Cochran’s Man in Atlanta
Hezekiah Sistrunk Jr. sees lawyering as a service job
Published in 2012 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
By Erik Lundegaard on February 17, 2012
Last November, Hezekiah Sistrunk Jr., managing partner of The Cochran Firm in Atlanta, and shareholder of its national firm, was inducted, along with Richard Sinkfield and Forrest Johnson, into the Gate City Bar Association Hall of Fame. We spoke with him the week after the ceremony.
Q: Tell us about the Hall of Fame induction. Did you give speeches?
A: We did. Three-minute speeches, live, and four-minute presentations, videotape, prior to each person’s induction.
Q: Who put together the videotapes?
A: The Gate City Bar Association. I think they’re on YouTube, actually.
Q: What did you think of your videotape? Did they get you right?
A: Well, there’s only so much you can say to represent someone’s career in four minutes. But I was pleased with how it presented me for purposes of what we were trying to do that night.
Q: Which was?
A: Show a capsule of 30 years of practice that would, I assume, make me a person sufficient and competent to be inducted into the Gate City Bar Hall of Fame, which includes some pretty impressive people.
Q: Such as?
A: The founding partner of my law firm, Johnnie Cochran; Maynard Jackson, who was the first African-American mayor of Atlanta, a mayor many times over, who was a game-changer in Atlanta; Thurbert Baker, who is our former attorney general; Donald Hollowell, who was a very famous civil rights lawyer in town, one of the guys who worked with the NAACP team and others to develop the strategies and prosecute the cases that led to the decision in Brown v. Board of Education; Horace Ward, who is one of the first federal District Court judges of color, and who was the first black man to attempt to integrate the law school at the University of Georgia; Leah Ward Sears, who is the first black woman to be chief justice of a state Supreme Court. The list goes on and on.
Q: Any of your mentors in there?
A: No. When I was a younger lawyer, the guys I practiced with were not minority lawyers. Richard Sinkfield and I have an interesting past that is kind of similar. Richard started out at Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy, which has now merged into Bryan Cave. But at the time it was probably one of the largest litigation law firms on the East Coast. Richard was their first lawyer of color; I was their third. That was back in the day when typically large majority firms would have one lawyer of color at a time. [Laughs]
So I’ve been traveling not so much in his footsteps, but right next to his footsteps for a long time. Richard left that firm to form his own firm, where he’s still a partner. I left Powell Goldstein after six years to form another firm with a group of lawyers—not unlike Richard’s firm—then morphed to create my own firm six or seven years later called Sistrunk & Associates. In 1999, I met with Johnnie Cochran and in 2000, we formed The Cochran Firm of Atlanta.
Q: What impressed you about Johnnie Cochran?
A: He was an attorney who never lost touch with the idea that being a lawyer is about serving regular people. Just regular people. It’s a service job. And if you ever lose sight of the fact that you’re in a business to serve folks who have been aggrieved and hurt and harmed, then you lose sight of why you became a lawyer. That was Johnnie’s mindset.
Q: How did you two get together?
A: He was trying to figure out how to get his office started in Atlanta. I was a defense lawyer who represented doctors, architects, engineers, corporations, environmental cases, class action cases—and that’s a small subset of lawyers, black or white. So when he was looking for a lawyer of color to open his firm, I think the subset was pretty small, and I was in that subset.
Q: Thoughts on your switch to the plaintiff side from defense?
A: Well, they’re both laudable things to do. They’re both about service. From the beginning of my career, I’ve been advocating that the rule of law in America is designed so that everybody can get equal and quality representation notwithstanding which side of the bar they’re on. So whether I’m a defense lawyer or a plaintiff’s lawyer, that’s always been my main thing: to give my clients the best service they can possibly get. That’s number one. Second, I think what’s unique about this country—and, incredibly, I see a move afoot to try to change this—is the right to a jury trial. There’s nothing like having your own set of citizens—right or wrong, when they make their decision—determine your fate, rather than one individual, one despot, one ruler, one government official. So whether I’m on either side, plaintiff or defendant, these cases give me the bully pulpit to do my job, to make sure the system stays intact, and also to advocate for it—both legislatively and other ways.
Q: Are we talking lobbying?
A: I’ve been down to the Legislature in the past as a part of lawyer associations to talk to legislators about laws that would affect the decisions of the state, laws that would affect what we do as trial lawyers. I really do think there’s a move afoot to place some notion of limitations on the right to jury trial—push things toward arbitration, mediation, that kind of thing. And while there are the right times for that, and the right avenues for that for being an appropriate means by which justice is achieved, that’s not what our Constitution dictates or requires. And I don’t think you get the best results that way. You don’t get fair access to justice for everybody when you push toward mediation or arbitration—particularly arbitration. The arbitration system is designed to favor the people who control the arbitration process, and that is typically not a person who is poor and disadvantaged. So the system is skewed.
Q: In other words, when ordinary citizens go before an arbitrator, they’re not going before a peer at all—as they would with a jury of their peers.
A: That’s right. And there are statistics that bear me out.
Q: How did your years on the defense side help when you went over to the plaintiff’s side?
A: Nothing better prepares you for lawyering, or life, than having a panoramic view of what the world is. Experience is everything. I’ve tried a couple of hundred cases to verdict. I don’t know how many I’ve tried that ended up settling or not being completed—a thousand or more as a defense lawyer. So you understand that process. You understand how folks involved in that process might think. And once you move to the other side, you have the benefit of understanding what the mindset might be of a defense lawyer who is similarly situated to you.
