Cool Under Fire
Dawes Cooke represented The Citadel when Shannon Faulkner sought to become the first woman to enroll at the military college
Published in 2011 South Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
on March 30, 2011
Updated on June 9, 2011
Few people have had more influence on Dawes Cooke’s interest in law than his grandfather. J.E. “Ed” McTeer nicknamed the young Cooke “The Judge” because of his serious demeanor, and exposed him to the enforcement side of law and helped him understand human nature—albeit in an unusual way. A self-professed witch doctor, McTeer, the sheriff of Beaufort County for 37 years, was a student of Voodoo, which he learned from former slaves who practiced the art and lived in the area. He had a big following, but never put spells, or “roots,” on people; he only removed them. “He liked to say he was ‘a poor man’s psychiatrist,’” Cooke says.
Today, Cooke, one of the top attorneys in South Carolina, does something similar. “When someone comes with a problem, you don’t tell them that they don’t have a problem,” says the attorney with Barnwell Whaley Patterson & Helms. “You tell them that you understand the problem and that you know how to make it go away.”
While McTeer invoked spirits, Cooke employs a sharp mind, knowledge of the law and calmness under pressure.
“Anybody who knows Dawes reasonably well is impressed with his emotional control,” says Bill Killough, a Barnwell Whaley colleague and law school classmate. “Much of it is his personality. He’s always cool under fire.”
Says Charleston attorney Curtis Bostic, “He can try a case against you and kill you with a smile on his face. He maintains a professional demeanor and just eviscerates your case at the same time.”
Cooke’s skill was evident when he worked with Bostic to represent a widow suing a product manufacturer over her husband’s death. “He was able to bring her attention to bear on the issues of the case without seeming cold or indifferent to her,” Bostic says of Cooke. “That’s a difficult thing. Plaintiffs want you to be champions of justice with a sense of indignation. Dawes was able to coach her into an objective view of the case.”
Though Cooke, 56, is best known for commercial litigation, medical malpractice defense, and alternative dispute resolution and mediation, he is familiar to many as the attorney who represented The Citadel in its battle to remain a single-gender, state-supported military college in the mid-1990s. The case was filed by 19-year-old Shannon Faulkner after officials at the all-male military school found out she was a woman (Faulkner had deliberately removed all references to gender from her application) and canceled her acceptance. The case made headlines everywhere, but Cooke never got to try it. In June 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a similar case involving Virginia Military Institute, ordering VMI to accept women. This left The Citadel as the only all-male military college in the U.S. The Citadel complied with the court’s ruling that not allowing women to be admitted was unconstitutional and changed its policy.
While Cooke believed in the school’s position that single-gender, state-supported military education helped provide diversity within the public education system by adding to the mix of opportunities, he says societal momentum to increase opportunities for women was more powerful.
“It reminded me of something my best friend in college—Thurgood Marshall Jr.—told me: At the Supreme Court level, the question is not what the law is, but what it should be,” Cooke says. “What I learned from that case was the importance of always looking to see if there is a bigger picture to a controversy than what immediately meets the eye.”
Born in Beaufort, S.C., Cooke grew up a Marine brat, living in various cities across the U.S., and even in Newfoundland. His mother was a schoolteacher who stayed at home after Cooke and his younger sister, Betsy, were born. He went to high school at St. Paul’s School, a private Episcopal institution in Concord, N.H., that counts William Randolph Hearst, John Kerry and Garry Trudeau among its alumni. It’s also where Cooke’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather preceded him. Cooke’s undergraduate degree came from the University of Virginia, where he graduated with a degree in philosophy with high distinction. He then attended the University of South Carolina, anticipating settling in the state and planting roots after such a nomadic childhood.
As Cooke entered law school in 1976, he braced himself. He’d seen its rigors portrayed in the 1973 movie The Paper Chase and took to heart its warnings to work hard or risk flunking out. “I didn’t even bring a stereo to school,” Cooke remembers. Posting a 4.0 average his first semester, he was exhilarated.
He also liked the work. “For a philosophy major, it was a great place. You read opinions and argue about things.”
Cooke’s diligence impressed others—and still does. “He works incredibly hard,” says colleague Killough. “Part of that is he is a very trustworthy kind of individual. I think a lot of that is he doesn’t want to let people down.”
After graduating cum laude, Cooke clerked for U.S. District Judge Sol Blatt Jr. in Charleston. The experience was especially important because he hadn’t done summer internships at law firms while in law school. Instead, he worked as a state legislative aide, realizing, he says, that he “liked helping with government but didn’t have a passion for it.”
