56 Years of Civility in Texas Law
You can overuse the Atticus Finch comparison—few people really deserve it. Jim Coleman does
Published in 2008 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 15, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
Of all the lawyers in Texas, there’s likely just one who marched through Germany with Patton’s Army, received the Silver Star, served in the CIA and went skydiving for his 80th birthday.
At age 85, but looking way younger, Dallas civil litigator James E. Coleman Jr. is still hard at work at Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal, the firm he co-founded in 1970.
Getting Coleman to talk about his life is like pulling teeth. Although he has been honored bountifully for his professionalism, Coleman is convinced his story cannot be interesting enough to print. “I’m a bit publicity-shy,” he says. “These days, I think lawyers indulge in too much publicity.”
For better or worse, Coleman’s early milestones often coincided with our nation’s. Born in Georgia in 1923, he started first grade in 1929, the year the Depression began. “People were jumping out windows on Wall Street,” he says in a drawl that is more Georgian than Texan. “My family had not been rich but they had a fairly high standard of living. My dad lost everything.”
Aiming for a college football scholarship, he was a 195-pound lineman at North Fulton High School in Atlanta. “This day and time, I’d be a water boy,” he says. And he had just entered Georgia Institute of Technology with dreams of playing football when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. Coleman gave up hope on college and playing football. He enlisted at age 19. He set his sights on the Army Air Corps but found out he was colorblind, so wound up as a platoon leader in the 87th Infantry in 1944.
While fighting in Patton’s Third Army, his unit marched through Europe and across the Rhine River. “He was hell-bent,” Coleman says of Patton. “There was an esprit d’corps in the Third Army that was a direct result of his leadership and tactics.”
Coleman won’t describe what gallantry resulted in his being awarded the Silver Star. “It was something anybody else would have done,” he says.
By the war’s end, Coleman had his fill of military hierarchies. “I concluded I had to do something where I could be independent,” he says. “I thought about the ministry but thought again maybe there were too many people who’d want to run your life. So I settled on two things, being a doctor or a lawyer.”
He returned to Georgia Tech for his bachelor’s degree and then went to law school at the University of Virginia. He received his LL.B. in 1951.
Before he could get a law practice going, the Army called reservist Coleman back for the Korean conflict. “I was beginning to think they couldn’t have a war without me,” he says. “I got orders to report to Washington, D.C., and went to a big building that had ‘U.S. Postal Service’ on the front. I thought this must be a mistake, but it turned out to be the CIA.”
Coleman’s eyes light up with secrets he can’t tell about his CIA assignment. “I thought it was exciting, and the people were wonderful and interesting. The CIA was really a very finely run organization, so much so, I seriously considered staying in, but Congress was beginning to stick its nose in, and it’s gotten worse,” he says.
He couldn’t tell his wife, Margaret, about his CIA assignment. “It was two years of her asking, ‘How are you?’ but not asking what I did at the office that day,” he says.
Coleman’s legal career began in earnest when he and his growing family came to Dallas in 1953. Like many veterans, he chose Texas because the state was booming with gas and oil deals.
He says he enjoys litigating complicated cases. One such case, a lawsuit filed by the city of San Antonio against Coleman’s client, a gas producing company, kept him away from home two years.
“It was a ‘bet your company’ kind of case,” he says, “and for about six months of it, we tried what’s known as a plea of privilege case: ‘Where should the case be tried?’ Since the city was claiming that my client had raised the price of gas, and therefore everybody was freezing to death and little children were going hungry, we were trying to get the case transferred to Houston.”
The judge’s rulings leaned in Coleman’s favor, so the city asked for a settlement, rather than face trial in a less-sympathetic venue. The settlement pleased Coleman’s client. After the case, Coleman says, “My wife told me, ‘A good marriage will take only one of those,’ since I was gone two years and just home on the weekends.”
Throughout his career, Coleman has served as a mentor to young lawyers and a staunch advocate for professionalism in the practice of law. He advises new lawyers to “find out what it is to be a real lawyer and a real professional. Find out how the profession got started and what the reason for being a lawyer is.”
This year, Coleman and his colleagues on the Senior Lawyers Committee of the Dallas Bar Association developed a pilot mentoring program that pairs about 125 new lawyers with established lawyers.
“Most law schools make a mistake by not teaching more about the roots of the profession. Being a lawyer is not about making money, and it’s not about publicity, and it’s not about having success without hard work,” he says.
