Joshua W. Cohen is a partner with Day Pitney LLP in New Haven, Connecticut, and chair of the firm’s Bankruptcy and Creditors’ Rights practice. He has a national practice handling bankruptcy, creditors’ rights, lender liability, commercial contract, fraud and business tort cases, receiverships, workouts and distressed business, and asset transactions. Cohen has extensive experience handling complex Chapter 11 cases. He represents secured and unsecured creditors, creditors’ committees, buyers and sellers of assets, trustees and receivers in bankruptcy cases, receivership cases, and out-of-court workouts and restructurings. Cohen holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a law degree magna cum laude from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. He is a member of the TMA Connecticut Chapter and is vice president-programs for the chapter.
Q: How did you gravitate into turnaround/restructuring work, or did you start out in that direction?
Cohen: I definitely did not start out in that direction. In fact, I never took either bankruptcy or secured transactions in law school. My career has been one of progressions.
I started my career at a very small firm in New Haven. It was a very general practice, and I did a lot of everything, including a fair amount of commercial litigation. That included litigation for banks and financial institutions. At the time, in the early ‘90s, almost every one of those cases ended up in bankruptcy court at one time or another. I had to get relief from stay or address a related issue, and I found myself, as a young lawyer, spending time almost sitting in very long calendar calls in the bankruptcy court. My understanding of the bankruptcy process began there.
About four-plus years into my career, I moved to Cummings & Lockwood. Coincidentally, about the time that I arrived, Cummings & Lockwood hired a Florida partner with a national bankruptcy practice who exposed me and a few others to a bankruptcy world that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen if we had stuck to a Connecticut-based practice. I found myself doing more and more bankruptcy work. Ultimately, that became a core practice at Cummings & Lockwood, and I was a core component of that practice.
Five or six years later, through another evolution, I ended up at Day Pitney, and I now find myself chair of the bankruptcy practice here. It’s been somewhat of an unusual progression—a combination of circumstance and interest that pulled me in.
Q: If you could start over, would you do anything differently?
Cohen: Certainly not in the way my career has progressed as a lawyer. I was somebody who had a lot of interests. Going back to high school and college, I was very active in music and theater, and that’s a direction I might have gone, depending on circumstances. I was also a pre-med in college, but I ultimately elected not to go to medical school.
If I were to think about my life, how it would be different, I think I could have had an equally satisfying career as a doc. I’ve been very happy with my choice to become a lawyer and particularly pleased with the choices I’ve made along the way professionally, including to start at a small firm and get very broad and general experience. I think that has really provided a unique foundation for me as a bankruptcy lawyer because the bankruptcy world and the restructuring world call upon many different aspects and specialties in the law to provide or identify solutions to complex problems.
Q: You had some very attractive career choices. You’re obviously a multitalented individual. What tipped the scale in favor of law school?
Cohen: Various circumstances, not the least of which was, when I was getting out of college, the medical profession was in flux with the early transition to managed care. Every doc I talked to about whether I should go into medicine basically said, “If you’re even asking the question, you shouldn’t do it.”
That was one thing. The other was that I got married within a year of having graduated from college, and I saw law school as a somewhat shorter timeline under the circumstances. Also, law school to me at the time was a flexible alternative. It’s interesting that I came to law school with that perspective and end up doing restructuring work, which to me draws upon that flexibility in terms of the skill sets that you’re taught and the analytical strategies you work on as a lawyer. To me, it’s what makes a law degree valuable, whether you use it like I do or you take it in another direction, be it in business, banking, or whatever it may be. It’s that toolbox that law school provides that creates the value.
Q: What have been some of your favorite or most gratifying engagements along the way?
Cohen: The more recent engagement that comes to mind was representing a title company in the Lehman Brothers case. It was a very satisfying engagement in the sense that it was an opportunity to operate at the highest level. The issues were challenging, both legally and with regard to the human dynamic.
There wasn’t a short-term resolution to the issues that was apparent. It was one of those engagements where getting everyone to step back and take a longer view was critical. I think the ability to ultimately get everybody there, convincing everybody that patience was going to lead to a resolution of the problem, and ultimately seeing that play out over the course of what turned out to be a five-year process was very satisfying.
The other one that comes to mind is a matter I handled as a senior associate at Cummings & Lockwood. I co-authored an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court with then-Professor and now U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the 2003 North LaSalle case. Just the experience of collaborating with her—her intelligence, her strategic thinking, her insight, and the efficiency with which we were able to get to what I think was an excellent product—was just remarkable. Then to be able to sit through the arguments and watch that decision come down, to participate in that process, was really a unique opportunity that we as bankruptcy lawyers don’t often get.
Q: Who’s inspired you along the way, and who continues to do so?