Q: Any examples?
A: We had a case that involved the city of Atlanta: Johnston v. the City of Atlanta. It was a police brutality case involving a woman called Kathryn Johnston, a 90-year-old black woman who was shot by Atlanta police officers in what was called a “botched no-knock raid.” Do you know what a no-knock warrant is?
Q: Where they don’t knock?
A: This woman was 90 years old. She was in a house, in a community where there was rampant sale of drugs. We looked at the case. As a defense lawyer, you might go, “Well, it’s a police brutality case, a civil rights case, involving what’s called ‘Monell immunities.’” Monell is a federal court case that talks about the immunity that applies to municipalities and government. And you would’ve said, as a defense lawyer, “Hey, I’m going to win this.” But you look at cases differently once you understand the panoramic view of what the right to jury trial brings for you: the opportunity to get in front of a jury—once we got past Monell, which is a part of my job as a lawyer—and put before them the horror of the series of events that led to the death of this woman in a hail of bullets, in a situation where a no-knock warrant was served on her, when the police had no probable basis for it whatsoever.
Ultimately we prosecuted the case, took a bunch of depositions, got a bunch of admissions out of people who admitted that they were running a system, which was kind of like a quota system [laughs], for how they made arrests, which would lead to bad policing. And we settled the case for an amount, which, I think, was the largest settlement of a police brutality case by a municipality in the history of this city.
Q: Based upon your hundreds of jury trials, do you have any advice for a young lawyer stepping into the courtroom for the first time?
A: Be prepared. Know the record of the facts of your case so well that when you stand in front of somebody, you can talk about it just as easily as you eat breakfast in the morning.
Q: Do you remember your first case?
A: I do. I represented a doctor, an anesthesiologist, who was providing anesthesia in a spinal surgery case. A complication occurred and the patient died, and I defended that doctor in the Fulton [County] State Court in Atlanta. Tried the case for eight days. Took the jury 2 ½ hours to come back with the defense verdict.
Q: Did you think you were going to win?
A: I’m a lawyer. I always think I’m going to win.
Q: What drew you to the law?
A: I’m from a small town in South Carolina, Orangeburg, and my town is a college town. It has the major minority college for the state, South Carolina State University, and another minority university called Claflin University.
As you can surmise from that, in the mid-to-late ‘60s, my town and the folks at the university were involved in civil rights activities. As a young man, a high school senior, I was there watching civil rights activities as they were unfolding. A friend of mine was involved in those activities. His name was Delano Middleton. We called him “Bump” Middleton. And in 1968 people were protesting their right to public access to a bowling alley, and three men were shot and killed as a part of that. Middleton, my friend from high school, was one of those men.
During that timeframe, I observed that folks were being arrested, and they weren’t getting adequate representation because there weren’t a lot of black lawyers in Orangeburg, South Carolina, who had the wherewithal to get them out of jail. So folks would go to jail and lawyers would come from other places—I think the NAACP lawyers, quite frankly—who would get folks out of jail; and I thought then, “There’s something wrong with our system of justice.”
That was what initially attracted me to the law.
So I went to law school and got a job doing what I did as a lawyer. Now I’ve gone full circle, back to advocating for the civil rights of folks who’ve been aggrieved—just in a different context.
Q: As a kid, did you feel like the civil rights movement was far away—in Montgomery or Birmingham—or did you feel it was nearby?
A: I was there. When I say my friend was killed, I was there.
Q: You were at the protest?
A: Yeah, I was there.
Q: Did you see it happen?
A: No. Quite frankly, we were running. Because the police were firing at us. So I did not see him die. But it touched everyone in our community.
Q: When did you become aware of the civil rights movement as a movement?
A: That’s an interesting question. I mean … I guess the question becomes: When did I realize I was black? [Laughs] You kind of know as a kid growing up that the world is not the same for you as for other people. When you grow up in a town that has fountains that say “colored” and “white,” you know that there’s an imbalance in how the world functions. I’m from a family where we discussed that kind of thing at the dinner table at night, and we were aware that there were movements afoot in my town and other towns of the South. I was 12 or 13. I was old enough to know that that kind of thing existed. So I’ve always known that there’s a civil rights movement of some type and a need for it.
This is going to sound corny: My family were big subscribers of Ebony magazine and Jet magazine, which covered all that stuff for as long as I can remember. We would get those magazines, and my brothers and I would fight my parents to see who would have the opportunity to read it first.
Q: What did your parents do?
A: My father is retired. He was an engineer. But in South Carolina being an engineer doesn’t mean anything. He got the engineering background but he didn’t get any engineering jobs. But that was his training. And my mom worked in the educational system in my county for a long time.
Q: You were in the military, too. Thoughts on that?
A: On being in the military? It encourages any young man to be disciplined and organized. Put it this way: If you join the military, or are drafted into the military, and you have a chance to serve under those conditions, it prepares you for a lot of other things in life. So when I got out of the service and went back to college, college was kind of fun. It was easy. It was almost like a walk in the park.
Q: Outside of technological changes, what are some of the big changes in the law you’ve witnessed during your career?
A: I think there’s oftentimes less civility than when I first started. I don’t know whether that’s a function of just the world being less civil and the pressures associated with law practice reflecting that.
Q: Anything you’d like to talk about that I haven’t brought up?
A: No. But I really do enjoy this. A lot of people practice law because that’s what they’re required to do for other reasons. I do it because I enjoy it.
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