A Long Way from the Mole Hole

Five legendary Georgia attorneys on practicing law for half a century

Published in 2019 Georgia Super Lawyers Magazine — March 2019

Most became lawyers by accident—although one, with tongue firmly in cheek, says it was destiny. Another chose law because he’d heard it was less anti-Semitic than other professions—but anti-Semitism was still prevalent. So was sexism and racism. Bobby Lee Cook remembers segregated drinking fountains in courthouses. Miles Alexander of Kilpatrick Stockton says, “I’m very careful not to use the term ‘good old days’ when I talk to students who have just passed the bar. Most of them would not have been able to get a job at a major law firm because of their gender, race or religion.“

We spoke with five legendary Georgia attorneys, all of whom began practicing more than half a century ago, and who often now make more per hour than they once did per month.

WHY LAW?
 
N. Jerold “Jerry” Cohen, Eversheds Sutherland; Tax; Harvard Law School, 1961
I was born in the fourth-largest city in Arkansas—Pine Bluff. I was a lieutenant at Fort Devens, outside of Boston, and I wanted to go back to school, so I picked up applications at Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. When I got back to Arkansas, I [saw] the business school demanded three essays, and all the law school wanted was my grades. So I threw away the business school application.
 
Emmet J. Bondurant, Bondurant Mixson & Elmore; Civil Litigation, Defense; University of Georgia School of Law, 1960; Harvard Law School LL.M., 1962
It was an accident. I was an undergraduate at Georgia and one of my fraternity brothers was in law school. I had changed majors seven or eight times [and] he suggested I go to law school. At the time, Georgia offered combined degree programs. You could go to a first year of law school as your senior year in college. So I went to law school with no intention of completing the degree, but simply getting my undergraduate degree. It turned out I liked it.
 
Homer L. Deakins, Ogletree Deakins; Employment & Labor; University of Texas School of Law, 1960
I specialize in representing companies in labor and employment law, and I was born on Labor Day, 1935, the day President Roosevelt signed the first National Labor Relations Act. So I was predetermined.
 
Miles J. Alexander, Kilpatrick Townsend; Intellectual Property; Harvard Law School, 1955
I was drawn to it through debating in high school and college. My father had me take an aptitude test and law came back very high—which is what I wanted—and so did engineering. The Anti-Defamation League came out with a study saying there was a glass ceiling for Jews in engineering. That made it easy for me.
 
Bobby Lee Cook, Cook & Connelly; Criminal Defense; Vanderbilt University Law School, 1949
World War II interrupted college—I was a split major in chemistry and Greek classics—and after the war ended, I decided I had to find something to do. It’s not very romantic, but I felt the practice would be a fascinating profession, and it has served me quite well.
 
DEATH OF SOME SALESMEN
 
ALEXANDER: My dad had not finished high school, went to work in retail, and became a general manager of a J.C. Penney-type company in Canada. He would have liked me to come into that business, but I had no desire and he never pressed me.
 
DEAKINS: When I was in undergraduate school, my dad was a car dealer and in the summers I sold cars for him. They weren’t very good cars. I had a lot of customer complaints and I resolved at that point that I wasn’t going to sell anything that somebody else made. I didn’t want to be a salesman—although the law is certainly for salesmen. I wanted to be a professional and it never dawned on me to be a doctor.
 
COHEN: My dad had a department store, a ladies’ ready-to-wear store in Pine Bluff, but I didn’t like standing around waiting on customers to come in.
 
BACK TO SCHOOL
 
ALEXANDER: Law school was very foreboding. I started college at 16 so I was generally younger than all the Ivy League people who’d gone to private schools at Andover and Exeter. But fortunately, being from the South, it was much more relaxed. I didn’t feel like I had to wear a sports jacket like everybody else; I didn’t feel like I had to be at the top of the class to get a job returning to the South. I was going to be happy just to pass. 
 
BONDURANT: It was utterly different from undergraduate school. I found a real culture shock. They frankly didn’t give a damn whether you went to class or not. Everything rode on the final exam. 
 
STARTING OUT—AT $550 A MONTH
 
DEAKINS: Probably the first two years I never sent out any bills, so I’m not sure what my rate was. My partner was doing the billing. He didn’t tell me [the rate] and I didn’t ask.
 
BONDURANT: I was paid $550 a month as an associate. That was before firms kept time records and partners would generally bill at the end. How they did it, I think, was mysterious and largely arbitrary. 
 
COHEN: I started at $30 an hour. I think the firm now wants me to charge about $1500 an hour. I don’t do it. I just can’t do it. It’s screwy.
 
ALEXANDER: We didn’t have billable hours; we didn’t keep time records. Much of what we did was for friends—free of charge. A friend was starting an architectural firm, so I drew up the partnership for no charge. Fifty years later, they have well over 100 architects in multiple offices, and they’re very loyal. 
 
