Photo by Laura Barisonzi.
Vincent H. Cohen Jr. had dreams of moving on to the NBA from Syracuse University, where he graduated in 1992. Though it didn’t work out, his second choice of a career path has turned out remarkably well. Cohen received his law degree from Syracuse in 1995 and has since enjoyed an impressive mix of work in government service and private practice, now as a Washington, D.C.-based partner at Dechert. As discussed in Lawdragon’s Roundtable on the firm’s global white-collar group, Dechert’s practice benefits tremendously from the prosecutorial experience of its team members. Cohen is a prime example. He has twice worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for District of Columbia, including a stint as Acting U.S. Attorney during the Obama administration. Cohen also is involved in a wide range of diversity and public interest endeavors.
Lawdragon: Maybe we can start with a few topics explored in the Roundtable. Can you comment on how government investigations from a large number of investigative agencies have grown to such a magnitude? Did your views on best practices change when you moved from prosecution to private practice?
Vincent Cohen: It is not an accident that government investigations are increasingly sophisticated and complex. Partly in response to public pressure and developments such as the financial crisis, agencies such as the DOJ have been deliberately ramping up fraud investigations and prosecutions to police companies. Because there is no shortage of ways in which a seemingly narrow investigation can mushroom into multiple proceedings by multiple agencies in numerous jurisdictions, alertness, creativity and flexibility are the best practices for corporate counsel.
Experienced counsel must deploy every tool and tactic available, including quickly getting in front of government investigations by conducting careful internal investigations, conducting shrewd negotiations with the government, challenging overreach by seeking to quash subpoenas, and so on. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. In this way, my view has not changed since moving to private practice because as a prosecutor, especially when I was acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, creativity, initiative, and flexibility were the order of the day. On both sides, there are very smart, effective lawyers at work.
LD: What about the crisis management element of the practice? How do you toe the line of being forthcoming and preserving client rights?
VC: This gets back to the principle that businesses need to ensure they have good counsel as early as possible in any situation. Outside counsel has the advantage of being specialists with greater resources and also being more removed from the situation and, often, more able to create and implement a response without distraction. Outside counsel is also adept at balancing complex considerations including whether the benefits of disclosure – such as cooperation credit and keeping a governmental investigation narrow – are outweighed by the merits of invoking the company’s rights and avoiding waiver issues down the road. Such decision making requires a rapid, on-the-ground assessment which is often more efficiently and effectively done by outside counsel, providing the company the ability to continue to concentrate on providing services to their clients. Businesses need to make sure they are engaging the services of experienced outside counsel at the earliest opportunity.
LD: What types of cases or investigations are keeping you busy now? Are there trends you are seeing in your practice?
VC: FCPA investigations continue to be a major area of focus. The number of cases waxes and wanes, but the overall number of cases is a misleading measure because any given proceeding can include information from multiple investigations. The SEC is active and we are seeing a renewed focus on securities fraud, including alleged cases of backdating, stock manipulation and fraudulent reporting. We are seeing a lot of cross-border coordination and investigation, as exemplified by the FIFA-related cases.
LD: Can you share a few aspects of your practice that you find professionally satisfying?
VC: I enjoy the ever-changing nature of white-collar work. As the government’s tools become more complex, I expand my knowledge base and skills. Thus, I am always learning and growing. I also enjoy the fact that my clients come from all over the world. I get to see such a fascinating array of cultures and achieve solutions tailored to different countries and contexts. I find this variety endlessly fascinating and it keeps my work fresh.
LD: How did you develop an interest in the law in the first place?
VC: My father was the first African American partner at a major law firm in Washington, D.C., so you could say it’s in my blood. I knew from an early age what I wanted to do and I had a great role model. When I was a child I went to one of his trials and as soon as I saw him give his opening statement, then I knew that I wanted to follow in his footsteps and be a trial lawyer. As I watched my father’s career develop, I became only more convinced of my career path.
LD: How did you decide on Syracuse for both undergrad and law school?
VC: As a young man, like many other young men, I had aspirations to play in the NBA. Syracuse gave me the opportunity to play college basketball, and that was a chance I was not going to turn down. When my NBA plans didn’t pan out, I decided to attend Syracuse Law. My father was a Syracuse undergraduate and law school graduate, too. In fact, my mother is from Syracuse and my parents met there, so it’s a special place for me.
LD: Was there an early experience or mentor who really helped shape the course of your professional life?
VC: As an attorney fresh out of law school, I clerked in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia for Judge Cheryl Long. She taught me that just learning the facts and doing thorough research is not enough to be a great lawyer; you also need to have the right temperament and remain calm under very stressful environments, like during trial. I would also acknowledge Eric Holder, who gave me my first opportunity as an Assistant U.S. Attorney when I was only two years out of law school.
