Consensus Builder

Professor Neil Cohen smiling in grey suit jacket with light blue button up underneath and reading glasses
The work of 1901 Distinguished Research Professor of Law Neil Cohen was celebrated in a symposium in the spring of 2022, just before he retired.
Professor Neil Cohen’s accomplishments were celebrated in a symposium where scholars and experts praised not only his expertise in the harmonization of commercial law, but his compassion and ability to find common ground.
FOR 40-PLUS YEARS, Cohen has been an intellectual force in the field of contract and commercial law—as teacher, scholar, and participant in domestic and global harmonization projects. Whether serving as a delegate to the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) or undertaking scholarly work as the reporter for both the American Law Institute’s (ALI’s) Restatement of the Law of Suretyship and Guaranty (1996) and the Revised Article 1 of the Uniform Commercial Code (2001), Cohen has left an indelible mark on commercial law’s progress.

In May 2022, as Cohen retired from teaching after 37 years at Brooklyn Law School, he was named the Law School’s 1901 Distinguished Research Professor of Law. His peers gathered for a symposium held in his honor, titled Commercial Law Harmonization: Past as Prologue.* Cohen himself summed up the event’s focus: “After a half century of commercial law harmonization, both domestically and internationally, what have we learned and what should we do next?”

“Statutory harmonization requires consensus,” said symposium moderator Ted Janger, the David M. Barse Professor of Law. “Consensus sometimes minimizes the scope of what can be done. This can be frustrating, but knowing the bounds of the possible is an essential skill… Neil Cohen is not only a consummate draftsman, but brilliant as a consensus builder.”

Consensus was a recurring theme in the tributes to Cohen. Professor Catherine Walsh of the McGill University Faculty of Law cited Cohen’s even temperament, patience, good humor, and genuine interest in and compassion for others. “He has the ability to seek and achieve consensus by reminding us of the basic goals of a project and asking whether we are, after all, as far apart as we might think,” Walsh said.

Hal Burman of the Office of the Legal Adviser, U.S. Department of State (retired), described Cohen’s gift for exhibiting diplomacy while working with international associations whose members might not share the thinking, law school training, and court systems of their U.S. counterparts. “If it wasn’t for people like Neil Cohen,” Burman said, “all of these factors would not have allowed [the international players] to produce what they were able to produce.”

Ignacio Tirado, secretary-general of UNIDROIT (the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law), discussing the qualities of a perfect international law expert, described Cohen as “a simple hero, an enormously decent person who nurtures quietly for the good of everyone.”

Cohen’s Brooklyn Law School colleagues also participated.

“All of you know Neil’s brilliance,” said Aaron Twerski, Irwin and Jill Cohen Professor of Law. “Generally, when you get somebody who has that degree of brilliance, they’re really full of themselves. Neil is the very opposite of that. He has no hubris.”

Professor of Law Emerita Roberta Karmel, who presented on securities law harmonization, said she attended the symposium out of friendship, respect, and admiration for its honoree. “I’m not a contracts, bankruptcy, or commercial law expert. My knowledge of these subjects comes primarily from Neil Cohen,” Karmel said.

Cohen thanked his peers for their friendship, likening the group to scientists and engineers collaborating. “This has been a great balance between theory and execution—people talking high theory and people talking about how to get things done,” Cohen said. “I owe you all a lot of appreciation and thanks for your patience with me along the way. Everyone here is my teacher.”

*The symposium was presented by the Brooklyn Journal of Corporate, Financial & Commercial Law and Brooklyn Law School’s Center for the Study of Business Law and Regulation. Symposium papers have been published in the journal’s Volume 17, Issues 1 and 2 (2022).