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Rodgin Cohen: Don’t Give Up, Law Grads

March 11, 2015, 1:53 PM

H. Rodgin Cohen, Senior Chairman of Sullivan & Cromwell, shared some encouraging words for law graduates who haven’t had the fortune of attending one of the top-ranked law schools in the country.

In advance of the U.S. News & World Report rankings on Tuesday, Cohen sat with Big Law Business and laid out why students who haven’t gone to a Yale or Harvard can still make it at Sullivan & Cromwell.

While Cohen has largely relinquished managerial responsibilities at Sullivan & Cromwell since he stepped down as chairman in 2010 to focus on his practice, his views are meaningful as a senior member of the firm.

This is the first of a two-part series in which Cohen -- dubbed the “Trauma Surgeon of Wall Street” by the New York Times -- expresses his views on the legal market and the primary forces affecting the business of his 136-year-old firm.

Part I Excerpts:

I think our biggest challenge is very simple. It’s to make sure that we have the highest quality people, because, at the end of the day that’s all we have to sell. We don’t have goods. We have one specific type of service, and that’s the people.

I am not sure if it’s still true, but for a number of years as chairman, I would ask the incoming (associate) class, ‘What law school do you think has the highest percentage of associates who became partners (at Sullivan & Cromwell)? And the answer was Ohio State.’

We’re a big firm. You can’t manage a firm of 750 lawyers like you can a firm of 150, which is where it was when I started.

As I liked to say when my kids were growing up, one of the stories that I liked to read them was ‘Leo the Late Bloomer,’ which was about a lion cub who becomes king of the jungle: People mature intellectually at different levels, at different times.

[caption id="attachment_2833" align="alignleft” width="217"][Image “Courtesy of Sullivan & Cromwell” (src=https://bol.bna.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/CohenHR-color.jpg)]Courtesy of Sullivan & Cromwell[/caption]

Below is the first installment of an edited transcript of the interview.

Big Law Business: What’s the biggest challenge facing a firm like Sullivan & Cromwell?

Cohen: I think our biggest challenge is very simple. It’s to make sure that we have the highest quality people, because, at the end of the day that’s all we have to sell. We don’t have goods. We have one specific type of service, and that’s the people. The key to success is starting with recruiting, making sure we develop them and train them and that they have their necessary skill sets.

Big Law Business: How do you go about doing that?

Cohen: We’re a big firm. You can’t manage a firm of 750 lawyers like you can a firm of 150, which is where it was when I started. If your summer class is 115 it’s almost 8 times harder than 15.

What we have done on recruiting is twofold. We took one of our very best and productive partners and made him head of recruiting (Sergio J. Galvis). He still practices, but a significant amount of time is dedicated to heading up our recruiting effort, and we put a lot of pressure on our partners to be active in their recruiting process because that is what tends to get the law school students to come here as associates.

On development, we have done a lot of things. Some we have done right, and others not so well. We put in a rigorous mentoring system for our people and we actually have a group of dedicated professionals: non-lawyers who are in charge of training all associates, making sure they get a good mix of work and have a good experience here. It can’t be done informally here. It’s the right formal processes.

Big Law Business: How does Sullivan & Cromwell bring new lawyers onboard?

Cohen: What Sergio has made clear is that partners have to pitch in. We are all busy, but this is so critical that we have to spend time. There is this absurd situation where the callback interviews occur in late August. We have begged the law schools to change this. It’s not good for the students and it’s not good for the firms. That is when people tend to get away on vacation, but you need them here. Sergio is very diligent in having the right team to go out to each law school. It’s often but not always graduates of that law school (who join Sullivan & Cromwell).

Big Law Business: How do you pick?

Cohen: It’s difficult. These men and women have outstanding academic records. We look for the special spark – the intellectual curiosity – as a key distinguishing feature.

Big Law Business: What law schools do you recruit from?

Cohen: Just because of the constraints, it’s probably not a large number that we focus on. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, NYU, Penn, Virginia, University of Chicago, Stanford, Texas, Duke, Berkeley, Cornell. I think that is what we focus on, but another one of our strengths is that we get a lot of write-ins. We get a lot of interviews on campus, but people will write to us and say, ‘We would be interested in applying.’ Most young people when coming here are amazed at how many -- what I would call non-traditional law school graduates that we have as partners, and not just as associates.

I am not sure if it’s still true, but for a number of years as chairman, I would ask the incoming class, ‘What law school do you think has the highest percentage of associates who became partners (at Sullivan & Cromwell), and the answer was Ohio State.’

Big Law Business: What does that tell you?

Cohen: It tells you that there are some real gems who don’t go to what are considered to be the very best law schools. And, as I liked to say when my kids were growing up, one of the stories that I liked to read them was ‘Leo the Late Bloomer,’ which was about a lion cub who becomes king of the jungle: People mature intellectually at different levels, at different times. People who go to college and don’t do well can go to law schools and do splendidly.

Big Law Business: Do you have any figures on associate retention at Sullivan & Cromwell?

Cohen: It’s difficult, because it varies from year to year. Most of the people who leave here, the vast majority of associates who leave do so because they want to do something else, as opposed to that they are not doing well here. We are fortunate in that. We are hoping the recruiting process is vigorous enough that we don’t have too many to be ill-suited here. I think that the best way to look at this though, is the number of partners who leave. That is a more measurable statistic. I am quite convinced that we lost fewer partners – because it’s almost zero – to other law firms than anyone.

Part II of the Rodgin Cohen Series will include: Cohen’s outlook on practice trends in regulatory enforcement, as well as his view on alternative fee arrangements.

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