Cohen: I would say, first and foremost, my mother, who overcame losing her husband at a time when she had a relatively young family and raised three kids with grace and fortitude. She has been a remarkable role model in terms of her work ethic; her commitment to family, friends, and community; and her grace.
She’s also taught me that it’s really important to have a strong network around, and it’s OK to rely on folks in that network, whether it’s friends, professional colleagues, or family. It’s important to take from and give back to those people and to be an active and productive member of your communities.
As for other role models, I’m going to give a shout-out to my kids, who pursue their interests and passions with unending energy and enthusiasm. They each have issues and interests about which they’re passionate. They’ve shown the ability to take risks, to persevere and to really be strong advocates for issues and strong pursuers of their interests, and to be young people with great convictions. I give them a lot of credit for that. They are 19, 16, and 13 – my oldest is a boy, then two girls.
They definitely keep me busy. As I say, it’s my other full-time job, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything!
Q: What advice would you have for someone who was new to the industry or was thinking of getting into the industry?
Cohen: Picking up on one of the things I learned from my mother, this notion of having a strong network or community around you is important.
Consistent with that theme, there are two things that I would say. The first is find a good mentor. Your mentor has to be someone who can and is willing to take the time to educate and promote you and your career and is somebody who is a giver and not just a taker. I’ve been fortunate to have two wonderful mentors in my career.
The first was a commercial litigator I practiced with at two different firms. He taught me an awful lot about the litigation process and how to think about problems from the perspective of a client but also how to be a creative and out-of-the-box thinker.
Then here at Day Pitney, I’ve been fortunate to work very closely with Jim Tancredi, who is in my mind one of the most remarkable lawyers I’ve ever seen, both in terms of his creativity and out-of-the-box thinking and his commitment to getting to the right resolution and his ability to be strategic in how you go about that. I’ve learned more from him about strategic thinking than from anybody else in my career. I think having those mentors has allowed me to succeed in a way I otherwise couldn’t, and I hope others will speak about me in the same way in the future.
The second thing, as far as advice goes, is that it’s critical to find people you really like to work with. Most people spend more time at work than they do at home. If you’re not doing it with people you genuinely like and like to be around, it can be miserable.
I’ve been very fortunate to have been teamed up with some wonderful people in the course of my career. It hasn’t been all the same people at any given time, but I’ve always found myself with a group of people who I really liked and who I enjoyed coming to work with every day. That is the only way this profession works because of the amount of time we spend and the stresses that exist in what we do.
Q: What role has your TMA membership played in your career?
Cohen: It’s played several roles. I would say my participation in TMA has been a critical component of my network development, at least over the last eight to 10 years of my career. TMA has the unique quality of being a true multidisciplinary organization, and I find it much more fruitful from a networking standpoint to be in that type of a community than to find myself at all times in a room with other lawyers.
As an example of the success of that networking, a group of folks who I met through the TMA now get together once a month for breakfast and use the opportunity both to network and to talk about issues or problems that we’re facing. It becomes a dialogue about how we can help each other.
The other thing that TMA has done—and this comes through my service on the board at TMA—is that it’s elevated my profile and expanded my reach. At Day Pitney, we have a national practice, but being in leadership in TMA has provided me a tool to access other markets and other networks. That expanded reach and access has been valuable as I pursue work that is not in my backyard.
Q: What are you passionate about outside the office?
Cohen: At the top of the list right now is my running. Running has been an important part of my life since I graduated from college. I was not a runner growing up. I swam competitively as a kid but took to running after I graduated from college. Subsequently, I have gone on to run 13 marathons. I have a 14th coming up in October (the Chicago Marathon).
Running has been important to me from the standpoint of maintaining health and balance in my life, but there’s also a social aspect to it for me. There are guys, including some of my closest friends, who I train with.
I’ve been on the board of the New Haven Road Race for close to 10 years and have made good running friends through that service. That’s a race that I’m very passionate about and think is one of the best races in the country. This will be the 38th running. It’s run on Labor Day and over the last 15 or 20 years, has been the national championship at the 20K distance. It draws very strong elite talent, but also is really embraced by the community and is an important event in New Haven. It’s been a great organization and cause to work with, and over its history it has donated over $1 million to local charities.
The other two things that I’m passionate about are music and theater. Growing up, I was active in theater, not as an actor but on the technical side. I was a designer, a carpenter, and an electrician. I did that in high school and very much so in college. In fact, that’s how I met my wife. We were both working on a show in college, building scenery. We met on opposite sides of the table saw. The interesting thing about that is that we were both involved on the technical side of theater, but somehow we created three actors. My son, who’s studying acting at Northwestern, is a gifted musical theater actor. My middle daughter is a talented dramatic actor, and my youngest is still finding her niche.
