Lots of child actors end up in rehab, but only a few go onto successful adult acting career. Jeff Cohen parlayed his young acting talents (most notably, Chunk from The Goonies) into a successful career as one of LA’s top entertainment lawyers and his own firm, Cohen Gardner LLP. I sat down with him to discuss the old Goonies crew, how his clients get a kick out of having Chunk represent them, and how a flash mob formed in college to force him into doing the ol’ Truffle Shuffle.
QI read all your advice columns, and I’ve noticed that entertainment law and leaving law entirely to pursue a Hollywood career are topics that come up quite frequently. You’ve had words of caution concerning both these ideas before, which made me curious.
Let’s say some lucky person had a choice between being an in-house lawyer for a major studio (Warner Bros, Universal, etc.) or top agency (CAA, WME, etc.) or had an opportunity to become a talent or literary agent. Which would you choose?
I figure if someone, like myself, were to shoot for these incredibly hard-to-reach goals, it would at least be nice to know whether or not they’re actually worth reaching for—both in terms of what you have to go through to get there and how much you like it once you actually make it. I know this question doesn’t have the same answer for everyone, but I’m curious where you’d come down on this.
AYou’re right. I’ve answered plenty of questions from wannabe screenwriters, entertainment lawyers and Hollywood agents. But it doesn’t matter where I “come down on” this. It matters where you come down on this. There are pros and cons to both paths.
Chasing an in-house counsel position at CAA or Warner Bros is obviously a safer, more conservative path than pursuing a pure agent job. They’re also two TOTALLY different jobs. Entertainment law—especially in-house entertainment law—is a purely legal job. (See Bitter Lawyer’s interviews with Warner Bros studio executive Brett Paul and top entertainment attorneys Tara Kole and Carlos Goodman, for example.) You draft and negotiate contracts, analyze trademark issues, etc. The job of an agent, on the other hand, is to procure work for his or her clients and then negotiate the terms of the deal. (Check out the interview with WME agent Marc Korman for a better idea.)
Agents are pro-active. In-house lawyers are reactive, and they process the deals the agents create. The corporate law analogy would be: Investment banker is to corporate lawyer as agent is to in-house counsel.
Another thing to consider: The path to becoming an agent is also TOTALLY different than the path required to becoming an in-house counsel. Wannabe agents start out in the mailroom or as assistants. They’re bitches. No task is too menial or humiliating. It’s cliché, but it’s true. Regardless of your pedigree, you will be treated like shit. Count on it. This training period lasts approximately three years. There’s also no guarantee you ever get promoted from assistant to agent. And if that doesn’t happen, you’re sort of screwed. You won’t necessarily be able to fall back on your JD either, since your work experience (answering phones and scheduling lunches) will be totally irrelevant to law firms and other real-world employers.
As for an in-house gig, it’s somewhat similar to the path of a traditional law firm associate. You start at the bottom and work your way up. But unlike an aspiring agent, you’re still practicing law and functioning as a lawyer—even when you’re at the very bottom.
Finally, you need to think about the payoff. Top agents tend to make a lot more money than top in-house counsels. $2 million vs. $500K, more or less. So it’s up you, my brother, to figure out which job better speaks to your skill set, risk profile and personality.
PS: Before you make your decision, ask yourself this question: How much do I love kissing ass? If the answer isn’t “a lot,” then forget about being an agent. Good luck!
A Supreme Court clerkship is a golden ticket that can open just about any door. However, if there’s one industry where it may actually work against you, it’s Hollywood. Of course. Only in the tiny, insulated world of boutique entertainment law firms can such coveted resume experience not automatically push you over the edge and get you hired. Those firms are different. They don’t hire recent law school graduates. Period. Not even if you went to Harvard. Not even if you clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia.
When we ran across The Hollywood Reporter’s induction of Gang Tyre Ramer & Brown partner Tara Kole into their “Next Gen: Class of 2009” issue that showcases the top 35 entertainment executives under 35, we were intrigued by Kole’s unusual leap straight from a Supreme Court clerkship to representing Hollywood types like actress Gwyneth Paltrow (Iron Man 2) and director Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel). We’ve interviewed entertainment lawyers and top Hollywood agents before, but none were at the top of their game by 32 years old like seems to be Kole already.
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How do I get into entertainment law?
Everyone wants to “go Hollywood.” The glitz and glitter of representing movies stars and A-list directors is too damn tempting, isn’t it? Not to mention the 5% commission entertainment attorneys charge, which means there’s no such thing as billable hours! Too good be true, huh? It is.
