Interview with a Lawyer: A Look at Legal Life


First, I’d just like to say that we own Algeria. Secondly, I’d like to say that watching a soccer game from a bar at 7 in the morning is as surreal an experience as you’ll find outside of a Wes Anderson film. Thirdly, I’d actually like to introduce you to the interview we’ve got below.

Odds are that you’re thinking about being a lawyer. You’ve either taken the LSAT or are going to take the LSAT, with the next step obviously being applying for law school.

Before you make the leap, however, it’s important to take a look at where you’ll be landing. Below is an interview we conducted with Joan Cotkin, a Los Angeles-based lawyer doing the kind of work many of you ostensibly hope to do. She gives a good peek at the kind of life you’ll be leading when you too are a lawyer.

1. What’s your name and where do you work?

Joan M. Cotkin, Nossaman LLP, in downtown Los Angeles, CA.

2. What kind of law do you practice?

Civil litigation with an emphasis on insurance coverage issues, employment law and general business litigation. I have been fortunate enough to handle almost any kind of civil litigation including professional liability and have had many jury trials in courts all over California.

3. What is a typical day at the office like for you?

I usually come into the office between 5:30 am and 6:30 am and put in between 10-12 hours depending on the pending matters. If I am in trial then the work day is intense–usually 16 to 20 hours a day with early am in the office for pretrial prep, late afternoon and evening post trial day review and next day prep and weekend work. Unless I am in trial, I do take weekends off.

4. What do you like best about your job?

I enjoy the challenge and variety of fact patterns, figuring out what really happened, and how to formulate a claim or a defense to a claim. Among the challenges are the continued and constant variation of law–new practice areas, as well as the almost daily development of the law as appellate courts and legislatures do their work. I enjoy the creative side of coming up with an analysis with legal argument and authority to support it. It is particularly satisfying to establish law in an appellate setting and I have been fortunate to have participated in a number of appeals that did so.

It is most satisfying to assist those who need representation and to be successful in securing their rights.

5. What do you like least about your job?

Time sheets, collecting accounts receivable and other aspects of the business of law.

6. What do you wish you had known about the legal profession before becoming an attorney?

I knew very little about the profession other than the idealistic portrayals in the media, which is probably a good thing.

7. Do you have any advice for students contemplating the legal profession?

Be prepared for challenging work and lots of it. Mental agility is important as well as the ability to simplify.

The best lawyers are able to analyze the issues in simple terms. Being succinct is a key factor in all legal work: Being able to articulate “who is suing whom for what” in ten words or less.

A brief which can express the concepts in simple declarative sentences is much more persuasive than a lengthy complex discourse. Especially at the trial court level–Judges only have about five minutes of time to work up each matter that comes before them.

11 Responses

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  2. Dave says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. It sounds like you work a lot of hours – has it been that way throughout your entire legal career? And did you always know you wanted to be an attorney?

  3. Joan Cotkin says:

    The answer would be that I have not always worked such long hours. There was a point early in my career when I was in-house with a large corporation and happily worked less than eight hour days and no weekends. Lots of fun, variety of cases all over California–but very limited salary and chance for advancement.

    I had no idea I would end up going to law school. I started in college as an art major (oil painting) and actually worked a year between college and law school for several different insurance companies as an adjuster (also painted portraits from time to time to supplement that generous $500/month salary). There were several reasons I went to law school: Women were truly at a disadvantage in business at that time (early 1970’s) so there was little chance to advance without something more like a law degree, and also seeing how the insurers addressed claims from the inside encouraged me to go to law school.

  4. Cima Amiri says:

    I graduated from Boalt in 2006, but have been raising my two children for the last four years. I seperated from my partner in 2008, making me a single mother of two. You talk about 10-12 hour days ~ which is impossible for me from any standpoint. What will a hiatus of 5-7 years do to my legal career? How to I minimize the impact of my choices so that I can provide for my children? I have tried to apply for legal assistant and paralegal positions, however, do not seem to get any hits from local employers. Am I overqualified? Is it my lack of recent legal experience? Is it the fact that i have to explain the gap, leading to discrimination? You often talk about 4th tier graduates upset with no jobs, but I am in a first tier school, and unable to get any hits for part time positions. What can i do? Should I call Boalt and tell them my situation? Should I hire someone to give me advice?



  5. Nya H says:

    um, hi i have to interview a lawyer for school so i would like to know how was it with your family? Did you get to spend time with them at all or was it just work, work, work.

  6. Meghan says:

    What educational background was required for you to become a lawyer? How many years, what degrees, etc.

    Thanks! (This is a careers project and I have to find opinions about law and the career of a lawyer in general, from actual lawyers.)

    Your answer is greatly appreciated!

  7. Hana Williams says:

    Im a junior in high school, what are good classes to take for this profession?

    • Greg Nix says:

      Take whatever interests you. It’s WAY too early for you to worry about pre-requisites for law school or being a lawyer. At this point, it’s much more important for you to expand your knowledge of the world and find things that fascinate you.

      Also, if and when you eventually apply to law school, they won’t care what classes you took in high school, or even what your undergraduate major was.

  8. I like how Joan M. Cotkin says she didn’t know much about being a lawyer before she became one. I think it is good that she had idealistic portrayals of lawyers. It means that she was probably positive from the beginning. If I needed a defense attorney in LA. I would definitely consider her.

  9. There are a number of things that a lawyer will probably do when you first go to interview or consultation.
    First, identify a handful of lawyers who might be capable of addressing your needs, say, lawyers who specialize in particular type of case related to yours, or those who live in your area allowing better communication. Once you have pinpointed your possible candidates, arrange for an initial consultation via telephone so that you will get to ask preliminary questions before you actually set up an in-person formal interview.

    Thanks for being sharing.

    William Lyons

  10. I like the post Its has nice article It’s really effective and very impressive, We hope this information will help everyone.We are interested in looking for more of such topics.

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