We have maintained our interest in theater, in part through our children. I’ve had the good fortune of being able to work with the middle school and high school theater programs in Weston, where I live, working with the kids on scenery and lighting. That has been a real pleasure for me. My wife has been able to work on the production side with the kids and introduce them to the business aspects that go into putting on a show.
We’ve been able to maintain our theater interest through our kids and we’ve also been able to share with our kids not just their productions, but the opportunity to all go together and see shows and to experience live theater. It’s been very satisfying to be able to provide that to them and to see them really take to it and get a lot out of it.
Then, I was a classical trumpet player growing up and played very seriously through college. I’ve played very little since then, but have not lost my interest in music. All three of my kids have been involved with music, but two of the three—my son and my younger daughter—have both taken music fairly seriously. My son is a very talented trumpet player, my middle daughter plays clarinet, and my younger daughter is a wonderful flautist.
I’ve been able to share my love of music with all three kids and for the last four or five years have been on the board of the Norwalk Youth Symphony, which my two bookend children play in or have played in. It’s a wonderful organization that supports 200-some kids in pursuing music outside of school, and they really make music at the highest level. It’s been a great joy for me to do that.
Q: What might people who only know you in your professional capacity be most surprised to learn about you?
Cohen: It may be the story about how I met my wife and that I had this technical theater and theater design experience that ultimately has shaped my adult life so much. I must give credit to my father for my initial interest there. My father, who died when I was 10, was a guy who could build anything, and I had the good fortune of being able to participate in his endeavors in the 10 short years that I had him around. I took that interest in construction and building and that Yankee ingenuity and channeled it. I found an outlet for that in the theater. That was really the foundation for what I’ll call my social community in college and in high school. In the fall of my freshman year in college, I met my wife working on a show and, as they say, the rest is history. We’ve been married for 24 years, have three wonderful children, and are still playing together in the theater.
Q: What’s at the top of your bucket list?
Cohen: I don’t know that I have a bucket list per se, but I think categorically, as the kids get older and the commitments change with respect to them, finding more opportunities to travel would be on such a list. There are lots of places in the world that I haven’t been—in fact, most places in the world that I haven’t been—and lots of places that I would like to go. I’m fortunate to have a good travel companion and look forward to having opportunities in the future to do that with my wife.
The other thing is finding renewed opportunities to make music, first in finding the time to really get back into playing shape and then finding an outlet for that. Music is definitely inside of me, and I am committed to finding additional opportunities to do that.
And then I think the last thing—again, this is kind of a shout-out to my dad—is finding more opportunities as I have more time to do more woodworking and do more work with my hands. Obviously, sitting at my desk during the day, I don’t get as much opportunity to do that as I might like.
There is also some synergy in using running as an opportunity to travel by looking for races in places that allow me to see different places and cultures and communities, looking for marathons in other parts of the world or even in other parts of the country that I haven’t yet experienced.
Q: Have you run internationally?
Cohen: I have not run an international marathon yet, despite my wife and children asking, “OK, when are you going to run internationally?” The challenge with it is that it really requires a different level of commitment in terms of time because you really need to get to the venue early and get acclimated, at least to run reasonably well. And maybe the answer is not to treat those races as races you really care about running reasonably well and to use them as a vehicle for travel.
But you sound like a very competitive person. It seems that would be very hard for you to do.
It’s interesting that you say that because this past weekend was the Fairfield Half Marathon. I debated about whether to run it because it’s really early in my training cycle for Chicago to be running a half marathon. There’s no doubt that I could have run it as a training run and been just fine, but I didn’t trust myself to run it as a training run because when I get into a race scenario, those competitive juices do flow and I tend to find that adrenaline and competitive drive do get the better of me. I chose instead to run an appropriate length training run with my training partner. I think at the end of the day I will benefit from having made that decision.
Q: Do you have any favorite marathons, either because of the venue or the race itself?
Cohen: Boston, by far, is my favorite for several reasons. I guess the first is the satisfaction of having qualified and run it five times. Second, I think, is the history behind it. The third is the intelligence of the crowd. It’s run on Patriots Day, which is a holiday in Boston and the community really comes out to support it. But not only do they support it, but they actually understand what it is and what’s involved. They’re a knowledgeable crowd and they show that. That’s somewhat unique.
Q: Did you run Boston in 2013, the year of the bombing?
Cohen: I did not. I ran Boston in 2006 and then I ran four consecutive years culminating in 2012. In 2012, it was 100 degrees so I did not end up with a new qualifying time after that race and I was not in Boston in 2013.
I’m thankful for that on many levels, although based on my prior experience, I probably would have been trying to get on the highway to get home when the bombings actually occurred. I will say that not a whole lot of work got done that afternoon. I was gripped by and gravitated toward the media coverage. I did know people who were there—fortunately none of them was harmed.
As a running community, it hit very hard and for sure is something that none of us will ever forget.