The 24-hour Rule

What do Exxon, R.J. Reynolds and Auburn University have in common? Sam Franklin        

Published in 2008 Alabama Super Lawyers magazine

By Verna Gates on May 7, 2008


There’s a simple mantra behind Sam Franklin’s calm exterior: the 24-hour rule. If the heat rises to boil, you forget it for 24 hours and let the emotions cool to room temperature. “If it’s real bad, you make it a 48-hour rule,” jokes Don Thornton, former general counsel for Vesta Insurance, a client. “The temptation is to pick up a phone and fire back. Sam will never do that.”

In the high-stakes world of corporate defense, Franklin and his Birmingham firm Lightfoot Franklin & White dominate. The firm has been involved in nearly every headline-grabbing case in recent Alabama history, including the billion-dollar battle between Exxon Mobil and the state for gas royalties, the tobacco settlement and the infamous Eric Ramsey case. Clients include R.J. Reynolds, Auburn University, Exxon, Alabama Gas Corporation, International Paper and Bayer. Yet, for all of his high-profile and high-stress cases, his face is as serene as his lake retreat near Harpersville.

“I used to play golf before I became a lakehouse lawyer,” says the 61-year-old Franklin, who is the third top point-getter on the 2008 Alabama Super Lawyers list. A former Eagle Scout, he finds that nature provides the ultimate sanctuary. Perhaps that’s the key to his legendary composure. “He is serious and professional, very low-key. He’s not one of these excitable types who jump up and down,” says Bobby Lowder, Auburn trustee and chairman and CEO of Colonial BancGroup, a client of 25 years.

“What is it they say? ‘Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make angry,'” Franklin says. “When you are angry, your thinking isn’t clear, and you lose control.”

He doesn’t lose control.

Franklin never Planned to be a lawyer. He just knew he didn’t want to be an engineer, which was all the rage during the years of the Kennedy space drive. Neither of his parents attended college, but they expected their three children to graduate from four-year schools. He chose Auburn and worked engineering jobs in Huntsville and Boulder, Colo., during his summer breaks. Then he decided to give law school a shot. Franklin credits his undergraduate degree in mathematics and minor in physics with honing his problem-solving skills and steering him toward litigation. He admits to a competitive spirit.

In his most high-profile case, he represented Exxon Mobil when Alabama accused the nation’s largest publicly traded company of cheating the state out of offshore natural-gas royalties. In 2003, a jury awarded a monumental $11.8 billion, which was later reduced to $3.5 billion by the judge. Franklin was devastated. “It was a long drive back from Montgomery to Birmingham that day,” he says. “I had not had a sense that the Exxon jury was that much in favor of the state’s side of the case. I was surprised and personally crushed at the terrible, terrible result at the hands of the jury.”

In November, the Alabama Supreme Court tossed out the entire punitive verdict, carving the amount down to $51 million plus interest through the date of the trial, which will add up to more than $140 million in compensatory damages. Franklin felt vindicated.

According to friends and foes alike, it’s not often that Franklin misreads a jury.

“Sam is a very atypical defense lawyer, which is why he is so effective,” says Robert Cunningham, of Cunningham Bounds in Mobile. “He has a homespun, good-old-boy air that is disarming, while at the same time belies the fact that he is very bright and always prepared. Be assured, you will not win a case against him because the jury dislikes him.”

“If you go into a courthouse with him, you’d better be ready because it is going to be a fight,” says Jere Beasley of Beasley Allen in Montgomery. Both Beasley and Cunningham fought Exxon and Franklin on behalf of the state. But, “if he beats you, he’s nice about it. He won’t rub it in.”

The Exxon case wasn’t the first in which Franklin has had to take his home state to task. When former governor Don Siegelman fell short on education cash in a 2001 downturn in tax revenues and asked the college system to bear the brunt of the shortfall, Auburn dialed Franklin immediately. Once again, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled for Franklin’s client.

Auburn also called on Franklin to defend Coach Pat Dye in the Eric Ramsey case. Ramsey, a defensive back for the Tigers in the early 1990s, accused the popular coach of offering illegal benefits like cash and steaks to football players. The story made 60 Minutes. In Alabama, where college football is virtually a state-sanctioned religion, many believed Ramsey was the Antichrist. “[Coach Dye] resigned over the controversy; it was such a distraction to the university. He felt it would be in everyone’s best interest, even though he was never personally found guilty of any violations,” says Franklin. The school was placed on probation and banned from bowl games for two seasons.

When NASCAR driver Davey Allison, golden boy of the Allison racing dynasty, died in a helicopter crash, the helicopter company retained Franklin. Even though Allison had less than five hours of flying time in the cockpit of that helicopter and a history of risk taking, a fully defensible position, Franklin recommended a settlement.

“I once told a client, when asked the chances of winning, to define what a ‘win’ is. In many cases, you may not get an outright verdict, but you may settle to avoid disaster,” says Franklin. The company settled.

Another example: the Big Tobacco case. Attorney General Bill Pryor decided against joining other states in litigation against the tobacco companies, opting instead for the $3 billion settlement that Franklin helped hammer out for client R.J. Reynolds. R.J. Reynolds corporate counsel Michael Johnson calls Franklin “the total package,” someone who can design, assemble and present to the jury. He also doesn’t mind ribbing him a little bit.

“Sam is one of the few people I’ve met who has a more pronounced southern drawl than I do. I like to hear him talk. He’s a good storyteller, too. And that may be one of the reasons he’s such an effective trial lawyer,” Johnson says.

Perhaps colleagues and clients don’t hesitate to roast Franklin from time to time because he is so willing to share a chuckle. Says Beasley: “He’s not caught up in his own image.” While likeability helps earn Franklin friendship, his small-town decency earns him respect. Franklin stands out as one opponent who still closes deals with a handshake.

“You can count on what he says,” Beasley says. “He’s just a good guy.”

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