3 Questions New Lawyers Must Ask Themselves

Guest post by Jeff Cohen.

For a man to conquer himself is the first and noblest of all victories. – Plato

As a law student or newly minted lawyer, you have utilized the Socratic Method to unravel mysteries such as discerning the rule of law we get from Pennoyer v. Neff. (What the hell was the rule we got from Pennoyer v. Neff by the way? Sorry, it’s been a while…)

Well, regardless, let’s dust off good old Socrates and use his methodology to ask ourselves three questions indispensible to crafting a successful career. Answering honestly may be difficult, but we owe ourselves the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

I can teach anybody how to get what they want out of life. The problem is that I can’t find anybody who can tell me what they want. – Mark Twain

1. What do I want?

This question is deceptively simple, but can be remarkably complex and difficult to answer. Lawyers are often over achievers who have had to succeed in high school and in College and on the LSAT and in Law School and on the Bar, a seemingly never ending chain of pleasing teachers and test makers and parents. This path is difficult, but usually fairly linear. Knowing what makes other people happy is extremely useful and oftentimes sufficient to get us all the way to that first coveted legal job post passing the Bar. But, for most people, once you join the workforce the world becomes anything but linear. You face unlimited choices, opportunities, responsibilities and risk. Without the self knowledge of what motivates and excites you fundamentally as a human being, how can you know what goal you are striving for?

Bill Cosby famously said: “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”  Ask yourself “What do I want?”  Not what pleases your parents or significant other or peers or professors, but what makes you happy and brings meaning to your life.

I must govern the clock, not be governed by it. – Golda Meir

2. What is the best use of my time now?

I’ve actually stolen this question from a marvelous book first published in 1973 titled How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life by Alan Lakein. If you haven’t read it, you should. The book convincingly argues that in addition to setting clear, manageable goals, asking “What is the best use of my time now?” clarifies, crystallizes and creates a bridge linking your actions and your aims.

As a young lawyer, you will be swamped with briefs and filings and meetings and deadlines. It can be quite overwhelming and sometime debilitating.  With so much to do, it’s easy to freeze up or better yet play on Facebook for 45 minutes.  Being able to relax, focus and quietly ask yourself “What is the best use of my time now?” is invaluable.

Facts are stubborn things. – John Adams

3. Do I want to be “right” or do I want to be correct?

Way back in 1620, Sir Francis Bacon published a very fancy book called The Novam Organum. Although Novam Organum sounds like Princess Leia Organa’s grandfather, it’s actually another name for the Scientific Method. Simply put: first facts, then analysis. This was a revolutionary idea back in the Seventeenth Century and judging by all the ideological zealotry on any given day in Washington D.C., it’s still revolutionary today.

As lawyers we are taught to argue and fight and win. Certainly, being a vigorous advocate is crucial to becoming a successful attorney. However, don’t let the desire for your argument to be “right” trump taking the course of action that is correct for the situation.

Great lawyers are able to see the big picture. Be mindful of the myriad factors impacting your client and the case. Use your Socratic education. Question. Question. Question. What does your client really want? What motivates the opposing side? What economic and political considerations affect your matter? Transcend being “right.” Thoughtfully analyze the situation in its entirety and make the decision that is correct.

And on a personal note, I have found that the same skills of argumentation that make one a big hit at work make one a big miss at home. In personal matters I have taken the late, great Andy Rooney’s words to heart: “Being kind is more important than being right.”

Jeff B. Cohen, Esq. is a partner at the Beverly Hills based law firm of Cohen Gardner LLP which he co-founded in 2002. Cohen Gardner LLP focuses on corporate, technology, media and entertainment transactions. Jeff also has the dubious distinction of being a former child actor, appearing most notably in the Richard Donner/Steven Spielberg film “The Goonies,” but please don’t hold that against him. He’s also on Facebook and Twitter.



  1. Good advice. #2 really resonated with me. I try to look at my to-do list every morning and ask myself which of these items do I NEED to work on right away (or more specifically, which of these to-do items will really get me in trouble if I keep putting it off?).

    Novam Organum also sounds like something Dr. Alfred Kinsey studied in the ’50s.

  2. Avatar Andrew Nettleman says:

    The final personal note might be the most important part of this article.

    I can tell you, from experience, that practicing your cross examination skills on your wife (consciously or otherwise) is not the way to get ahead in your marriage.

Leave a Reply