The following is an excerpt from Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.
Nicole Friedlander, Partner—Criminal Defense & Investigations
Nicole Friedlander is a member of Sullivan & Cromwell’s Criminal Defense and Investigations group and co-head of the firm’s cybersecurity practice. Ms. Friedlander’s practice focuses on white-collar criminal defense, regulatory enforcement proceedings, and internal investigations. Ms. Friedlander joined the firm in 2016 from the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, where she was chief of the Complex Frauds and Cybercrime Unit. During more than eight years of service, she prosecuted sophisticated financial frauds, cybercrimes, money laundering and Bank Secrecy Act offenses, FCPA violations, and criminal tax cases. Ms. Friedlander’s white-collar work includes major prosecutions of offshore banks for facilitating tax evasion, as well as securing one of the largest-ever FCPA resolutions and bringing a groundbreaking racketeering indictment against the owner of multibillion-dollar payday lending companies. Her cybersecurity experience includes leading the successful investigation of the largest-ever cyber theft of customer data from a U.S. financial institution; overseeing the indictment of Iranian state-sponsored hackers for coordinating cyberattacks on 46 financial institutions; leading cutting-edge virtual currency-related cases; and prosecuting a Russian national for hacking U.S. banks in a case the FBI named one of its top 10 of the year.
Describe your practice area and what it entails.
I handle criminal defense and investigations and cybercrime matters for our clients. On the criminal side, this entails conducting internal investigations, navigating government inquiries and processes in the U.S. and abroad, and working closely with some of the biggest companies in the world. On the cyber side, my work is split between advising companies and boards of directors on cyber preparedness and helping companies respond to cybersecurity incidents.
The clients who come to S&C for white-collar and cybersecurity advice typically face complex challenges with the potential to impact them on many fronts, including with governments, shareholders, customers, employees, and the public. As a result, I have the opportunity—and am indeed expected—to consult with colleagues in other practice areas at the firm, whether it’s our senior chairman or partners and associates in other areas. I never work in a vacuum. It’s a terrific setting because it fosters collaboration and gives each of us a new perspective on the issues our clients face that makes us more effective in our particular areas of focus. And above all, I think this kind of collaboration leads to the best result for our client.
What types of clients do you represent?
I primarily represent financial institutions and corporations across a range of industries. They are terrific clients in that they are really sophisticated and engaged. I also do pro bono work representing indigent criminal defendants in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, which is very rewarding.
What types of cases/deals do you work on?
I have a very broad practice, which is typical for S&C. As an example, I’m currently representing clients in fraud; money laundering; Bank Secrecy Act; FCPA; cybercrime; and cross-border tax matters involving federal, state, and foreign authorities; as well as congressional inquiries.
Something I love about the practice is the scope and complexity of the matters we handle. The problems our clients face are always changing, and the work stays challenging and exciting. And because the investigations typically affect many people, including our clients’ employees and other people I get to know well, there is a personal dimension to the work that I really enjoy.
To give you some examples, I’m currently working on an investigation involving criminal and regulatory authorities across five countries around the world. It is fascinating to work through the cross-border legal issues that raises, and the case has introduced me to new places and new cultures, which is really fun. I am also working on an investigation involving contentious legal questions that have rarely been litigated, and in which I recently presented to congressional committees, which is exciting to do. I also have several investigations which the media follows closely, adding a layer of complexity to our work. And this is just in white-collar. I’m also currently advising several corporations on cybersecurity matters, both pre- and post-breach, which are quite sensitive.
How did you choose this practice area?
I worked on white-collar matters as an associate at a firm after law school and found that it was exciting, fascinating, and meaningful. I also thought it would be an honor to work in public service, and I combined those interests by applying to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, where I had the great fortune to work as a prosecutor for eight years. When I decided to return to private practice, joining S&C’s world-class practice was an easy choice.
What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?
The great thing about my practice is that every day is different! Things I do frequently include meeting with witnesses, preparing for presentations to the government on subjects at issue in my investigations, and reviewing evidence to uncover and understand the relevant facts in a case. Fundamentally, I’m always asking the same questions: What happened here, what is the story, and how can we present this in the most effective way?
What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?
I recommend looking for opportunities to work on your public speaking skills. A lot of what we do in our line of work involves presenting to others—whether in front of a judge, a client, the government, or colleagues. Volunteering to present at team meetings or taking advantage of pro bono work opportunities that give you a chance to present or argue a point are great ways to hone your presentation skills early in your career.
What do you like best about your practice area?
What I like best about investigations work is that a lot of what we do affects people’s lives in meaningful ways. If I make a persuasive argument to a prosecutor that ultimately helps my client, for example, it’s incredibly rewarding. And because the practice is complex and always changing, every case allows me to learn and grow in some way as a lawyer.
What is unique about your practice area at your firm?
The collaborative nature of S&C’s working culture stands out to me. Lawyers at many firms are collaborative within a case, but at S&C, we also collaborate closely across practice areas. This comes from a fundamental view that our clients are clients of the whole firm, rather than clients of any particular lawyer at the firm. I think it is a great approach to client service.
What are some typical tasks that a junior lawyer would perform in this practice area?
I rely on junior associates to identify key issues in our cases, and their input can be enormously valuable. If we get a request from the Department of Justice to interview a senior executive, for example, the junior lawyers are instrumental in helping our team identify all of the issues that could be relevant. That task and the skills it requires are, in my view, more important than any other in making a great trial lawyer—it’s all about uncovering and marshalling the evidence.
Junior lawyers can also expect to be asked for their opinions and to contribute ideas! Something I love about S&C is that the focus is always on what people are saying, as opposed to how senior they are. Even if you are just out of law school, you are a core part of the team and expected to contribute your thoughts. Everyone appreciates that no one has a monopoly on great ideas.
Junior lawyers can also gain substantive experience through work on our pro bono Criminal Justice Act Panel cases in which we represent criminal defendants in federal court who can’t afford counsel. Participation in the CJAP enables our associates to provide an invaluable and deeply meaningful pro bono public service while gaining terrific experience at all phases of federal criminal proceedings.
What kinds of experience can summer associates gain in this practice area at your firm?
Summer associates who work on my matters usually research a particular legal or factual issue that is important to the case. They also often help me prepare to interview a witness or to meet with a witness who is going to be interviewed by the government, and then they participate in the witness meeting with me. I think that’s a lot of fun and a great learning experience—oftentimes, the person they meet is much different than the person they got to know on paper, and the issues that emerge may be different than we expected.