Courtland Reichman had already started his day at King & Spalding when his assistant, Jeanette Hatcher, came to him with the news that someone from the Supreme Court was on the phone. Although he had a case on appeal, Reichman, 36, was well aware that of the 7,000 applicants each term, the Court hears only around 100. He pushed the button to take the call and the voice on the other end said, “Mr. Reichman, the U.S. Supreme Court has granted your request to hear Johnson v. U.S.”
Dead silence on Reichman’s end.
“Mr. Reichman, are you there?”
“Yes,” he finally responded. “I’m just somewhat stunned.”
“That’s OK,” she said. “I get that a lot.”
The Johnson case added to Reichman’s growing reputation as a commercial litigation attorney who is heavily involved in pro bono work — a lawyer who represents both the have-nots and the have-lots of society. “In the course of a week,” Reichman remembers, “I had both extremes in my practice. I was representing Coca-Cola, one of the best-known companies in the world, at a jury trial, and then representing Mr. Johnson, who has nothing and lives in a narrow jail cell in Jesup, Georgia, before the Supreme Court. That is what my day-to-day practice is like. In the course of any week, I could be in the boardroom of a Fortune 500 company or the attorney room of a South Georgia jail.
“And while it doesn’t make a lot of sense to a lot of people, it makes perfectly good sense to me.”
At King & Spalding, Reichman founded the Indigent Defense Project, a firm-supported mechanism for attorneys to take on pro bono cases throughout rural Georgia. It’s been such a success he is now helping coordinate attorneys at other firms to get involved in pro bono work. “It has always fascinated me that there’s this justice system,” says Reichman, “and if you don’t have a lawyer to stand up to the government — to get physically between the government and what they want to do to somebody — that it’s largely unchecked. Without a lawyer you don’t have any rights. You have paper rights, but they’re worthless paper tigers.”
Reichman dedicates his own time to The Living Room, a nonprofit clearinghouse on HIV and AIDS housing, where he is board president. He has also led King & Spalding’s involvement on the Mayor’s Commission on Homelessness and worked with the Mayor’s office on a recently announced proposal designed, says Reichman, to help the truly homeless, while identifying the con artists who take advantage of people’s altruistic desires. “He did a lot of research into the panhandling legislation,” says A. J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, “and then helped us write a new ordinance. It sounds easy, but it’s actually very complex.”
The organization that receives most of Reichman’s pro bono work, though, is the Southern Center for Human Rights, where he is a board member. It was created in 1976 to address the conditions in prisons and jails throughout the South.
“Every day,” says Steve Bright, the Center’s executive director, “the postman comes in with a pretty heavy load of mail, and many of the letters are heartbreaking — mothers writing about ‘my son was killed in a particular prison’ or ‘I was raped five times,’ or whatever. And we just simply don’t have the horses here to handle all of those.”
But Reichman didn’t learn of Robert Johnson Jr.’s case in a letter — he was appointed to the case by a federal judge. In 1994, Johnson was convicted of selling cocaine to undercover officers and given an extended sentence (15 years instead of seven) because of his status as a career offender — defined as someone with at least two prior felony convictions. One of those convictions (for cocaine distribution in 1989) was subsequently overturned in October 2000, and a few months later Johnson filed to have his career offender status, and thus the extended sentence, revoked. He was denied. Reichman took lead counsel and King & Spalding associate Warren Pope went in front of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, where he argued against, and lost to, the Georgia Department of Corrections. The team appealed, as they say, all the way to the Supreme Court.
The September phone call from the Court set in motion a whirlwind of activity. Most cases before the Court are heard after nine months, but Reichman had only a four-month window; his case would be heard on January 18, 2005. To prepare, six King & Spalding attorneys became experts in various areas of the law appropriate to the case — knowledge Reichman describes as an inch wide and a mile deep — and then crammed Reichman’s head with what they learned. “That was one of the difficult parts,” says Reichman. “All this information had to get in my brain.”
The firm held an internal rehearsal with Pope (now a partner) presenting the U.S. side. Around Christmas, Reichman rehearsed the case before five professors from top universities, and in January before Georgetown University’s Supreme Court Institute, which helps lawyers prepare cases to be tried before the High Court. The week before his case, Reichman attended Supreme Court sessions and picked up pointers.
On January 18, his was the second of two cases before the Court. Despite its name, the Grand Courtroom felt, according to Reichman, more intimate than many others he had been in. He was within 10 feet of the justices and was able to look them in the eyes. The gallery seated 300, and 20 seats were filled with Reichman’s partners, family and friends. Waiting through the first case, he says, was miserable, but soon he was placing his notes on the lectern, and his “right-hand man,” partner Warren Pope, was taking his place beside Reichman. Then a booming voice was heard: “Mr. Reichman.” It was Justice John Paul Stevens, filling in for the absent Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
“For a split second,” Reichman remembers, “I thought he was saying ‘hello.’ A second later I realized it wasn’t a ‘hello,’ it was ‘Mr. Reichman, go ahead.’”
