5 minutes with... Jeff Cohen
When did you decide to become a lawyer? Why?
I became a lawyer for the same reason everyone does. I had no discernible skill set or other options! Actually, I wasn't sure that I wanted to be a lawyer but I was sure that I wanted a legal education. I was always fascinated by the entertainment industry and as an undergrad at Berkeley, I developed interests in politics and business as well. A legal background seemed to be a unique tool to help me make an impact in those arenas once I figured out what I wanted to do.
Starting out, what did you expect from a career in law?
I didn't really know what to expect, but I was definitely afraid. Afraid of losing myself. Being swallowed up by this mysterious cabal of law school and law firms and the Bar exam. Fear of the unknown, I imagine.
What do you consider to have been your big break?
It was actually a little break that mattered most. I was unhappy working at a large firm right out of law school. It was difficult, because I was very low on the totem pole and didn't have much client interaction. Out of the blue, a friend of mine, who was a comic, asked my help to negotiate his deal to write on a sit-com. It wasn't a large deal monetarily, but it gave me hope. It was exciting. I was helping an artist, a human being have more creative freedom, make more money, have a better life. That's when I began to fall in love with being an advocate.
What achievement are you most proud of?
In 2008, The Hollywood Reporter named me one of the top 35 execs in entertainment under 35. Also that year, Variety profiled me in their Dealmakers Impact issue. That gave me confidence that I was on the right track.
What do you consider your greatest failure or regret?
I failed so many times that it's hard to calculate who wins the gold. I think my greatest regret is not forgiving myself for previous failures. I'm a bit of a perfectionist. When I would make a mistake, I would be extremely hard on myself. My mind would replay the error again and again. What a terrible waste of energy. I developed a technique to help me learn from my mistakes and move forward. I ask myself a very specific question: "Was my decision completely irrational?" Undoubtedly, I would find that I did have some basis in reason given what I knew at the time and should probably cut myself a bit of slack. Actually, if you never fail, you're probably not trying things that are hard enough.
"I think there should be a law against lawyers who take themselves too seriously."
What law would you want to change, abolish or create?
I think there should be a law against lawyers who take themselves too seriously. As Peter Ustinov said, "It is our responsibilities, not ourselves that we should take seriously."
Who is your legal hero?
Without a doubt, Abraham Lincoln. The perfect lawyer. He seemed to have perfect empathy while simultaneously being able to view issues from this sweeping, macro intellectual perspective. Close and distant. Passionate and dispassionate. To endure that ferocious acrimony and still be able to maintain such dignity, love for his fellow man and a beautiful sense of humor. It's astonishing, really.
What motivated you to leave a big firm to start up your own firm? What advice would you give to others dreaming of one day doing the same?
I didn't have a choice. I was fired from so many jobs, that I figured the only way to stop being fired was to be my own boss. For those interested in starting their own firm I highly recommend reading How to Start and Build a Law Practice by Jay Foonberg. It provides valuable insights into the risks and rewards.
What career would you have in your second life?
Actually, this is my second career. Puberty forced me into early retirement from my first one as a child actor.
Has has your background in acting benefited your legal career? How?
Absolutely. Having experience on the talent side makes me a more empathetic advocate for my clients. It's not merely academic.
What are your plans for the future?
To continue to grow my firm's capabilities in the worlds of media, technology and entertainment. And learn to take a vacation once in a while. Been trying to work on that...
What slogan would you like to be remembered by?
In the end, we will be where we began and know it for the first time. (I’m paraphrasing T.S. Eliot here, but please indulge me.)
What advice would you give to students trying to enter the legal profession today?
You must ask yourself the magic question: "What do I want?" Be ruthlessly honest in your answer. This is the crystallizing question. Law students are by nature overachievers and have likely spent enormous amounts of time and energy pleasing other people. Pleasing teachers and parents and bosses and friends. We should heed the words of the great Bill Cosby, who said: "I don't know the secret to success, but the secret to failure is trying to please everybody."
The path from high school to college to law school to firm job is quite linear, but once you have that first job out of law school the opportunities and choices become exponentially more complex. If you know what you want and how you feel, then you can use your intellect and drive to make the right choices and create a fulfilling life emblematic of who you are as a person.