A memorial service was held on Wednesday for Vincent H. Cohen, who was once a trial attorney in the Department of Justice, then became the first black partner at his Washington law firm and, in general, lived a full life that offered rich material for obituary writers.
Cohen, whose son Vincent Jr. is the top assistant to Ronald C. Machen Jr., the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, died on Christmas Day at the age of 75. He had suffered from a pulmonary embolism, his daughter Robyn Cohen Hudson told The Washington Post.
Cohen’s memorial service in the Washington Convention Center (on whose board he served as chairman) was to be attended by Attorney General Eric Holder.
“As the first black partner at the firm of Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells), Cohen handled hundreds of cases involving product liability, medical malpractice, insurance and workmen’s compensation,” according to The Post.
However friendly and collegial he was outside the courtroom, the Brooklyn-born Cohen was not typically conciliatory if he thought he was right and his case was solid. “Litigation is win-lose, and I like to win,” Cohen once said, according to The Post. “A lot of major firms just shuffle papers and settle, but we actually go to trial. I love trial.”
Cohen’s competitive streak was honed in the gym. He won a basketball scholarship to Syracuse University, where he was named to several all-American teams and roomed with the legendary Jim Brown, one of the greatest running backs in college and professional football history. But after graduating from Syracuse cum laude in 1957, he turned down a chance to play in the National Basketball Association and attended law school at Syracuse, where he graduated with honors and was an editor of the law review.
But despite his ability, he was not welcomed into the fraternity of the law. “We don’t hire Negroes,” he was told by a young white lawyer at a Wall Street firm. So he went to work for an electric utility in New York, then came to Washington to work for the Department of Justice, where Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was making sure that the DOJ was not a “whites only” government enclave.
After five years at DOJ, Cohen spent two years as director of compliance for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to The Post. He joined Hogan & Hartson in 1969, became its black partner three years later and became a member of the firm’s five-member management committee before retiring in 2001. During his career, Cohen became known as a godfather to aspiring young black lawyers. He was also an adviser to several Washington politicians and belonged to numerous civic organizations.
The Post listed Cohen’s survivors as his wife of 49 years, Diane Hasbrouck Cohen of Washington; three children, Robyn Cohen Hudson and Vincent H. Cohen Jr., both of Washington, and Traci Cohen Dennis of Los Angeles; two sisters; and four grandchildren.