COHEN: I’m somewhat alarmed by the fact that firms are all merging—they feel they have to get bigger and bigger—and as a result they’re charging more and more for their time. At some point that has to be corrected. There are a lot of people who can’t afford what a lot of the firms are now charging.
 
STARTING OUT—IN THE MOLE HOLE
 
BONDURANT: I was an associate at what is now Kilpatrick Stockton. Younger associates were in what was called the “mole hole,” which was a common office with four or five of us with little knee-hole desks facing the wall, and no windows. The firm then was clearly a sweatshop. You worked not only five days a week but most Saturdays and half a day on Sunday. Unless it was a weekend with a Georgia football game, at which point you worked until noon on Saturday and hoped to get to Athens by 1:30. It was a good learning experience. You quickly learned [no matter] how smart you thought you were, you had to up your game considerably. The standards were very high and very demanding, and a brief you’d write would come back and look like it had been dipped in blood.
 
ALEXANDER: In those days, we had 14 lawyers—seven partners and seven associates. I did everything. I did divorce work. I did real estate work. I did anti-trust work. I did labor work. You did everything in the office, depending on who the partner you were working for was. 
 
COOK: I wanted to practice law in a way where I would go to court and try cases. I found out, to my surprise, that I was in the minority. Most trial lawyers don’t try cases. To me, it’s what the law practice is all about; it’s where the action lies. For the first 10 or 15 years of my practice, I tried many civil cases, domestic relations cases and dozens of criminal cases. I tried 15 or 16 murder cases in the first 10 years of my practice.
 
DEAKINS: The first case I tried was for the Weingarten’s food chain in Houston. There was a campaign between management and the union. The company won the election, but the union filed unfair labor practice charges with the [National Labor Relations Board]. I was assigned to try the case on behalf of Weingarten, and it was before an administrative law judge, so it was a trial without a jury. They had this senior NLRB lawyer there and he had a young NLRB lawyer with him and throughout the trial he kept apologizing [to the judge] for all the mistakes this young lawyer was making, saying, “This is the first case he ever tried, so you’ll just have to be patient.” And while it was the first case I ever tried, nobody ever said that. I certainly didn’t. 
 
COHEN: I was at a party, and I kept hearing my wife telling people, when they’d ask, “What does your husband do?” she’d say, “He’s an ACLU lawyer.” I took a lot of cases for the ACLU, and I was president and on the national board. But I caught up with her and said, “How can you tell people I’m an ACLU lawyer? That’s not what I do.” She said, “I’m not going to tell people you just help make wealthy people wealthier.” That’s a perception of tax lawyers.
 
CIVIL LAW
 
COOK: For the first 40 years of my law practice, it was much more hospitable. We were much nicer to each other than we are today. If a lawyer called me and said, “I received your complaint in the Jones case and I need 30 more days within which to file. Would you agree to that?” I would say “No problem.” You would not take an order of the court; you would not put anything in writing. It was simply a word-of-mouth proposition.
 
DEAKINS: The law business was really a profession. You decided how to handle cases and clients looked up to you as being the professional that was going to give them guidance. That’s changed so dramatically. We have a client development department now—that means marketing. So much of the profession, the emphasis has been on the business side. The clients are more demanding. They want special arrangements on fees and that sort of thing.
 
BONDURANT: Lawyer advertising has probably done more to harm the legal profession than anything else—the hucksterism of the lawyers advertising on TV. When one began practicing law, you built a reputation basically by work and performance, not advertising on the back of buses. Law firms were much smaller, much tighter. … One’s reputation in the bar was fairly widely known, for good or ill, which I think was a constraint on misconduct. As the community has gotten larger, the ability to be a jerk, and not have it commonly known, has increased.
 
ALEXANDER: You no longer have clients who stay with you for your entire career. You have RFPs all the time. When I started law practice, another firm would not even approach our client, nor would we approach their client without permission. That’s almost unheard of with the current standards.  
 
COHEN: When I was on the national board of ACLU, I got introduced to a woman who headed their women’s rights projects, and we became friends. Her name was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was married to Marty Ginsburg—one of the best tax lawyers in the country. We became great friends. One time I got invited to come have dinner with them and Marty said, “Ruth’s going to have her best friends [there].” They were Nino Scalia and Bob Bork—two of the most conservative judges in the country. Bork was very conservative and taught at Yale. [At dinner] I said, “Bob, how could you get along there? That’s a very liberal school.” He says, “Jerry, you may sit there, but you don’t eat everything.”
 
