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Steven M. Cohen spent 2 1/2 years at the beginning of his career clerking for two federal judges, first for U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin in the District of Columbia. Then, after a six-month interval in the New York regional office of the Securities and Exchange Commission, he served for 18 months as a clerk to Frank X. Altimari of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Clerking provides an invaluable education for a litigator, Cohen believes: “If you work for a judge, you get a sense of how a court really operates. You get insights from someone who really knows.” In watching other attorneys practice before Sporkin and Altimari, Cohen says he learned that establishing credibility with the court was essential. In addition, he says, “I learned that the way you frame an issue often produces the result. There is a tendency to say to the judge, ‘This is a complicated case, your honor.’ You have to remove that word from your vocabulary. Your job is to say, ‘This is a simple case.’” After finishing the second clerkship, Cohen became a federal prosecutor in the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1991. Given his time at the SEC and his year as a clerk for Sporkin, the former director of enforcement at the SEC, Cohen had expected to concentrate on securities and other fraud issues. But, he says, “I decided I had the rest of my career to deal with securities fraud.” Instead, he began handling narcotics cases, then organized crime. He was named acting deputy of the organized crime unit, then became chief of the violent gangs unit. It was a time, Cohen says, when the U.S. Department of Justice had an initiative to get tough on street crime. “It was a relatively new area. I suddenly found myself in an unusual position.” Cohen spearheaded the investigation and prosecutions of dozens of New York’s most violent street gangs. “The murder rate in New York was frightfully high, about double what it is today,” he recalls. “A significant amount of this was connected to the gangs. In the Bronx, the murder rate was 30 to 40 a year; half of that was by one single gang,” he adds. At first, federal prosecutors were not considered a likely solution. But Cohen and the original chief of the gang unit, Liz Glazer, began developing ways to use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) to go after the gangs. “There was a lot of unsettled law,” he says. “It wasn’t clear what the court was going to say.” Framing the issue was important for court approval of the use of RICO statutes against street gangs, he says. Racketeering laws may have originated as a way of prosecuting traditional organized crime. But, Cohen says, “We said there was nothing inherent in the statute that it has to be a Mafia family. It just had to be an association of individuals joined together for a common purpose.” The street gangs’ purpose was to sell drugs. “The murders were furthering or relating to the narcotics activity. Murder becomes a RICO predicate act, murder in the act of racketeering.” The theory didn’t meet with immediate acceptance, he says: “It took the courts a while to get used to the notion.” Judges were concerned that murderers did not belong in federal courts. “But the judges pretty quickly understood that these were serious cases and that they couldn’t be made in state courts.” Ultimately, says Cohen, “We ended up prosecuting hundreds of people and clearing hundreds of murders that were previously unsolved. We didn’t just clear this year’s murders, but 5-, 6-, 7-year-old murders.” In 1998, Cohen moved on to New York’s Kronish Lieb Weiner & Hellman, where he concentrates his practice on white-collar criminal defense and securities litigation. Since entering private practice, he has represented officers and senior managers in the investigations of Xerox, SafetyKleen, Livent and Adelphia. In civil litigation, Cohen is a co-lead counsel representing Napster in the ongoing litigation over music copyrights. In his representation of individuals investigated or accused of crimes, he has frequently persuaded government agencies not to pursue the prosecutions. Thus far, none of his clients has gone to jail.

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