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On Disrupting the Formula for Failure and Not Becoming a Monster

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By Jeff B. Cohen

Jeff B. Cohen is a partner at entertainment law firm Cohen Gardner LLP based in Beverly Hills, California. In 2013, he was named to Variety ’s Dealmakers Impact Report. He has been profiled by theHollywood Reporter, the ABA Journal, Chambers Associate, LawCrossing, and others. He regularly authors articles regarding business, technology, and entertainment matters for media outlets includingthe Huffington Post, CNBC, Backstage, and Lawyerist. He is currently writing a book for ABA Publishing titled The Dealmaker’s Ten Commandments. Prior to his legal career, he was a child actor most notably appearing as the character Chunk in the Richard Donner/Steven Spielberg film The Goonies. But, he asks that you don’t hold that against him.

There’s so much I wish I’d known back in law school when the world was young! I was six feet tall back then and had a beautiful head of hair. (Practicing law takes its toll, I suppose.) Out of all the things I wish I’d known, here are two that stand out, and that I’d like you to consider, too.

Lesson No. 1
“I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure—which is: Try to please everybody.”

—Herbert Bayard Swope

To make it all the way up the chain to law school, you have to be a great people pleaser. You pleased your teachers in high school, your professors in undergrad, the good folks who make the LSAT, the admissions officers at law school, your distinguished law professors. You get your juris doctor, you pass the bar, get your esquire stripes, and then . . . as Alice aptly said in wonderland, things get “Curiouser and curiouser!”

From the beginning, our education to becoming a lawyer is usually a relatively linear path that rewards pleasing those in judgment around you. But once you are injected into the stream of commerce, a new set of skills is also required.

In our fluid marketplace, the odds of working at one firm, one company, or one governmental entity for your entire career are remote. Lawyers—talented lawyers—are fired from firms and institutions for macroeconomic reasons having nothing to do with their performance or whom they have pleased.

Your compass, your North Star throughout this crazy adventure, is knowing what pleases you: knowing the answer to the deceptively difficult questions, “How do I feel?” and “What do I want?” If you haven’t yet, I suggest you give those questions a thorough pondering, pronto.

When 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 career emblematic of who you are as a person.

Lesson No. 2
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

As lawyers, we are trained for combat: to debate, to advance our client’s position, to attack, to parry, to counterattack, to take no prisoners, to give no quarter, to use our brains to defeat our opponents for glory and treasure. And it is great and fulfilling and challenging and frightening and exhausting all at the same time. Like any form of extended stress, it takes a toll. Do your best to have a positive outlet for your stress—interests outside of the law. Basically, get a life. It’s important. I’ve found that maintaining a sense of humor is helpful as well. As Peter Ustinov said, “It is our responsibilities, not ourselves, that we should take seriously.”

Vol. 43 No. 3

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.