Leadership Profile

A Conversation with John F. Cogan Jr. ’52

Photo of Bentley Kassal in his office.
Leah Fasten

John F. Cogan Jr. ’52

Jack Cogan ’52 jokes that he resides “in the shadow of Harvard,” having moved back to the Square after living in Lexington for years. A graduate of Harvard College (’49) and Harvard Law School, he’s had a long engagement with the school and the university, serving on the Visiting Committee and supporting HLS—including most recently its international programs.

Cogan also has much experience advising HLS deans—from Al Sacks ’48 to Martha Minow—and takes a long view of the school. When he thinks of the promise of today’s Program on the Legal Profession led by Professor David Wilkins ’80, for example, he recalls its antecedents in the early efforts by then-Dean James Vorenberg ’51, including trips they took together to interest law firms in New York in support of this program. “They knew we didn’t come from outer space,” he recalls, “but the skepticism was pervasive.”

Now of counsel at WilmerHale, he was named a senior partner in 1961 at the predecessor firm, Hale and Dorr, became managing partner in 1976 and served as chairman from 1984 to 1996. Cogan, who turns 84 in June, remains active in the financial services industry and is deputy chairman of Pioneer Global Asset Management S.p.A. (Italy) and president of the Pioneer Family of Mutual Funds (USA). During an afternoon in March, he spoke with the Bulletin before embarking on a four-mile run.

What is it about HLS that has elicited so much of your focus?

It’s the school itself. To me, HLS is a place of enormous excitement, always. It’s the sheer energy, and the spirit of inquiry—also the rigor. Of course, I’m proud to have graduated from the law school. Its impact on legal education and the profession has been profound, and I have been fascinated to watch the school evolve into a truly global law school.

What have you enjoyed most over the course of your career?

What I have enjoyed most was practicing law, but after becoming managing partner of our firm, I was able to do much less of it. In my beginning years, however, I did quite a bit of corporate work and some international work. I became interested in comparative law, in a very real, practical sense. What actions could you take under civil law that you could not under common law and vice versa? It was so different doing transactions in civil law South America from common law countries like India or Ghana. It was a very interesting time internationally because at first you were working in the closed Cold War environment and then, post-perestroika, you watched the opening up of Central Europe and Russia.

You participated on Russia’s Foreign Investment Advisory Council soon after it was created. What was that like?

It was a unique experience. The council originally had 14 members representing companies from Western Europe, the United States and Japan. It was in the early ’90s, when Russia was a wild and woolly place. Its closed society was trying to come of age in the world marketplace. Its large underground economy was reinforcing rampant corruption. Social, political and economic upheaval was everywhere. Yeltsin had regained the presidency after the attempted coup, but people tend to forget that the Communist Party was still in a position to block almost anything significant in the Duma that the government wanted to do. Thus, many of the economic, corporate law and accounting reforms recommended by the council to help make Russia more friendly to foreign investors were scuttled in the Duma.

There was so much to be done as Russia tried to slough off the inefficient Communist central control economy. The country had an archaic accounting system. Russia’s whole statistical system was an unreliable government database with a propaganda slant to it, so you could not trust the data.

What have you found most challenging in your career?

One’s integrity is always being challenged. You have to set high standards for yourself. I remember we had a large and important U.S. client seeking to set up a project in Nigeria. It was before the revolution that took place there in the ’60s and before the much-needed U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act was passed in the ’70s. The client needed government approval for a private sector project which was stalled. The client’s local advisers kept suggesting the need for some “dash,” the local word for bribes. While it was not my decision to make or to implement, I told the client if they followed that advice, I could no longer represent them. Fortunately, the client rejected the local advice, and finally, after a long wait, the project was approved.

I also think there’s a certain humbling in practice. You can be involved in a problem and think you understand all four corners of it. Then sometimes in further discussions someone will make a point that makes you realize you’ve missed something.

What advice would you give to a graduating law student?

You can go anywhere. You know, it can be like putting a rucksack on your back and just taking off. You can go anywhere as a lawyer, be it as a lawyer in practice, public interest organizations, business or government service.

I know it’s harder right now, because the job market is thinner, but for someone from this institution, it’s not as thin as for others. You come out of Harvard Law School with a legacy of intellectual strength, of analysis, of understanding different systems, and people, and how they behave.

There are so many opportunities to make a difference in the world when you leave Harvard Law School. I think that it gives you a kind of tabula rasa. Thinking about the possibility of those opportunities still gives me a vicarious sense of excitement.

Any words of warning?

I must say this: The law itself is very demanding and enticing, and if you’re a natural workaholic—which unfortunately I am, genetically, I guess—you must be careful not to be so drawn into your professional life that there is time for little else. It’s as if you were in a giant centrifuge. You have to constantly try to avoid being drawn into the center and rather swim to the edge to reach other activities that enrich your life. It’s an important perspective to have.

In addition to your support of HLS, you’ve served many other organizations, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Medical Center and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. How do you balance these efforts?

Well, to me, life is a balancing act. It narrows the amount of free time that one would otherwise have and often makes for long days, but the rewards in terms of enrichment and the expansion of my knowledge and interests have been great and personally satisfying. I’ve had a love of classical music for years and years—from early music forward to some of the contemporary pieces being composed today. It’s been wonderful over the course of years to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s progression: Seiji Ozawa was a great conductor, but Maestro Levine has brought the orchestra to new heights. As to museums, I’ve also had a longtime interest in art, and museum visiting worldwide has been an important part of my life. While I’m not a collector in any significant way, I do collect contemporary paintings, works on paper and sculpture—some things that both my wife, Mary, an art historian by education, and I like.

What’s one of your favorite pieces you’ve collected?

One is a large color field painting that my law partners gave me when I stepped down as managing partner, so it has special significance. I like it, but not everyone does. It’s a [Jules] Olitski. And if you see it at a distance, it almost looks like a blackboard, but close up you see the textures and the subtle gradations of coloration.

Can you say something else about your long-term engagement with HLS?

It’s been so enjoyable for me, especially, as earlier noted, watching the school evolve into a global law school. Anything I’ve done, in terms of giving to the school of time and resources, I’ve received back in so many different ways. And the school has had such a profound effect on my life, so I feel doubly rewarded. It’s been glorious!


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