Vincent H. Cohen, prominent D.C. lawyer, dies at 75

Vincent H. Cohen, a prominent lawyer who worked at the Justice Department and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before becoming the first African American partner at his Washington law firm, died Dec. 25 at Washington Hospital Center. He was 75 and had a pulmonary embolism, his daughter Robyn Cohen Hudson said.

Mr. Cohen, a onetime all-American basketball player, had a competitive streak that made him a powerful courtroom advocate. As the first black partner at the firm of Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells), he handled hundreds of cases involving product liability, medical malpractice, insurance and workmen’s compensation.

(Family photo) - "Discrimination still exists in our society, so we have to assume it exists in law firms. It's like the rain: you put up an umbrella and keep moving on." Vincent H. Cohen - Quote circa 1979.

He counted Bell Atlantic, Metro, Pepco and The Washington Post among his clients and, according to a 1986 Post article, “developed a reputation as one of the best trial lawyers in town.”

“Litigation is win-lose, and I like to win,” Mr. Cohen told the legal publication Diversity & the Bar in 2000. “A lot of major firms just shuffle papers and settle, but we actually go to trial. I love trial.”

After breaking down racial barriers for much of his life, Mr. Cohen became known for promoting the careers of younger African Americans in law. (His son, Vincent H. Cohen Jr., is the principal assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.)

“He was a godfather to young black lawyers around town and was recognized as a kind of guru,” his longtime friend, retired Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, said Saturday. “I think he was aware of what he had been through. He could have used a break along the way.”

Mr. Cohen often recalled that, after graduating with honors from law school in 1960, he could not find a job on Wall Street and was told, “in a very nice way by a young white partner, ‘We don’t hire Negroes,’ ” he said in 2000.

Instead, he went to work for Consolidated Edison, the New York electrical utility. He came to Washington in 1962 to join the Justice Department.

“My big chance came when Bobby Kennedy got to the Justice Department,” he told The Post in 1981. “As I understand it, he started asking, ‘How can this be the Justice Department when there are no Negro lawyers here?’ They told him they couldn’t find any black lawyers. He said he knew what the problem was. ‘If you can’t find black lawyers, okay, I’ll fire you and find somebody who can.’ ”

After five years as a trial attorney for the Justice Department, Mr. Cohen spent two years as director of compliance for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He joined Hogan & Hartson in 1969 and became its first African American partner three years later. He became a member of the firm’s five-member management committee before retiring in 2001.

“All my life,” he told The Post in 1986, “I’ve used racism to my advantage.”

Vincent Hamilton Cohen was born April 7, 1936, in Brooklyn. His father was a pharmacist who had been born in Jamaica.

The 6-foot-1 Mr. Cohen became an outstanding basketball player and won an athletic scholarship to Syracuse University in Upstate New York. He was named to several all-American teams in 1957. His college roommate was Jim Brown, who became one of the greatest running backs in the history of the National Football League.

After graduating cum laude in 1957, Mr. Cohen was drafted to play in the National Basketball Association but turned down the opportunity to attend law school at Syracuse. He graduated with honors in 1960 and was an editor of the law review.

A longtime resident of the District, Mr. Cohen became a behind-the-scenes adviser to leading D.C. political figures, including former mayor and current D.C. Council Member Marion Barry. Mr. Cohen was also an aide to Clifford Alexander Jr., a former secretary of the Army and onetime D.C. mayoral candidate.

Among the many boards and committees he served on, Mr. Cohen was chairman of the board of the D.C. Public Defender Service and of the Washington Convention Center. He was vice chairman of the D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure and was a member of the executive committee of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Survivors include 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.

Mr. Cohen, who was raised Catholic, often had to explain how he acquired his last name, which is typically associated with people of Jewish origin. According to family lore, the name derived from a group of black Jews who had settled in Jamaica.

Mr. Cohen’s prospective legal clients, his friends said, often did a double-take upon meeting him in person for the first time.