H. Rodgin Cohen of Sullivan & Cromwell Courtesy photo

In an age where Wall Street banks are sometimes blamed for abuses that led to the recession, the banks’ go-to lawyer H. Rodgin Cohen—often known simply as Rodge—maintains enormous respect from both clients and government regulators alike.

His work on behalf of banks was often critical to their survival during the financial crisis, while he was involved in shaping key concepts that made their way into legislation such as the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Cohen, 73, was chairman at Sullivan & Cromwell from 2000 to 2009.

His work in the financial crisis in 2008 was the most intense of his career, Cohen says, when many days he worked from 5 a.m. to midnight or pulled all-nighters “going from crisis to crisis.”

To name a few, Cohen was involved in the negotiations that led to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s purchase of Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual; the failed attempts to find a buyer for Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.; the government’s takeover of Fannie Mae; the government’s bailout of American International Group Inc.; Wells Fargo’s and Co.’s purchase of Wachovia; Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc.’s investment in Morgan Stanley; National City’s acquisition by PNC; and the creation of bank holding companies for The Goldman Sachs Group. and others to help stabilize the banks.

Government officials listened closely to Cohen.

“You have to be aware that his job was to represent the best interests of his clients,” says Timothy Geithner, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and then-U.S. Treasury secretary.

But for the best interests of the country, Geithner adds, “you had to have a good feel for what was happening at financial institutions,” and to do that, “know who was smart, trustworthy, reliable and wise and experienced.” Cohen is one of the best in that role, Geithner says.

For his part, Cohen says building trust with regulators has always been a long-term project. Notwithstanding populist anger at banks, he has generally maintained a trusted relationship with regulators since 2008, he says.

“You don’t build trust in an hour or a day,” he says. “We always try to play absolutely straight with the regulators.” That includes, he says, being candid and presenting a position’s strengths and weaknesses.

In the aftermath of the recession, Cohen says he helped develop the concept of having a vice chair of the Federal Reserve for supervision, and he helped conceptualize a new resolution authority to deal with troubled financial institutions, now part of Title II in Dodd-Frank.

“Clearly 2008 has demonstrated that we did not have the right tools legislatively to deal with the failure of or near failure of a financial institution,” he says. “There are going to be areas which need to be improved or eliminated. But total dismantling of Dodd-Frank would be a mistake.”

Advice to 
Young Lawyers:
 “Not to specialize too early, to be intellectually curious. The law is an incredible buffet with all sorts of appetizing dishes, and you want to be sure you have the opportunity to try them all.”

If He Weren’t a Lawyer, Cohen Would Be: “A veterinarian. I love animals. We’re scouring the shelters [for our next pet].”