Nicole Friedlander ’01 likes to solve complex problems—the more challenging, the better. “The cases that I enjoy the most are the most complicated, the mysteries, because it’s rewarding to be able to solve and explain them,” she says. In her career so far, Friedlander has had no shortage of challenging cases: formerly chief of the Complex Frauds and Cybercrime Unit of the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, she is now special counsel at Sullivan & Cromwell, where she focuses on criminal defense, government investigations, and cybersecurity.

Nicole Friedlander '01Friedlander first became interested in the law as a high school student serving on her school’s disciplinary committee. In one instance, she says, she was able to convince her school not to expel a student who had broken the rules. “It was exciting to see that when I marshaled the evidence and the arguments I could change an outcome that really mattered to someone,” she remembers. “That experience stuck with me and made me want to go to law school.”

As a student at NYU Law, Friedlander says, she was able to develop the intellectual discipline that is required in all of her work. One course that made a particularly strong impression was Income Taxation, taught by Wayne Perry Professor of Taxation Daniel Shaviro. Friedlander recalls that at first, she did not think  she would enjoy the topic—but now looks back on the class as one of her favorite law school experiences. “The issues were so challenging and important to people's lives, and yet I'd never questioned them. Why do we tax income instead of other things, like consumption? What is the proper purpose of a tax? This practice of logically questioning assumptions is one I draw upon every day,” she says.

Although Friedlander started her career as a litigator at a firm, her interests in government service and in trying cases led her to the US Attorney’s office. She initially joined the Complex Frauds unit, which provided her first exposure to cybersecurity work. Friedlander quickly learned that cyber cases pose particularly intriguing challenges to unravel. Because cybersecurity cases are often international, it can be difficult to collect evidence; the perpetrators are often difficult to identify; and the technology is constantly evolving. “The cybercriminal underground is something I had no idea even existed when I started as a prosecutor,” Friedlander says.

Eventually rising to become chief of the Complex Fraud and Cybercrime Unit, Friedlander worked on a number of high profile investigations and prosecutions, including of the coordinated cyberattacks on 46 financial institutions and the hacking of a New York dam’s control systems, and the 2014 JPMorgan Chase data breach—a record-breaking breach of consumer data from a US financial institution. That case was a prime example of Friedlander’s skills, both as a leader and as a prosecutor, says Richard Tarlowe, a partner at Paul Weiss who served as chief of the Complex Frauds and Cybercrime Unit prior to Friedlander. “Although she was a supervisor,” he says, “She really rolled up her sleeves and got into the weeds, and played a significant role on all levels of the case.”  

Even in the trickiest investigations, Friedlander says, prosecutors must always focus on a few questions: Was a crime committed? Who committed it? Can the evidence prove that beyond a reasonable doubt? Is it appropriate to charge?  After making the move into the private sector, she says, the questions she is required to answer have become more elaborate and nuanced. “The cybersecurity challenge for companies is multifaceted,” she explains. “What cybercriminals are seeking to steal has changed dramatically in the last decade and continues to change, and in the case of a breach, companies can be in the position of having to deal with not only the direct effects of the crime, but also the collateral consequences, which can include civil litigation and government investigations.”

For Friedlander, the greater complexity of the private sector only serves to create more intricate—and fun—puzzles for her to solve. And, Friedlander adds, in addition to working with private companies as clients, she also has the chance to continue her public interest work as a participant in the firm’s Pro Bono program, representing indigent criminal defendants in the Southern District of New York. “What could be more serious for anyone than a criminal case against them?” Friedlander says, “It’s a great responsibility but also a privilege to use my legal skills and training to help people facing some of the most difficult circumstances of their lives.” 

Posted October 17, 2017