UNCIVIL LAW
 
COOK: When I started practicing in the state, civil rights was on a virtual holiday. There were no African-Americans on the jury. Women could not serve on the jury until 1954. There was no real Fourth, Fifth or Sixth Amendment rights, as those amendments to the Constitution had not yet been incorporated into the Bill of Rights by virtue of the due process clause. So it was a really bad time. You’d walk into a courthouse in Georgia or Alabama or Tennessee or Mississippi and you would see two drinking fountains, one for “coloreds,” one for “whites.” African-Americans could not sit in a major courtroom; there were usually balconies where they sat.
 
ALEXANDER: I’m very careful not to use the term “good old days” when I talk to students who have just passed the bar. Most of them would not have been able to get a job at a major law firm because of their gender, race or religion. 
 
BONDURANT: You had a heavy dose of anti-Semitism in firms. And there were no women associates.
 
COOK: We had 49 men and one lady [in my class]. She was the smartest one in the school. She later married a classmate and he became at one point the chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. She was his law clerk, and over the years everyone agreed that she was the smartest one on the bench.
 
BIG CASES, BIG ACCOMPLISHMENTS
 
BONDURANT: At Harvard, I spent the year on a master’s paper on how to challenge [a Georgia] electoral system—similar to the Electoral College—that was a plague, to put it mildly. I thought this was cutting-edge research when, in March of 1962, the Supreme Court came out with Baker v. Carr [which decided that legislative apportionment was a justiciable issue]. Three months later, there were already three cases pending in Georgia challenging the state Legislature’s apportionment of districts. By pure chance, I got introduced to two young lawyers who’d brought a case challenging congressional districts, who had lost in the lower court. I’d spent a year researching this and frankly, modestly put, knew more than anybody else around, at least in Fulton County or Atlanta. I got invited and took over the case as a pro bono case. The Supreme Court took the case and I argued it the next year, 1963, when I was 26. Fortunately, I won it.
No one lightened my load at Kilpatrick, nor did I expect them to. You were expected to get all your other work done on time and on standard. I give great credit to that firm for giving me the freedom to do that. … I never got an eyebrow raised or a peep of criticism or anything else. It was important to me and I referred to it as my playtime. Other people played golf, I sued people.  
 
ALEXANDER: The big case, very clear in my mind, involved Frito-Lay, where the government was challenging the [1961] merger of Frito and Lay, which had 46 potato chip, corn chip and pretzel companies between them. They brought an action in Washington—and one of their competitors piggybacked onto it in Chicago by bringing antitrust cases against Frito-Lay and PepsiCo, which acquired or merged with them in 1965. So starting in about 1961, for five or six years, I was taking depositions to establish that “Fritos” was not a generic term like aspirin or cola or cellophane. Frito-Lay prevailed in both actions. 
The case lasted a long time because it was still pending when Dr. King was assassinated. We flew into Chicago the day after he was killed for a hearing, and then went to Washington for another hearing the next day. There were riots throughout Chicago, and in Washington there were machine guns at the airport; you couldn’t get into the city from the airport without a hotel reservation. But in Atlanta, people were being greeted and assisted at the airport by Morehouse and Spelman students. It made you proud to be from Atlanta. 
 
DEAKINS: I represented the Nissan company in Tennessee, where we had two elections with the UAW. We had the first election in 1989. This was the first union election in a foreign-owned auto assembly plant. They had about 4,000 employees and we won that election by a margin of two to one. The case received enormous publicity. I mean, it was the lead story on the CBS News. [It was in] The Wall Street Journal, because it was the first election of consequence in the auto industry in generations. Then in 2001 the UAW came back to that same location, which at that time had about 8,000 employees, and asked for another election. That was only the second election in a foreign-owned auto plant. The company won that election by a margin of two to one again. 
 
COOK: I would consider my greatest accomplishments that I have been given the opportunity to be a member of the bar and to offer my services to literally thousands of people, and to have served them with relative distinction. 
 
RETIRE? PFFT
 
BONDURANT: I’m currently involved in a major partisan gerrymandering case in North Carolina that is on its way to the Supreme Court and has the potential, if ruled on correctly, to be as significant as Baker v. Carr.
 
COHEN: Well, I’m trying [to retire]. I’m transferring a lot of matters over to my partners, but one partner I just gave a major client to, [left and] went with a client who gave him a $150,000 automobile. I called him and said, “You’ve got to come back.” He said, “Jerry, will the firm give me an automobile like this?” I said, “No.”
 
ALEXANDER: I’m probably nearing the point where I really should [retire]. I have sleepless nights when I have a very difficult legal problem—and I’m probably getting too old for sleepless nights. But as long as you’re welcomed and wanted, you tend to stay on as long as you feel like you’re contributing.
 
COOK: I’ve done nothing but practice for almost 70 years and although I have lots of hobbies—I’m a boater, a yachtsman—I would be miserable if I were not practicing law. I still enjoy trying cases. I tried two or three major cases last year. Successfully, I might add. 
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