LD: What led you to want to become a federal prosecutor?
VC: I was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and while I was growing up I saw first-hand the way that the city was changed by the emergence of a new drug: crack cocaine. It created a crime wave which really changed the city I loved. So I wanted to do something to make the city safer and better, and more like it was when I was a child.
LD: What types of cases did you handle as a federal prosecutor? Were you involved in cybercrimes, national security or other areas high-profile matters?
VC: During my time at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for District of Columbia, I had the pleasure of serving in a variety of capacities, including as acting U.S. Attorney and, before that, as the Office’s Principal Assistant U.S. Attorney for five years and as a line AUSA for six years before that. As a result of the different roles I played and the nature of the Office – it is the largest in the United States – a huge range and variety of cases came across my desk. Washington, D.C. is unique in the United States in that you get to handle all the local trials such as domestic violence cases, assaults and murders, as well as national security cases, public corruption, financial and health care fraud and False Claims Act matters. That variety of experience gives you a solid foundation for later in your career when you focus on the white-collar side. I also helped establish and expand the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Cyber Unit to prosecute cross-border cybercrimes such as insider trading schemes exploiting confidential information obtained through cyber breaches. And then I was able to work on policy issues as a member of Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s Advisory Committee, a small group of U.S. Attorneys from across the country who advise the Attorney General on policy, management and operational issues.
LD: What drew you back to the U.S. Attorney’s Office after your first stint in private practice?
VC: When I was at the Office during my first term there, I would always imagine what I would do if I was in charge. So, when I was asked and given the chance to run the day-to-day operations of the largest U.S. Attorney’s Office in the country as the Office’s Principal Assistant U.S. Attorney, that was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. I was very excited by that possibility and the reality was even better.
LD: Aside from or in addition to case work, what were the challenges of managing such a large office?
VC: The U.S. Attorney’s Office tends to attract the best and brightest lawyers in the country, so it is important to keep them stimulated and engaged by providing them with differing and challenging cases to work. As the younger attorneys develop and grow, their interests and ambitions change, too, and maintaining that balance in an office of many talented individuals was challenging. We often rotated the lawyers to different sections of their choosing so that they could have new and exciting career experiences.
LD: Are there lessons you drew from public service that continue to serve you well in private practice?
VC: Government departments tend to manage by committee, so my government experience taught me the importance of building a consensus and working with a team. That skill carried over well to private practice because, when your clients are large international businesses and they are involved in complicated situations across many countries and with lots of interconnected issues, there are a number of decision makers. Effective outside counsel must not only be able to provide excellent legal work, but also ensure that everyone is on the same page. And while building consensus and working with the in-house counsel and executives within the client, outside counsel must also coordinate with the government. I use the techniques I honed in public service to make sure that everyone buys into the theory of the case and that the strategy is going to be in the client’s best interests.
LD: Is there a prosecution or client in your career that stands out as a “favorite” or one that is particularly memorable?
VC: Beginning in 2005, the United Nations tasked me and my former colleague, Loretta Lynch, with investigating witness tampering in the Rwandan genocide trials. We went on fact-finding missions to Kigali in Rwanda, and Arusha in Tanzania, and interviewed witnesses and visited some of the key sites connected with those tragic events. Through our investigative work, we were able to recommend that charges be brought against investigators that were responsible for intimidating a number of survivors/witnesses. It was the most memorable and powerful legal experience of my career.
LD: What an intense and impressive accomplishment. What do you do to relax and get away from the practice of law?
VC: I have a large family and really enjoy spending as much time with them as possible. Also, I think spending time with the younger generation is so important; it really energizes me and gives me a better perspective on life. It makes me focus on what I am doing and how I am a role model for future generations. Also, as you can imagine I am big college basketball fan, so I spend a lot of time watching games. March Madness is the best time of year for me!
LD: Are you involved in any pro bono or public interest activities?
VC: I was always told growing up, “to whom much is given, much is expected.” I am the immediate past general counsel and an active member of 100 Black Men of America, Inc. Greater Washington, an organization focused on improving the quality of life of minority youth in the Washington, D.C. area. The members do this through programs focusing on health and wellness, economic empowerment, education, and mentoring. I also lead Dechert’s Black Affinity Group, which works to promote diversity around all of our 27 offices. Diversity and inclusion are taken very seriously at Dechert, so this role is one that is very close to my heart. I am also on the Board of Governors of the Washington Bar Association, one of the oldest African American Bar affiliates in the country, and am a member of the Innocence Project Lawyers Council.