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Vincent Cohen Jr. is a partner in Dechert’s litigation practice, and focuses on government and internal investigations, government enforcement matters, and complex civil and criminal litigation. He also sits on the firm’s policy committee, which oversees the management of the firm worldwide, and leads Dechert’s Black Affinity Group.
Cohen joined Dechert in the nation’s capital in January 2016 after serving as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and was previously Principal Assistant U.S. Attorney for five years.
Bloomberg Law spoke to Cohen about Big Law’s progress in terms of diversity and inclusion, the importance of public service and community involvement, and his experience investigating witness tampering in the Rwandan genocide trials with then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Bloomberg Law: What sets your firm apart from other Big Law firms?
Vincent Cohen Jr: I believe that our commitment to a culture that respects and values everyone’s voice, and where people are trusted and empowered to do their very best, is what sets Dechert apart. Our firm chair and CEO, who personally recruited me to the firm, are both passionate leaders who believe in empowering organizational culture and leading with positive impact. Our Diversity Champion Award is an important initiative which sets us apart from other firms. This award is a peer-nominated award, which recognizes individuals, regardless of their role or title, whose actions and activities within the firm’s community embody and advance our diversity and inclusion strategy. And each winner receives a $10,000 bonus.
BL: What is the biggest challenge currently facing your practice area?
VC: We are facing uncertain times and the greatest challenge is helping our clients find as much certainty as possible. As a white collar, government investigations, and crisis management and response lawyer, I help clients navigate the complex global regulatory and legal landscape which often shifts and can be interpreted in different ways by different jurisdictions. Often the problems that arise and become headlines aren’t the result of malfeasance, but employees taking short cuts, complacency in the workplace, and an overwhelmed workforce. The little problems slowly build to big ones. I understand how to confront these problems before they become destructive or newsworthy. I often say that I don’t sleep a lot, so that my clients can.
BL: In 1972, your father was then-Hogan & Hartson’s first African American partner and later became managing partner, how far has Big Law come in terms of diversity since then?
VC: Progress has been very slow, but the positive trajectory can’t be denied. It’s now widely accepted that having diverse teams, which bring different backgrounds and perspectives, are key to delivering the highest-quality legal services to our clients. The conversation isn’t about why diverse teams are important, but how do we do better at recruiting, developing, supporting, and retaining our diverse talent. In addition, 50 years ago, we wouldn’t have been having firmwide conversations about racial justice and systematic racism and what we can do as a profession to combat it.
Today, we also have mounting pressure from corporations who are requiring strong commitments to diversity when selecting outside counsel. I think that pressure is well placed. It is incumbent on everyone in the legal community to work toward a more diverse legal community — from the general counsel requiring diverse legal teams, to partners within firms making sure that the work is equally distributed, to other minority lawyers in other firms maintaining a diverse referral pool, so that minority lawyers receive the same benefits that their non-minority colleagues have received since my father made partner and before.
BL: What is your favorite story from your career/practice?
VC: 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, 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—and in some cases physically harming—a number of survivors/witnesses in an attempt to force the witnesses to recant their stories. Hearing the stories and investigating the tragedies that these witnesses endured was the most memorable and most powerful legal experience of my career.
BL: What advice would you give an associate just starting out his/her Big Law career?
VC: For any aspiring lawyer, I highly recommend government service early in one’s career. It is a tremendous personal and professional growth opportunity which often provides the chance to work at a higher level than one’s experience level would allow in the private sector.
Additionally, involvement in non-profit organizations is another way to gain experience, nurture relationships, and make a positive impact on the community. For example, I served as general counsel, and remain an active member, of 100 Black Men of America, Inc., an organization focused on improving the quality of life of minority youth in the Washington, D.C. area. And for three years, I have been an elected member of the Board of Governors of the Washington Bar Association, the oldest African American bar association in the country. These positions have afforded me the opportunity to meet great people from diverse backgrounds and different chosen careers, which helps greatly with business development. In short, not only is community involvement the right thing to do, it makes great business sense.