In 1980, Cooke joined Barnwell Whaley, located on Charleston’s Daniel Island. He’s been there ever since.
His first high-profile case began in 1985 when he was only 31 years old. Barnwell Whaley’s senior litigator Bob Patterson was an obvious choice to handle the case but he deferred to Cooke.
“It is very unusual for a senior partner to pass on a high-profile case to a young attorney, and it is unusual for a client not to insist that the senior litigator in the firm personally handle a major case,” says Cooke. “So I was very lucky to be associated with people who would give me a chance to handle an important case.”
The son of NFL Hall of Fame player Nick Buoniconti, Marc Buoniconti suffered a spinal cord injury when he made a tackle in a Citadel football game at East Tennessee State. The injury rendered him a quadriplegic. His family sued the school, claiming, in part, that it should not have let him play that day because he wasn’t fully recovered from a neck sprain. An expert witness on behalf of the family estimated it would take $20 million to take care of him the rest of his life.
After a three-week trial, in which Cooke represented The Citadel, Buoniconti settled for $800,000. The case had a huge impact on Cooke. “It was a lot like what happened in the movie Saving Private Ryan,” Cooke says. “The Tom Hanks character was a schoolteacher who was put in a situation that tested him. The law is kind of like that. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to get a chance not only to learn a lot, but to be involved in something important.”
It also set the groundwork for future cases. “I don’t think it was so much my performance in the Buoniconti case that allowed me to handle the Faulkner case, as the fact that I did handle the case,” says Cooke. “One of the keys to being a successful lawyer is to be lucky enough to get a chance to perform on a large stage. Once you’ve done that, you can get a reputation for handling big cases, and other big cases will come your way. Ironically, it’s better for your career to lose a big case than to win small ones.”
That’s not to say he hasn’t won some big ones. In one of Cooke’s most satisfying cases, he represented a nurse accused of malpractice. The nurse had erred in administering an IV, resulting in a patient’s death. Distraught, she blamed herself for the death and left the profession, but Cooke demonstrated that, based on her training, she was not negligent. “To have a jury tell her that it was not her fault finally brought her some relief,” Cooke says.
In another gratifying case, he represented Tank Black, a former agent for basketball star Vince Carter. When Black went to prison after pleading guilty to charges including money laundering, Carter fired him, breaching their contract. The contract had no morals clause and stated that if either party terminated the contract he owed the other party $3 million. “Tank had no power, and by definition of being a felon, few rights,” Cooke notes. “But the jury found that he did have some rights.” The jury ordered Carter to pay, and Carter later settled with Black for an undisclosed amount.
The two cases, involving different scenarios, had a common thread. “They were both examples of what I think is the essence of advocacy: finding and articulating the central truth that entitles your client to win the case,” says Cooke. “In the case of the nurse—as with many professional negligence cases—my client had been a participant in a tragedy, but it wasn’t her fault. In Tank Black’s case, he owned up to the things that he had done wrong in his life, but that didn’t change the fact that he had earned his commissions under his contract with Vince Carter.
“It is rewarding to be able to help a jury to look past distractions, to focus on the real issue in the case and do justice for my client. Those two cases were particularly rewarding in that, for the clients, the cases were about a lot more than money. Every lawyer dreams of solving a problem and making his client’s life better.”
Outside of work, Cooke stays active. He plays tennis, and recently wrapped up a 17-year stint of coaching youth soccer while his children were growing up. He and his wife Helen, a schoolteacher, live in Mount Pleasant, and have three children: Dawes III, 26; George, 24; and Celia, 17.
Cooke is also a founding board member and 2011 president of East Cooper Community Outreach, an organization formed after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 to help low-income residents east of the Cooper River. “East Cooper Community Outreach’s motto is ‘Neighbors Helping Neighbors,’ and that sums it up,” he says. “My family has a very good life in a wonderful community, yet we have neighbors who truly struggle to just survive. I am especially excited about our new initiative, which is designed to help families get out of poverty. We really are going to find out if it can be done.”
Back in his office, Cooke keeps a small flannel packet of a protective root, the type his grandfather used to sell people seeking relief from a hex. In a book on the Shannon Faulkner case, it’s mentioned that Cooke’s grandfather was a witch doctor. Noting that Faulkner became ill and dropped out of The Citadel not long after being admitted, the writer hints that a spell had been cast on her.
Chuckling at the thought, Cooke says, “You can put that down that I did that.”