March 07, 2011
In a lunch with Harvard Law School students, Jeffrey Cohen ’88, Managing Director and Global Head of Retail at Lazard, discussed his journey from a law school and legal training to investment banking.
Cohen leads the firm’s efforts to advise corporations on matters ranging from mergers and acquisitions to restructuring and capital raising to asset management services. He has worked with leading retail companies like Best Buy, Macy’s, and Wal Mart on complex restructuring assignments. He entered the legal profession as a law associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore before making the ranks in the finance world.
In his talk, Cohen described his transition from law to investment banking as “one of the hardest transitions of my career.” He quickly added, however, that “it was well worth it.”
He advised JD candidates who are considering finance-oriented rather than legal careers to focus on “the windows of opportunity” that exist in the second or fourth year at a law firm.
“If you don’t feel like you’re getting a lot of out it after two or four years, if you have an interest in a finance career, you may be moving backwards.”
He said his tenure at Cravath provided him with the benefit of experience in legal practice, and with that “critical thinking, knowledge of language, and the ability to ask questions.”
His suggestion for lawyers-in-training who may want to pursue careers in finance is to expose themselves to the “fundamentally quantitative” counter-part to the legal tradition by cross-registering in business school or other economic-related courses.
“In finance, we crunch the numbers in Excel rather than read or write Word Documents,” Cohen said.
While explaining that the law and business are on opposite ends of the spectrum in some ways, Cohen admitted that “a lot of the intellectual thought process and confidence in the craft is the same.”
Cohen, who graduated from Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania before matriculating at HLS, said law school “rounded-out” his education.
“Regardless of whether you’re seeking a career in the law or finance, try to find a rabbi…a father-figure who can help guide you with possible transitions,” he urged.
He added that in both fields building rapport with clients can be as useful as fortifying relationships with supervisors.