Joseph Zwicker was traveling on the night of May 17, 1990, when, shortly before midnight, the young attorney stopped to make a phone call. He dialed the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a maximum-security facility in Angola, and was put through to Dalton Prejean, who was scheduled to be executed in an electric chair moments later.
Zwicker was one of several callers. Prejean had already talked to Buddy Roemer, the governor who rejected his own state pardon board’s recommendation for a commutation. The inmate was only seventeen years old when he shot and killed a state trooper during a traffic stop. Zwicker and other defense lawyers argued for ineffective assistance of counsel. Prejean, they said, suffered brain damage due to childhood trauma and had an IQ of just seventy-one.
The Louisiana Supreme Court and the US Court of Appeals turned down challenges to Prejean’s conviction. The US Supreme Court voted seven to two to deny a stay. Zwicker, who had become friends with the man he had worked so hard to defend, had no choice but to say his goodbye. Prejean was pronounced dead at 12:21 a.m.
Fast-forward thirty years, and Zwicker’s career looks a little different. He’s no longer defending individuals or working in a law firm; he’s defending the interests of the fifth-largest bank in the United States. Zwicker is PNC’s deputy general counsel of government and regulatory enforcement, litigation, data security, privacy, and investigations.
Those looking on might assume the role stands in contrast to the work Zwicker did earlier in his career, but he would disagree. “PNC is an ethical institution that cares about its customers, and it’s important to have someone in my role who can stand up to ensure fairness, fair play, and fair processes in any venue,” he says. “Those values have guided me throughout my entire career.”
It’s been a natural evolution. Zwicker studied law at New York University, clerked for the Honorable Max Rosenn in the federal appeals court, and spent time in private practice before moving to Boston to litigate civil rights cases on behalf of state prisoners. He won sentencing credits for prisoners who went through substance abuse programs and stacked up other accomplishments in the low-paying but fulfilling job. When his funds were depleted, Zwicker returned to private practice before joining the US Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, where he spent six years prosecuting major fraud cases before federal juries. In 2005, Zwicker returned to his East Coast firm before PNC recruited him in 2012.
Zwicker has always identified with the outcasts and the outliers in society. “I may be a lawyer at one of the biggest banks in the nation, but I still try to speak for the underdog,” he affirms. His work at PNC is designed to ensure that everyone the bank interacts with plays by the same rules so that no groups, clients, or individuals are mistreated.
Ten years ago, PNC was a smaller financial organization navigating the global financial crisis that dominated 2008 and 2009. During that time, PNC acquired a regional midwestern bank known as National City Corporation. The deal gave PNC a bigger footprint, catching the attention of regulators who had concerns related to antitrust issues in markets where both legacy companies had a presence. The Department of Justice forced PNC to sell certain branches before the deal closed. With the integration complete, PNC was on a new path as a national player.
Faced with increased risk and scrutiny, the bank needed someone who understood regulations. It needed someone who understood government agencies. It needed someone capable of defending the underdog. It needed someone like Zwicker. He stepped in to build a new function to respond to outside investigations and manage government and regulatory enforcement.
Previous experience and knowledge of the SEC and regulators guided Zwicker from the start. He established a tone of honesty and transparency in the group and cultivated the right outside relationships to position PNC as a good corporate citizen. Zwicker credits PNC’s leaders with establishing a clear vision and clear expectations. “Everyone will tell you that culture starts at the top. Our CEO is a relentless advocate and believes that PNC is an institution we should all be proud of,” he explains.
Jonathan Moses, a partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, firmly believes that Zwicker’s abilities have benefited the company. “Working with Joseph and his team is truly a collaborative effort. Joseph brings extraordinary judgment and experience to bear on every matter, with a focus on making sure that PNC is doing what is right for its customers,” Moses says. “I have been lucky to work with him since he joined PNC.”
Zwicker has grown his team to include thirty people whose various backgrounds drive overall results. “I don’t lead with a predetermined idea about what kind of historical experience will necessarily make someone successful here,” he says, adding that he makes an effort to identify talent and move people into positions where they can uncover new opportunities. Some former civil litigators are leading investigations. A younger lawyer now oversees many other lawyers and operates as one of Zwicker’s key managers.
It’s a merit-based team where high performers are rewarded for their hard work. That’s important for a group that needs to keep pace with an evolving bank. Zwicker’s own role has grown beyond internal investigations, reviews, and regulatory matters to include data security, privacy, and litigation. He therefore must trust others to handle many of the day-to-day operations.
In June 2020, PNC finalized the acquisition of BBVA’s US banking subsidiary. Zwicker is now helping the institution complete a successful integration. He’s analyzing legacy litigation portfolios, onboarding new lawyers to PNC’s culture, and monitoring any issues that arise from plaintiffs, FINRA, the SEC, the DOJ, and other bodies.
Zwicker never lost his passion for the underdog. He makes time for pro bono work and sits on several nonprofit boards, including one that supports recently resettled refugee and immigrant families. The job at PNC is a demanding one, and although Zwicker doesn’t have much time to watch TV, he did happen to catch a recent episode of a Dateline NBC show called Life Inside in which Lester Holt visited Angola Prison. Zwicker watched with amazement as Holt interviewed someone that Zwicker himself met thirty years ago. Dalton Prejean, Jr. is serving fifty years for manslaughter. Zwicker plans to visit him as soon as the facility’s COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz:
“Working with Joseph and his team is truly a collaborative effort. Joseph brings extraordinary judgment and experience to bear on every matter, with a focus on making sure that PNC is doing what is right for its customers. I have been lucky to work with him since he joined PNC.”
–Jonathan Moses, Partner