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Advice from the Inside: How I love practicing law and still pursued my dream

Michael Koskoff
Michael Koskoff stands with a poster after the screening of "Marshall" at the 2017 ABA Annual Meeting in New York. Below: Koskoff answers questions from ABA Past President Paulette Brown at the screening.

I was admitted to the bar in 1966. Since then, I’ve been a trial lawyer—at first criminal defense and later plaintiffs’ malpractice, product liability, and civil rights. Yet, unlikely as it may seem, after 51 years of practice, a movie is about to be released that I co-wrote with my son.

The movie, “Marshall,” tells the story of a rape trial that was held in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1941. The accused was defended by 33-year-old Thurgood Marshall, who went on to become the nation’s first African-American U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Marshall worked alongside Sam Friedman, a young Jewish lawyer. My “Marshall” project took eight years from the time of inception to the moment the movie was “in the can.” Of course, the work wasn’t constant.

There were numerous starts, stops, and rewrites along the way. There were some months when nothing at all happened.

One might be tempted to attribute my perseverance with the project to “dogged determination” or “unbridled passion,” but such descriptions would be wrong. Instead, the creation of the screenplay was sheer pleasure, a departure from the routines of everyday life, a recreational activity like golf, music, or ballet.

You, too, can pursue your pleasures while practicing and enjoying the law. Here’s how.

Michael KoskoffMediocrity wasn’t enough

From childhood, my personal passion was always for acting, movies, and theater. I appeared in school plays, community theater, and even studied at the American Shakespeare Academy with a view toward possibly becoming an actor.

Ultimately, I decided that a career in acting would be a mistake for me—I would have been only a mediocre actor. But I realized that what skill I possessed, and my passion for acting, transferred to the courtroom as well. I loved trying cases. I still love trying cases. The fulfillment that comes from acting—public speaking, communication, the transfer of ideas—correlates well with the life of a trial lawyer.

I was fortunate that trial law fit so well with my interests and abilities because I learned that the law—or at least my branch of the law—can be extremely demanding on your time and energy. Trials can last for months.

There are sleepless nights and weekends spent reading depositions and preparing witnesses. All of this would have been sheer torture unless I loved what I do.

As tempting as it may be to believe that the law is “just a job” and that you’ll find fulfillment elsewhere, the truth is that, for most of us, our job is a large part of our lives. Statistics show that the average working American spends 35 percent of his waking hours at work over a 50-year work life. For most lawyers, it’s much more than that.

Without a fulfilling job, social life, and family life, the side ventures—such as screenwriting—aren’t likely to be sufficiently rewarding. There’s no escape from a job you don’t like.

Activities like creative writing, music, and even golf and tennis are insufficient as escapes. But they can be fulfilling adjuncts to an already satisfying professional career and family life.

It’s important, as a soon-to-be-new lawyer, to recognize that fact.

If you need to “escape” from your job, you may have made the wrong career choice to begin with and should consider a change of circumstances. Therefore, when you start out on your career, it’s important to realize that, first and foremost, you should look for a job that:

  • Fits your interests and abilities
  • Includes people whom you’ll enjoy as co-workers
  • Is in a place that you want to live

Bearing in mind that school loans and crushing debt are realistic concerns, your starting salary should be far down the list when beginning your legal career.

Michael Koskoff

Michael Koskoff talks with Quinnipiac University School of Law Jennifer Gerarda Brown (right) as Lauren Friedman, daughter of Sam Friedman, listens in during a screening of “Marshall” at the 2017 ABA Annual Meeting in New York.

How to keep dreaming

In the early years of your legal career, particularly if you have a young family, there may be less time for the pursuit of other passions and dreams. But you don’t have to abandon them entirely. You can and should keep them alive while complying with the necessities of job and family life.

Whether your interest is golf, music, ballet, or something else, I can offer seven observations and suggestions to keep these passions alive:

1. Get started right away. Procrastination is the thief of time. Whatever the project or activity is going to be, start it now. When it comes to writing, the first paragraph is the hardest. Don’t agonize. Put it on the paper. If you’re training for a marathon, the first thing to do is start running.

2. Find the time. Even with the busiest job, there’s wasted time. Some of the biggest thieves of time are screens. People average between two and three hours of television viewing a day and many more hours on the recreational use of computers, cell phones, and other devices. Spending just one hour a day on a project can make your passion a reality. Sometimes, you’ll have large blocks of time that go unused. My personal favorite is while traveling by air. Why not write that essay or poem rather than reading SkyMall?

3. Set realistic expectations. Pursuing your passion should be an end in itself. Although having my screenplay made into a movie is extremely gratifying, it wasn’t expected, and I didn’t depend upon that outcome to make the project worthwhile. I enjoyed writing, creating characters and dialogue, and the act of creation itself.

4. Be optimistic. As lawyers, we’re trained in critical thinking. It’s necessary for us to do our jobs well. But critical thinking has a dark side, too. When turned against ourselves, it can make us doubt our instincts and abilities. It makes us risk-averse in both our private and professional lives and creates a tendency to settle for mediocrity. Optimism correlates with success, happiness, and long life, as well.

5. Don’t live only for the future. You have only one life, so live it now. Of course, some future planning is necessary in life, but those who think they can control their destiny are generally disappointed. “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,” as the saying goes. Some lawyers in my law school class opted to work for large corporations or insurance companies because they thought those jobs were more secure than small-firm practice. Instead, many found themselves laid off, out of work, and frustrated. One close friend loved music and was good at it, yet gave up a career in music to be an insurance defense lawyer. He was risk averse and afraid of failure. In fact, he did fail, as a lawyer pursuing something he hated.

6. Be patient. My movie was made in my eighth decade of life after eight years of work. It may have never happened at all, but many would have dropped it along the way and missed the undeniable thrill of seeing it come to fruition.

7. Recognize that most of what happens in life is beyond your control. As it says in Ecclesiastes 9:11, “The race does not go to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor riches to the wise, but time and chance overtake all.”

Whatever you do, remember to live practicing the law and outside of it. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. may have said it best on May 30, 1884, when he stated, “I think that, as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.”

The ABA has more free screenings across the country scheduled.

MICHAEL KOSKOFF is a partner at Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder PC in Bridgeport, Conn. He and his son, Jacob, are co-screenwriters of the movie “Marshall.”

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