Steve Cozen Profile: The Inside Man

Whether he’s suing big corporations in disaster cases or Saudi Arabia over 9/11, Steve Cozen has built his career siding with the underdog. Now, with his hands in both casino deals, has the ultimate outsider become the quintessential insider?

Cozen told Aronchick that the future wasn’t in growing mid-size firms. It was in growing large firms. Like his. “‘And I’m gonna prove it to you. I’m gonna get a study that’ll show I’m right.’ I said, ‘Gee, Steve, we already decided.’” Imagine that: I’m gonna pay for a study to prove to you why you need to give up trying to build your own mid-size firm and come work for me at my monster firm instead. (“I don’t remember the conversation,” Cozen says. “But is it something that I might have said? Sure.”)

It was just that sort of confidence that was making a name for Cozen as a pure businessman, a guy who could see where the market was going years before anyone else. “He’s like a legal rabbi, you know?” says Kenneth Feinberg, an expert in mediation who’s now the “pay czar” for the U.S. government’s TARP program. “I mean, he’s a wiiiiiiiiiise man. He’s a thinker. He’s a visionary.” “He sees around corners” is how David Girard-diCarlo puts it, pointing to the resolution of the Wolf Block saga as proof.

For years, it had been an open secret that Cozen was eyeing Wolf Block’s marquee lawyers. There had been talk of a merger, but never a deal. Then, last March, when Wolf Block imploded, Cozen got his merger anyway, only with less disruption and less cost: About 70 of Wolf Block’s top partners essentially just changed their business cards, and that was it. No messy pension obligations, no fuss. “We got everybody we wanted,” Cozen confirms to me. “Just the players” — one of whom was Mark Alderman, Wolf Block’s former chairman. Around the same time, Cozen also bagged another 10-point buck, Ambassador David Girard-diCarlo, who vacated his post when Obama took office. Girard-diCarlo returned to Philly to find a new guard running his old firm, Blank Rome; he needed a new home. He asked to see Cozen’s balance sheet. “I know how to run a law firm with my eyes shut,” Girard-diCarlo says. “I wanted to be sure: How did you do this miracle? And it’s a very, very strong firm financially. … We had a spectacular year.” Cozen clearly has a sixth sense for wrangling heavy hitters, getting them to buy into his culture and style, pressing an advantage while giving them enough autonomy to make them feel they haven’t become owned. “I gotta pinch myself, saying, ‘This was a smart move on my part,’” Girard-diCarlo concludes.

Of course, it takes a guy with a massive ego to tame other massive egos, and if there’s a shadow narrative about Steve Cozen, a fatal flaw, it’s that: Cozen’s desire to be all things to all people. Outside of the law, it’s impressive. He can be a civic hero: He can endow a professorship at Penn; he can call up his friend Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, who has recently grown some extremely awkward-looking facial hair, and say, “Pablo, you gotta get rid of that goddamn beard”; he can build a new Police Athletic League center in North Philly and name it after his father; he can maintain one of the city’s strongest pro bono programs even in the midst of a recession; he can be a grandfather so attentive that any other man would watch Cozen roughhousing with his seven apple-cheeked grandkids, who call him “Z-Man,” and weep from sheer inadequacy and shame. And inside the law, he can also do anything. But here’s where his ego puts him at risk. He’s so supremely self-confident that he thinks he’s still on solid ground even if he has just stepped off a cliff.