It’s the best legal gig in the world, if you’re lucky enough to pull it off. But it’s not easy. You’re not the only one who thinks making two mill a year for hanging out with Reese Witherspoon is a good job. There’s a lot of competition and no obvious career path. So the battle is to get in the door—and the best way to make that happen, in my opinion, is to work at the most prestigious firm you possibly can for two or three years. Sullivan, Cravath, Skadden, O’Melveny… While there, exploit every Hollywood contact you have and try to get a job as a grunt at one of the boutique LA firms.
Stay away from the posers and corporate firms who pretend to do entertainment law. Focus only on the 5% of boutiques representing talent. Not studios, not “film financiers.” Talent. Find the firms who represent movie stars, big-budget directors, and high-profile TV producers. They’re the only firms really in the game. It’s not easy to get an interview—and the lawyers themselves tend to be very snotty and aloof—but keep trying. They always need bitches to draft contracts and do the pedestrian legal work none of them really want to do. These cats fancy themselves dealmakers/agents/schmoozers, so they don’t want to draft long-form agreements and do legal research. So get a few Big-Firm years under your belt and start networking your ass off. Don’t take no for answer. More importantly, read the interview on Bitter Lawyer with Carlos Goodman.
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Title and Employer?
Partner in Bloom, Hergott, Diemer, Rosenthal, LaViolette & Feldman, LLP, an entertainment firm in Beverly Hills that specializes in motion pictures and television.
So what does a hotshot entertainment lawyer really do?
Complain about “the business” while eating lunch at a fancy Hollywood restaurant. When not busy doing that, an entertainment lawyer is primarily involved with making deals for “talent”—actors, directors, writers, and producers. This means working in tandem with a client’s agent to negotiate the economics and other key points of a deal, typically against the studios’ business affairs lawyers. The lawyer then negotiates the written contract. And in Hollywood, as they say, the finished contract is simply the beginning of the negotiation.
What is fun about entertainment law in Hollywood is that it’s a fairly small community, and it’s very interpersonal. In many instances, you have to use your relationships to accomplish certain things for your clients. You also have lots of opportunities to put together unique, creative deals—whether because you have the leverage with a hot client or because the business is changing as a result of new media—and that can make certain negotiations very dynamic.
Who does your firm represent?
Our firm represents several A-list talents in Hollywood—people like Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, and many of the top directors and producers in the business.
What law school did you go to?
What was your first job out of law school?
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in its New York office in the late 1980’s.
Litigation. I worked mainly on the Exxon Valdez oil spill litigation, which was an obvious and natural launching pad to get into Hollywood—oily and slick.
How did you make the transition from corporate litigator to entertainment attorney?
Well, what is it they say? Acknowledging the problem is half the struggle. It’s not hard to know something is wrong when you bill 250 hours a month, month after month, on matters where you have no connection to the client or any real stake in the outcome personally.
It’s fine to work hard, but the law, like any business, is more fun when you can be entrepreneurial and have a direct relationship with your clients. And I didn’t get the feeling that I was going to become best friends with any Fortune 500 CEOs anytime soon at the age of 26, especially when my chief social circle was other associates like me eating take-out Chinese food at 10 p.m. every night in the office.
I saw entertainment law as a way of working with individual clients, people who were my age, and with whom I could grow. Looking back on that now, entertainment law gave me that. One of my very first clients was Quentin Tarantino and I worked with him on making “Reservoir Dogs.” Quentin and I have worked together for seventeen years, and I just finished closing the deal for his new movie “Inglorious Bastards.”
As far as making the transition, I had a friend during law school who had become a music lawyer at a Los Angeles firm that also had a motion picture practice group. She introduced me to some of the lawyers at the firm, and I got a job doing motion picture work. I think the fact that I was young and relatively cheap, and working at a top firm, helped me get the opportunity.
Does being a former litigator help you in your current job negotiating deals for movie stars and A-list directors?
Not really. I do think that working at a good firm straight out of law school helped show me quickly what it meant to be a professional. I always tell young lawyers that it’s a good thing to work at the best firm you can, to be exposed for a while to the level of excellence you do find at places like Gibson Dunn. But you have to be careful of the trap at elite firms—they have a way of successfully stroking their good people to distract them from how unfulfilling a lot of that work can be in the long run. And before you know it, you’re too senior (or too bitter!) to make a successful transition to something more entrepreneurial or satisfying.
Any advice for bitter lawyers out there looking to change jobs?
When I decided to leave the “mothership” of a big firm, I felt like I was taking a risk. And I did have to pay my dues in that transition, no question. But I think bitter lawyers need to realize they can be taking a greater risk by avoiding change and waiting too long to try to transition into something different. I think it’s important when you’re in a big firm to look at the people who are four or five years ahead of you and see what their lives are like—and ask yourself, is that the type of career or life you want? Is that pasty-faced, cynical sixth-year associate the type of person you are striving to be? Use those intermediate people as projections of what your future will be. But you don’t need to actually live through those extra four or five years yourself! The evidence is right there in front of you.