime or Vic Mignogna. Privately, they began to muse: Wouldn’t it be fun if we could work together for real?

One of the Threadnought’s fiercest voices belonged to Kathryn Tewson, a self-described “unemployed housewife” with no legal training but a gift for argument. She had her own reasons for jumping on the thread.

“I don’t like bullies, and I don’t like fraud,” she said from her home outside Seattle. “I saw a bunch of people harassing and bullying the women who were the target of this lawsuit. And that just did not sit well with me.”

Tewson, 49, entered the fray with undisguised relish.

“I love fighting on the internet,” she said, almost chuckling. “I have loved fighting on the internet almost since there was an internet to fight on.”

In 2019, her children were getting older, and she had time on her hands. What else should you know about Tewson? A friend once described her as “the kind of person who will take a guy out from 2 miles away with a sniper rifle and then hike over rough terrain for hours just to slit the corpse’s throat.”

Tewson started to privately question Cohen and another lawyer, Dylan Schmeyer, about defamation law so she could make better arguments. Cohen was impressed.

“She was astoundingly quick to pick up and understand legal concepts, ferociously curious and intelligent, quick on her feet and good with words, and excellent at asking the right questions — over and over and over again,” Cohen said. On the thread, he tweeted, “Kathryn, are you sure you don’t want to go to law school so I can hire you?”

One problem: She did not have a college degree. "So Akiva said, ‘Would you go to paralegal school?" she recalled. Cohen told her that when she finished, he would either hire her or make sure someone else did.

So she went.

At his firm, Cohen was working on a complex estate case worth more than $300 million, and he needed help. This is where Twitter started to leak into real life.

Cohen realized that, amid the trash talk and snark, the Threadnought offered a rare look into how other lawyers’ minds worked, how they broke down cases or constructed arguments. It was much more revealing, he figured, than looking at a lawyer’s resume or law school background. Plus, he saw that they cared enough to do this analysis for free, in their spare time.

When he posted on Twitter that he might need assistance with a big case, Schmeyer piped up.

“I replied to that just sort of flippantly, with, ‘Man, wouldn’t that be fun?’” he said, speaking from his home in Colorado. “He called me at, like, 8 a.m. the next morning with, basically, ‘It would; get in, loser, we’re going ass-kicking.’”

Schmeyer, 34, had worked on a few personal injury cases after law school but had quickly given up practicing law to start a business consulting firm. He had no track record, no real legal credentials — but, oh, those Threadnought tweets.

“I knew from seeing him break down the cases and talk about the law that he had the right brain for this,” Cohen said. “And I knew we got along.” At this point, Cohen and his firm’s managing partner had interviewed one or two candidates through traditional channels. “And then I went, ‘Why am I being stupid? I know of this amazing pool of talent.’”

In January 2021, Schmeyer became Cohen’s first hire at the Kamerman firm. Tewson, who was still in the middle of paralegal training, came almost immediately after.

There was no great plan to build a litigation team from Cohen’s Twitter feed, said Hilton Soniker, the firm’s managing partner. He said he was impressed with the people Cohen brought in.

“We just took it step by step,” Soniker said. “I had a lot of confidence in Akiva. He’s a very bright lawyer. He’d say, ‘I know this person; I think that he could be a valuable addition,’ and I would meet him, and we would agree to retain him. There was no real grand plan.”

In Texas, Mignogna’s suit was dismissed in court, and again on appeal. The Threadnought lawyers began looking for other cases to pick apart.

They quickly turned their attention to lawsuits filed by supporters of former President Donald Trump challenging the 2020 presidential election results, criticizing them as frivolous and dissecting the legal arguments behind them. All of the suits ultimately failed, but not before Cohen and others gave them a working over on Twitter. Cohen called these exegeses Litigation Disaster Tours.

Where the Threadnought was about fighting with trolls, the Litigation Disaster Tours were about explaining complex legal cases to lay Twitter users.

‘Weirdly Meritocratic’

One reader of these Disaster threads was Don McGowan, who was the general counsel for Bungie, a video game company based near Seattle.

Bungie had a problem. People were selling software that enabled players to cheat at the company’s popular game Destiny 2, which ruined the game for those who chose to play by the rules. Bungie wanted to sue. The cases would require a lawyer who could explain technical details in terms a jury could understand.

