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I Wish I’d Known: Jeff B. Cohen

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Jeff B. Cohen
After a challenging start in the law, former child actor Jeff B. Cohen successfully combines his love of entertainment with his law degree.

So often times it happens

that we live our lives in chains.

And we never even know we have the key.

—“Already Gone” by the Eagles

Way back, the world was young in June 2000 when I graduated law school on a beautiful sunny day at the University of California Los Angeles. I was damn terrified.

We legal folks are, for the most part, hardworking, hard-headed overachievers. Racehorses. Put me in a race, any race, and I’ll run fast, fast, fast. Race for the best grades in junior high, in high school, in college, in law school. The best score on the SAT and LSAT. But what now? I thought.

Yes, I have to pass the bar in a few months, so I can take solace in that. Another race to take my mind off things that matter.

But what about after that?

I had a solid job lined up at a good, big, shiny respectable law firm doing corporate stuff. I also had a big pile of student debt and definitely needed the dough. It wouldn’t make me rich like Bill Gates, but it was certainly more scratch than I’d ever made in my life.

And yet, I was miserable.

You may ask yourself,

well, how did I get here?

—“Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads

Running all these races got me to a spot that I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to wear a suit and tie and scour 200-page contracts to make sure the assignability provision would stick. And yet, that was my future, and I needed the cash. I was trapped.

My law degree was a cage, a lock. I do the right thing. I do the smart thing. This job was the right thing. Feelings are luxuries, actions are necessities. The proper action was to take the position.

And without the help of my secret weapon, I might still be hacking away at that job today.

What was that secret weapon, you ask?

My heroic subconscious. It made a choice for me that I wasn’t brave enough to make for myself. Deep down, that little guy knew this wasn’t the life for me. (Please note: I’m not knocking working at a big firm. It can be and is great for many people. It just wasn’t right for me.)

So, thankfully, my subconscious made sure I totally sucked at that job. I’d show up late, miss deadlines, give partners dirty looks when they’d dump a pile of work on my desk at 5 p.m. on a Friday.

With a little bit of luck, I was fired after nine months. And deservedly so—I certainly would have fired me.

Do you feel you were tricked

by the future you picked?

Well, come on down.

—“Down to Earth” by Peter Gabriel

Then I had nothing, and thus I was free. “Nothing” is a bit dramatic. I still had my law degree, massive student debt, and my dashing good looks. I had hair back then…

In my life, it was that particularly dark period that allowed me to see the light. Now that there was no pre-ordained race I had to train for, I could finally ask myself: What the hell race do I want to run in? What do I want? Not what my professor wants, or my family wants, or my employer wants. But what do I want?

I wanted to be involved in show business. I grew up in it. It’s kind of the only thing that ever made sense to me. It’s something that I thought about, that I cared about. Beyond money and that dumb stuff. Art, entertainment, culture. A civilization’s gift to future generations.

Then I discovered my law degree didn’t have to be a lock. It could be a key. My legal education was a tool, an advantage, a powerful way to analyze information, to solve problems, to be deliberate, to be strong, to be fair.

That key opened the door for me to build my own entertainment law firm. It enabled me to do what I wanted to do—help artists make art.

I wish I’d known back then that my law degree wasn’t a lock but a key. It’s a fantastic key you can use to open the door to politics or business or philanthropy or whatever the hell you want.

Come to think of it, what do you want?

Jeff B. Cohen Jeff B. Cohen is a transactional attorney and former child actor, best known for playing the role of Chunk in the film “The Goonies.” A co-founder of Beverly Hills–based Cohen Gardner LLP, he is the author of The Dealmaker’s Ten Commandments: Ten Essential Tools for Business Forged in the Trenches of Hollywood published by the American Bar Association.