Many may remember Jeff Cohen from his role as “Chunk” in Richard Donner’s The Goonies or a host of appearance in 80’s TV shows like Family Ties and Facts of Life. Cohen still works in the entertainment industry. However, now the former child actor is working behind the scenes as a transactional lawyer, negotiating agreements for actors, writers, directors, musicians, producers and media companies. As co-founding partner of Beverly Hills based Cohen Gardner LLP, Cohen is possibly the youngest owner of a substantial entertainment law firm in Hollywood. Cohen has been profiled by Variety in its “Deal Makers Impact Issue,” as well as being named one of the top 35 entertainment executives under 35 by The Hollywood Reporter. Cohen’s transition from childhood actor to Hollywood executive sheds light on how to nourish and develop an entrepreneurial spirit while making the most of a college experience. Now readers are invited to take a look at how Cohen arrived at the position that he is currently in and what it takes for him to be successful in a business that is demanding and ever changing.
Cohen grew up in Woodland Hills, California and upon graduating from Taft High School decided to go to the University of California at Berkeley. Why Berkeley? Quite frankly, Cohen went to the highest ranking school that accepted him. However, Cohen loves the Bay Area and fell in love with Berkeley for its culture and diverse environment. Cohen advises that it is important to pick the school that’s right for you because often times what you want to do going into school is different from what you want to do going out of school. Like many undergraduates, Cohen did not know what he wanted to do, trying his hand at computer science and political science before he wound up in business which was a good fit. In addition to picking the right school, Cohen also believes that as an undergrad it is important to pick a school that seems like it would be an adventure. Berkeley was certainly an adventure for Cohen.
In addition to his academic studies at Berkeley, Cohen emphasizes the importance of the extracurricular activities that provided him with a wealth of experience. As a “Big Berkeley Guy,” Cohen was heavily involved with extracurricular activities and claims that he learned more in his extracurricular activities than in his classes. Cohen likes to quote Mark Twain on the matter: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Cohen’s activities included playing rugby, being an R.A., and participating in theater and student government. Cohen also held the position of “Mic man,” traveling with the school’s football and basketball teams, and leading cheers at school events. You know, every school has one of these in its particular sport. The “Mic man” position allowed Cohen to meet alumni and become known by the student body who would later become his constituents as student senator, and as student body president. As Berkeley President, Cohen was able to gain experiences that would help him with his forays into law, such as meeting with Chancellors, and dealing with UC Regents on issues concerning public education.
After graduating from Berkeley, Cohen studied at the UCLA School of Law where he received a law degree with an emphasis in business law. Cohen relishes his time at UCLA for the quality of the Professors teaching business and entertainment law. Cohen specifically referred to studying television and film distribution under Professor Ken Ziffren of LA entertainment law powerhouse Ziffren Brittenham. Ziffren was, according to Cohen, “The finest entertainment lawyer in the United States.” In addition to having had the right people around him to learn from, it was also important for Cohen to be in close proximity to what he wanted to do. Studying in Los Angeles allowed Cohen to find a job at Universal Studios, actively participating in the industry and gaining from the experience.
Making the transition from college to career was not something that blossomed solely from his studies at Berkeley and UCLA. Although Cohen knew that he wanted to work in the entertainment industry, he didn’t know which career path he wanted to take. What was Cohen’s solution to this predicament? Studying. By studying, Cohen did not just pick up his old text books; he instead studied the titans of the industry. Cohen did this by reading the biographies of entertainment luminaries such as Louis B. Mayer, Bernie Brillstein, Lou Wasserman and David Geffen. By studying the titans of entertainment he was better able to decide what path to take and where to work so that he could decide if he was making the right career moves. His experience, shaped by the experiences of those in his field, was pivotal in allowing Cohen to make his own judgments about what he really wanted to do and how he was to succeed. Cohen is fond of the saying: “Success is life on your own terms.” His career path and founding of Cohen Gardner LLP reflect that attitude.
In 2002, Cohen and Jonathan Gardner founded Cohen Gardner LLP. Starting from scratch, both partners wanted to establish a firm on their own terms. Taking into account the good and the bad from their past work experiences, both partners decided to do things a different way, finding ways to represent their clients more effectively and dynamically. One of the ways in which they opted to do things differently is by representing a variety of clientele, unlike other firms that limit their clientele to only actors, writers and directors. Cohen Gardner’s clientele consists of technology companies, production companies, actors, directors, publishers, musicians, writers, and digital artists. Cohen felt that with the advent of new forms of distribution and production technology, an entertainment attorney needed to understand the universe of deals impacting various artists to effectively represent a particular artist.
The founding of Cohen Gardner entailed a lot of risk. Cohen describes it as a “cliff dive,” but he is also quick to point out that the secure route was not the right route. In a previous position, Cohen was making a good income at a large law firm. But despite the money, he was ultimately unhappy. Believing that life is too short, and realizing that eliminating risk from life is an illusion, Cohen decided to take the risk and make his passion his profession; another example of Cohen choosing to live his life on his own terms.
The success of Cohen Gardner may be attributed to the firm’s ability to make a mark in the industry early on in its existence. Cohen established a reputation for being a tenacious advocate and using his knowledge of the economics of the entertainment industry to negotiate strong deals for his clients. Cohen relished the David vs. Goliath type battles of his early negotiations, representing his clients versus much larger media conglomerates. Cohen is fond of saying that David is still getting good press from beating Goliath.