10 Questions: Magician-turned-lawyer helps make legal problems disappear
It’s easy to liken law to magic. Talented lawyers always have tricks up their sleeves. Lucky lawyers pull rabbits out of hats. In trial, lawyers can hide the ball, conjure evidence and hold juries spellbound. Los Angeles lawyer Jeffrey W. Cowan can do all of these things—literally. That’s because Cowan isn’t just a lawyer. He’s also a former professional magician. A specialist in sleight of hand and stand-up magic, Cowan spent two years as a full-time magician after college before using his skills to help pay his way through law school. He was once a regular headliner at the legendary Magic Castle in Hollywood, and he’s performed at trade shows, corporate meetings, law firm retreats, private parties and even at the Playboy Mansion. Today, Cowan’s practice is built on business and employment trial law, but he also maintains a niche practice helping magicians and magic-related businesses make their legal problems disappear.
I imagine that magic-themed businesses encounter the same legal problems as other businesses, but can you give me an example of a magician-specific legal issue?
One magician-specific issue involves confidentiality agreements/[nondisclosure agreements]. When a magician decides, for whatever reason, to share a technique or routine with other magicians for a price, the magician often holds workshops. They usually cost more than what you’d pay for a legal conference, and participating requires signing a confidentiality agreement. I draft NDAs that spell out not only what the attendees will learn and receive at the workshop and the price, but also how they must keep the information confidential and precisely where they may use the learned information. The magicians attending have to be able to use the tricks at least in some of their performances because otherwise, what’s the point? But there can be carve-outs—like you can’t post video on the internet, you cannot perform the material on television or in certain geographic regions. You also are forbidden from discussing the material on magician forums or websites.
What’s something you’ve done for magicians that you’re particularly proud of?
Back when I was a full-time magician, I had learned how to eat fire. The year after I took torts, I co-authored a book on the subject with a magician buddy. The magic community acclaimed it as the best treatise on the subject, although the bar was low. At the bottom of every single page—every single page—we warned that “the reader tries or performs these stunts at his/her own risk.” Although there is a secret and a technique, you are really, truly putting a burning torch into your mouth. But unquestionably the most complicated and important magician solution I ever worked on was protecting the Fitch-Kohler Holdout System. It’s a device that magicians use in various tricks to create moments of pure trick-photography magic. I am being intentionally vague.
No, I get it. But why couldn’t you just patent it?
We could have, but we didn’t want to because then it’s public knowledge. If magic were not predicated on secrets, and if the only concern was keeping it from being knocked off, sure, you could patent it. But it wasn’t just a better mousetrap; it involved a secret. What I created was a combination of a nondisclosure agreement and a limited license. Buyers were licensees: They received trade secrets and physical objects but technically did not own the chattel. This legal strategy has been phenomenally successful, and the secret has never been exposed.
Do you know the secret?
Of course. I have to.
How did you make the leap from liking magic to actually performing in front of an audience?
I had always liked magic, and as a child, I had a couple of simple tricks and beginner books. One year, we attended a family Hanukkah party in the New York City area, and a cousin who was a few years older than me did a show. Cousin Fred had professional props and excellent stage presence—for 14, anyway—and I was captivated. I thought, this is my cousin—if he can do this, surely I can, too. By age 12, I had started doing shows for little kids.
What did you call yourself?
The Amazing Jeff.
I love it! How did you go about booking gigs?
I was an entrepreneur. I posted flyers on bulletin boards at the supermarket and at community centers and gave them to kids at my elementary school. At some point, I advertised in a local biweekly newspaper. In my early teens, I mostly did birthday parties. I kept records of my gigs, and then 11 months later, I would send a letter to parents reminding them how much their child liked my show and reporting that I’d added new tricks to my repertoire. But there were two things that really catapulted me forward. First, a woman who was either an intern or a young reporter for the Washington Post attended a magic show I did for some 5-year-olds. For some reason, she found me intriguing and wrote a feature story about me. It was a full-page article with a photo, and after that my phone rang nonstop. The second thing happened when I was 14. I was attending a club for youth magicians at the local magic shop, and the owner brought in an older teenager to do a guest performance. This guy—Tim Conover—was only 19 years old, but he already was one of the best magicians alive—like a Michael Jordan or LeBron of the magic world. He did 15 to 20 minutes of sleight-of-hand tricks, and I sat there with my jaw dropped and my eyes wider than they’d ever been, just in awe and blown away by what I was seeing a few feet away. It was an epiphany that inspired me—with Tim’s generous help—to seriously study sleight of hand.
Do you have a dream trick that you hope to one day be able to perform?
Several. One is a close-up masterpiece by one of the 20th-century greats named Albert Goshman. There’s a salt shaker and a pepper shaker on the table, and objects repeatedly vanish and reappear under the shakers. Two spectators are sitting next to you, and the shakers are mere inches away, right under their noses. It requires advanced sleight of hand, timing, misdirection—and guts.
Do you ever use the skills you learned as a magician as a lawyer?
Sure. When you’re a magician, you have to read people, or many tricks will fail either technically or theatrically. When you start a magic show—for a formal audience, a group at a cocktail party or at a table you’ve approached in a restaurant—you have to instantly connect with your audience and start forming a relationship. The same is true when you’re picking a jury in voir dire. In the courtroom, theatrical techniques also help, like eye contact, situational humor and modulating your voice. Varying tone and pacing are key. There should be a mix of dramatic highs and lows—just like in plays and movies.
Have you ever performed stereotypical magic tricks like cutting someone in half or pulling a rabbit out of a hat?
I have two classic bigger illusions: sawing through a person and a floating person, both of which use audience members and were popular with audiences, including law firms. I also had a rabbit in my teens and early 20s. Actually, I had several; rabbits don’t live that long. My first rabbit was Hocus; the last was Ralph. For kids and families, nothing beats producing a live rabbit.
This article appeared in the June 2019 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: "Practical Magic: LA-based magician-turned-lawyer helps make legal problems disappear."