McGowan thought Cohen’s Twitter dissections did just that. “I said, ‘Wow, if he’s this able to make this nonsense comprehensible, he must be so good in front of a jury,’” McGowan said. He retained Cohen to handle the case.

Cohen’s reaction: “‘You’re joking, right?’ Like, that’s not a thing that happens.”

In the Bungie case, the lawyers applied a novel use of federal racketeering law. They won a $16 million judgment and established that sellers of cheat codes could be criminally prosecuted for copyright infringement and money laundering. It brought them attention and more business.

With the added case work, Cohen needed another lawyer. Again he turned to the people he had met through Twitter. Mike Dunford, a Threadnought regular, was finishing a doctoral program in copyright law and planning to enter academia. Like Schmeyer, he had virtually no legal experience — in fact, no interest in practicing law. But he knew a lot about intellectual property and copyright law, areas where Cohen was getting work.

“Given how bizarre my background is, I’m not sure that a traditional firm would have thought that I was a good fit for it,” said Dunford, who lives in Hawaii. He added, “Akiva actually dragged me kicking and screaming into the world of practice.”

Cohen, who before the Threadnought had barely enough cases to keep himself busy, soon expanded his team to six lawyers and three support staff members, all working virtually; all but one he had met through Twitter.

It was a ridiculous way to build a litigation team. But it made a kind of sense, said David Lat, who founded the legal website Above the Law and now writes the newsletter Original Jurisdiction.

“On the one hand, a lot of people would think you’re just hiring a bunch of randos you met online,” Lat said. “On the other hand, what he has been doing is weirdly meritocratic. Instead of hiring people based on where they went to law school, which is how a lot of legal hiring is done, he’s hiring based on seeing how people think and write in real time and under pressure. I think it’s gutsy, but it seems to be working for him.”

Their biggest case was yet to come. It, too, would emerge from the Twitter threads.

Taking on Elon

Lauren Pringle, the editor of Chancery Daily, a trade publication that covers corporate litigation in Delaware, was an avid reader of Cohen’s threads and was covering Elon Musk’s 2022 takeover of Twitter, which played out in Delaware’s Court of Chancery.

She considered Tewson’s posts to be brilliant, and she thought Cohen was brilliant for hiring her. “I really like seeing other lawyers who step outside the box and take risks,” she said.

Through her coverage of Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, she had gotten to know a number of the company’s former employees. They complained that Musk was not paying them the severance to which they were entitled. Could she recommend a good lawyer? She sent them to Cohen and Tewson.

Soon, Cohen and his small team, all scattered around the country — in Hawaii, Colorado, Washington state, Long Island — were representing more than 200 former Twitter employees in two lawsuits and arbitration. The cases involved mountains of work against an adversary with seemingly bottomless resources, with no money coming in unless or until they prevail.

But if Cohen felt daunted by the task, he did not show it. “To be clear, Elon, you will lose, and you know it,” he wrote in an opening letter to Musk, outlining his clients’ demands. And “deposing you will be a joy.” The letter went viral — on Twitter, of course.

The cases are now working their way through various courts and arbitration bodies. The company has moved to dismiss the suits, arguing in court papers that Cohen’s clients are not entitled to severance pay under the merger agreement between Musk’s company and Twitter, “because they are neither parties to it nor intended third-party beneficiaries.”

Cohen said, “Thank God we’ve got other work, that we do have income coming in.”

For the lawyers, the case against Musk closes a period in their collective lives. After meeting one another on Twitter, they have now scattered to other social media platforms, including BlueSky. Legal Twitter, through which they found one another, is no longer the place to be. “It’s not what it was two or three years ago,” Lat said.

Cohen softened his tone to note the irony. “Twitter was what made it possible for us to get together,” he said. “And now we’re suing it.”

He blames Musk for what he considers the deterioration of a platform that had once allowed his group of square pegs to find one another and to thrive. “In a very large sense, he broke our home,” Cohen said.

“So there would be a certain poetic justice,” he added, “to get a victory for these clients.”

Citing the continuing litigation, Cohen declined to say more about the Twitter cases. But in a story that began with Vic Mignogna and the trolls of anime, that produced the Threadnought and the meaning of feces, is a little poetry too much to ask?

Cohen thought it was not. “It would be,” he said, “the perfect ending.”

Published 26 May 2024, 09:41 IST

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