Most attorneys don’t get much beyond a 20-to-30-second opening before questions are hurled at them, but after 45 seconds Reichman was still going strong — excited that the justices were allowing him so much time. He began to get nervous, though, when he was nearing the end of his prepared remarks; after that he would have to wing it. “My mind was scrambling,” says Reichman. Thankfully Justice Sandra Day O’Connor leapt in with a question.
Reichman feels that his experience with the justices reflected their reputations: Stevens the liberal, O’Connor the swing vote, Souter the practical jurist, Breyer “trying to figure out how to write his own statute,” and Scalia focusing on the plain language of the statute. Although he lost by a 5 to 4 decision — the federal statute in question allowed for only a year in which to appeal his case, even though this meant Johnson would have had to appeal by 1997, or three years before the previous conviction had been overturned — Reichman felt deep professional satisfaction for himself and his team. “We all felt like we operated at a world-class level, that we anticipated the questions, that we had the answers, and that we just put it together. We played the Super Bowl and, win or lose, we definitely played the game.”
Courtland Reichman wouldn’t have come to represent convicted drug dealers like Robert Johnson if he hadn’t wished to avoid drug dealers in junior high school. Born in San Mateo, just outside San Francisco, his family shuttled between the West and East Coasts through divorce and remarriage. The young boy excelled early as a swimmer but not as a student. His report cards said things like “Shows lots of promise if he can focus and pull himself together.” But he couldn’t get himself to focus — until sixth grade.
What worried him was the public junior high school, which, according to Reichman, was filled with gangs, drugs and violence. Lacking any kind of physical dominance, he became determined to go to a private school. His family remained skeptical, but an undaunted Reichman maneuvered through the private school’s bureaucracy, took an entrance exam and received a full, albeit conditional, scholarship. The conditions included bringing his grades up to A’s and maintaining them.
“It was like a light flashed,” recalls Reichman. “It was all the push I needed to turn my life around.”
From then on Reichman excelled scholastically. He got his degree in economics with a minor in philosophy, with honors, from Swarthmore College in 1990. While surfing and waiting tables with his buddies in Newport Beach, Calif., he took the advice of a professor and applied to help research a health economics textbook; his résumé was picked out of 300 applicants. Later, he took a job writing and analyzing research for the prestigious Rand Corporation. When the law beckoned, he took the LSAT and did so well he wound up teaching a course on the dreaded exam.
He selected Emory University Law School so he could be near his high school sweetheart, Emily, who lived in southern Georgia, at the time. “I expected that I would just come and leave when I was done,” he says. “But I fell in love with Atlanta in particular and the South in general.”
After he graduated law school, Reichman spent time clerking for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, where Johnson v. U.S. would later appear. He got the chance to observe the Court up close and personal, and the Court got to observe him. “I can tell you with complete objectivity and as a knowledgeable source,” says Judge Lanier Anderson, “that he is a person of absolute integrity and good character. … Courtland’s options are completely open. I would think he could do almost anything he set his mind to in the legal field.”
In his second year at Emory, Reichman snagged a position with King & Spalding. He remembers an early case when the firm paid for him to work at the public defender’s office for half of the summer. “Our client was an alleged and ultimately convicted murderer who was extremely unstable. There were only two choices: shackle him to a table or find someone who would be willing to sit next to him. And I volunteered.” At one point the client asked for, and received, a pencil. When Reichman offered a piece of paper and the client said he didn’t need one, Reichman quickly retrieved the pencil.
Reichman’s reputation extends to those who have opposed him in court. Mississippi attorney Chris Shapley sparred with Reichman five years ago in a huge case between a computer company and an insurance company. “He was a quiet-natured attorney,” remembers Shapley. “Not a backslapper but just intense and extremely competent. He was very young, but I could tell he was going to be a damn good lawyer.”
Today, Reichman says, “My practice focuses on ‘bet the company’ litigation. I don’t usually handle run-of-the-mill disputes. At times, it’s do or die for the company I’m representing. That dovetails nicely with my pro bono work, [where] the clients’ entire lives are at risk.”
King & Spalding’s pro bono committee chair, Bill Hoffmann, talks of Reichman’s “infectious effect” in getting people to commit to pro bono. He notes that the State Bar of Georgia would like attorneys to spend at least 50 hours on pro bono work, and says most attorneys only pay lip service to that goal. Reichman’s hours, on the other hand, are obscene: 2,000 to 2,500 billable hours, with 500 to 800 hours of pro bono work. “He works himself to death,” says King & Spalding partner Dwight Davis.
Not always. Practice group leader Bruce Baber insists that Reichman is serious about maintaining balance. “His life is not all about paying or nonpaying clients. He’s also someone who pays attention to things on the home front as well.”
Reichman tries to get home early enough to spend time with wife, Emily, and their three children — Whitner, Ava and Franklin, all under 4 years old. He’s never far from his trusty laptop, although he admits his workload last January was heavier than usual. A Supreme Court appearance and a major case for a Fortune 100 company within a week, on top of a pregnant wife at home, is a schedule he doesn’t aspire to. But it helps that he gets a lot of support at King & Spalding. And he hasn’t forgotten the lesson he learned back in sixth grade.
“There are a lot of hours in the day,” he says, “if you just stay focused.”