Speaking before one of the five American Inns of Court in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, Coleman asked how many in the audience thought the practice of law was a “profession.” All hands went up. Then he asked how many thought all practicing lawyers were “professionals.” Only a few hands went up.
“What we have is a profession in which not all members of it are professionals,” he says. “You can make a good living, take care of your family, have an enjoyable, wonderful life and still be very professional. I think we’ve gotten off of that axis. Discourtesy, rudeness and playing ‘gotcha’ have gotten to be the moral of the marketplace,” he says.
Coleman adds that while there are many competent and professional lawyers in practice, there remain some who are not. And that’s what he’s trying to fix, since he sees lawyers as the last line of defense for citizens in a free society.
“The truth of the matter is, the hard core of who is standing between you and your government or any other thing that might oppress you is a lawyer,” he says, “and if they’re not there, nobody is. And that’s why I’m so interested in maintaining professionalism, because being a lawyer should be one of the most revered professions, next to the ministry of course.”
Coleman doesn’t just espouse professionalism; he exemplifies it. Reporters sending e-mail to prominent lawyers don’t always get quick replies, but if you tell the attorneys you’re writing about Coleman, they’ll respond within seconds, eager to praise the man some call “our Atticus Finch.”
George Bramblett, trial lawyer at Haynes & Boone in Dallas, says of Coleman, “When I grow up I want to be like Jim Coleman. You can overuse the Atticus Finch business, but there are few people who deserve it, and Jim Coleman would be one.”
Rodney Acker, a commercial litigator with Fulbright & Jaworski in Dallas says, “Jim is a lawyer’s lawyer. The talent, integrity and presence with which he carries himself set him apart.”
Bob Mow, a civil litigator with K&L Gates in Dallas, was with Carrington Coleman for 20 years. “Jim taught us integrity and professionalism more by example and conduct during a lawsuit than he did by preaching, even before an abrasive or obstructive lawyer or a difficult judge,” Mow says.
Coleman won’t name any of his current clients, but is surprisingly open about having represented former Enron chairman and CEO Ken Lay in a civil case that never came to trial. After a criminal conviction in May 2006, Lay died of a heart attack in July that same year.
“I was very impressed with Ken’s sincerity and honesty and what he tried to do. I’ll go to my grave thinking he did not commit any crime,” Coleman says.
Before Enron failed in November 2001, Lay had stepped down as CEO in January 2001, but stayed on as chairman, Coleman says. By August, the board asked Lay to come back as CEO, although Coleman says that Lay had arranged to become partner in a major investment group.
“If he had just cashed out his Enron holdings in January when he first stepped down,” he says, “he would have been a jillionaire. But he didn’t. Ken loved that company. It was like his child. The board asked him to stay on and then come back. If I had known him then, I would have told him to sit there with a big ‘no’ in his mouth. He lost everything. He rode the ship down.”
When a potential client asks Coleman if he’s tough, he sometimes replies, “Do you want a lawyer or a linebacker?
“Being tough is the antithesis of what being a lawyer is. If the client had asked, ‘Do you work hard, do you turn over every stone, do you get to the books and interview all the right people and have you been to the courthouse before?’ then he’d be asking legitimate questions. But all this stuff about ‘are you tough?’ is frightening,” Coleman says.
Former State Bar of Texas president Betsy Whitaker worked with Coleman for 19 years. “Jim’s example of service and integrity is how I learned to define my role as a lawyer,” she says. “Through him I learned that the goal is to simplify and connect. There’s nothing fancy about what we’re trying to do. There’s something very real about what we’re trying to do. It’s not a game. It is about something very important: the rule of law and advancing the system of law that we have. He taught me that was a sacred calling.”
Dallas area plaintiff’s lawyer Frank Branson says he is thankful he never had to oppose Coleman at trial, although he served on the same side a time or two. “Courtroom lawyers have taken a big hit in the public image in the last two decades,” Branson says. “When you think about the image of great trial lawyers gone by, like Abraham Lincoln, William Barrett Travis and Clarence Darrow, Jim Coleman pulls out the positive in connection with those images.”
Married for 61 years to a woman he met during his first year of college, Coleman is father of four and grandfather of six.
Of his good fortune, Coleman says, “Many people don’t get to do something that’s as big a pleasure to me as practicing law. I’m blessed with a wonderful family, lots of friends and a law firm that we started for the right reasons.”
Apologetic for the bother he thinks he has caused by being interviewed, Coleman insists, “If you get through with all this and you don’t think it’s newsworthy, and I don’t think it is, then don’t print it.”
That being said, we’ll let our readers be the judge.