Trailblazing Trial Attorney: Vincent Cohen Back

By Joyce Jones

Vincent Cohen is the man: former all-American, local political Midas, and a managing partner at Hogan & Hartson, one of Washington, D.C.’s toniest law firms. He radiates warmth and has an amusing analogy for every occasion. It’s a winning combination that engages juries and disarms opponents, making him one of the most accomplished trial attorneys in the nation. It also makes him a hit with clients.

"It’s hard to be complimentary enough about Vinnie," says Jim Young, general counsel at Bell Atlantic and one of Cohen’s biggest fans. "The thing I’ve always admired about him is the way he refines a case down to the three or four most important themes and just keeps hammering away at them. He is one of a very small coterie of truly excellent trial lawyers." In addition to Bell Atlantic, Cohen is credited with bringing other major corporations such as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the Potomac Electric Power Company, and the Washington Post to the firm.

Cohen is a man governed far more by thought than emotion. When asked what led him to the legal profession, he cannot recall an epiphanous moment or experience. He simply says, "It was just something I always wanted to do, and I did it." Closer observation might point to the competitive nature he developed on the rough and tumble streets of Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood. With the smile of a cat savoring a canary, he declares, "Litigation is win-lose, and I like to win." His clients like winning, too, and Vinnie Cohen rarely settles a case. "We’re unique," he says of Hogan & Hartson. "A lot of major firms just shuffle papers and settle, but we actually go to trial. I love trial."

Getting to trial often means winning what Cohen calls a "beauty contest," referring to the visits corporations make to various firms to check out the talent and discuss such issues as win-loss ratios prior to choosing legal representation. Those statistics are important, but he also believes it’s critical for potential clients to consider this: If you were in deep trouble in China, would you send a lawyer who doesn’t understand the culture? In the District, Cohen notes, "These white lawyers you’ve been talking to don’t know anything about black folks, and guess who’s going to be sitting on your jury?"

As any litigator worth his hourly rate knows—lose the jury, lose the trial. Like the beloved sports hero, Muhammad Ali, Cohen charms juries like a butterfly as he stings opponents like a bee. "He’s just extraordinary at that," says Young. Corporate giants like Bell Atlantic are often at a disadvantage at the beginning of cases because people assume they are bullying the little guy. "Vinnie is so good at relating to the jury on a very personal level. He gets people to look at him as warm and credible," he adds.

The Trials of Becoming an Attorney

Vincent Cohen went to Syracuse University in the 1950s with a basketball scholarship and determination to score both on and off the court. "If the top of the line was an A, I wanted an A," he says. "You’ve always got to go for the top. That’s how I’ve been all my life."

In 1957, he was drafted by the Syracuse Nationals, now the Philadelphia 76ers, but opted stay at Syracuse, which offered him a law school scholarship. Instead of scoring points, he used his "court savvy" to earn grades that placed him in the top 10% of his class and a coveted position on law review.

After earning his law degree in 1960, Cohen headed to Wall Street in search of challenging work at a prestigious firm. He recalls being told, "in a very nice way by a young white partner, ‘We don’t hire Negroes.’ "He believes the fellow was a little embarrassed and ashamed because he also said, " ‘Look, if it was up to me, I’d hire Negroes, but the clients wouldn’t let you handle their matters."

Today such comments would land that young partner in the middle of a suit that Cohen could win in a day, but in 1960s America, White Americans were allowed to say such things. "It was a learning experience," says Cohen. As a child he’d not had much contact with whites; as a college basketball star, they were clamoring to shake his hand. In law school, he had more difficulty finding an apartment than his white counterparts, but in the classroom, he could more than hold his own.

"I knew there was racial discrimination, but that was the first time it really slapped me in the face," says Cohen. "You can’t whine and cry, that’s just the way it is," says the always-pragmatic Cohen. "The white man telling me they don’t hire Negroes is the way it is. I’ve got to work; I’m going to get a job. If it ain’t here, it’ll be there."

"There" turned out to be the legal department of New York’s Consolidated Edison Company. Jobs at utility companies and in federal agencies were not as difficult for young black attorneys to come by. "It wasn’t that the country was getting better," he explains, "The people who opened up [opportunities] did so with no risk to themselves." Following stints at the Ohio Bell Telephone Company and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Cohen went to work at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

Harder Fight For Diversity

According to DOJ lore, when Bobby Kennedy became attorney general during the 1960s, he looked around and wondered how the agency could be the department of justice when there weren’t any Negro lawyers working there. When told his staff couldn’t find any Negro lawyers, Cohen says, "Kennedy told those white fellas, ‘You’re fired. I’ll get somebody in here who can find qualified Negro attorneys.’ " Fearing for their jobs, they found the future Washington, D.C. Superior Court judge, Gene Hamilton, the future chief judge of the District Court, Norma Halloway Johnson and Vincent Cohen. "It’s a lesson I’ve remembered to this day," says Cohen. "If you really want people to do something, put their economics in play."

In 1969, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., white firms began to open their doors to black attorneys. Cohen received many offers, but chose Hogan & Hartson because of its frankness. "I knew there were racists at all of them, but it was the only place that said, ‘There is discrimination, but the leadership at the firm has shifted—It won’t be easy, but we’re trying,’ " recalls Cohen.

And it wasn’t easy. "I was given cases, but I wasn’t given any help," says Cohen. So on weekends, when no one was around he roamed around the office "to see what I could pick up about how the system worked. I learned how the game is played." Finally on the right track, his greatest concern was catching up with his law school classmates who hadn’t been told "we don’t hire whites." They were halfway to the finish line, so he "humped it" twice as fast.

Unfortunately, black lawyers today are still trying to catch up. Hogan & Hartson has five black partners and about 10 black associates. The firm is considered by many to be ahead of other Washington firms in the area of diversity, but there is still much work that has to be done. In some ways, Cohen believes, young black attorneys today have a harder fight than he did. "I don’t think they have trouble getting in; they have trouble staying the course," he wagers. "Unlike the old timers, they have never experienced raw, rough racism. They see a world that initially seems fair because they went to the best colleges and law schools. But now they discriminate subtly and let you sink on your own weight. So I think it’s tougher for kids today."

His advice? In his typically pragmatic way, Cohen says, "They’re going to have to understand the history…and hump it."

From the September 2000 issue of Diversity & The Bar®