The Squire of Muscogee County

James Butler is as prepared as Winston Churchill and as down-to-earth as Atticus Finch

Published in 2008 Georgia Super Lawyers — March 2008

The first time I ever stood in front of a jury," James Butler says, "I knew I had died and gone to heaven."

In the 30 years since that celestial moment, Butler has won four verdicts worth over $100 million each, while his firm, Butler Wooten & Fryhofer, has notched more than $1 billion in its top 10 wins.

Butler likes to joke about the failure of Troutman Sanders, one of Atlanta's white-shoe firms, to offer him a job after he clerked there while in law school at the University of Georgia. The truth is, he didn't give them much of a chance.

"I was using one of the partner's offices a corner office—to spread out a bunch of stuff I was working on," Butler recalls. "The firm was in the Candler Building downtown then, and I remember standing at the window, smoking my pipe and looking out at all the people below and thinking, ‘Man, you're in high cotton now.' The next thought that raced through my mind was that my granddaddy would roll over in his grave if he saw me up there, representing that side."

So Butler told the partners at Troutman that he didn't feel right about representing Georgia Power Co.—"Nothing against Georgia Power; I just had a different predisposition"—and returned to law school. After graduating and passing the bar, he had offers in Augusta, Columbus and Atlanta, as well as one to start as a name partner in Cumming, where he'd gone to high school. But he took the advice of J. Ralph Beaird, dean of the law school and now a friend, who told him he was a born trial lawyer, and the best trial bar was in Columbus. Butler now jokes that he "finally figured out [Beaird] was trying to help a buddy in Columbus who needed a lawyer. But he was right—I've tried cases all over Georgia and other states and the best trial bar I've ever seen was in Columbus, Georgia. The city had more judges per capita but enough population to cause a lot of litigation. Lawyers got to try a lot of cases, and I got to try cases against very good lawyers.

"I took the offer, and I've been here ever since."

***  

It's tempting to call Butler—whose soft drawl lends authenticity to his tales of "huntin' and fishin' and bird dogs"—a born raconteur, but in his case nature and nurture combined.

Butler grew up spending summers and holidays with his grandfather, Herman Butler, in Newton County. "[My grandfather] was a Roosevelt Democrat," Butler says. "He grew up on a farm, and his parents died when he was 8 of yellow fever. He went to live with his grandfather, and his brothers went to live with other relatives. Then his grandfather had a stroke when he was 13, so he took over the farm, until they lost it after World War I. He went to Atlanta and worked at various furniture stores, starting in the warehouse. He was relatively uneducated, but he put his brothers through business school.

"He was a big talker-real friendly," Butler says. "He would stop and talk and tell stories to everybody. As a youngster I was impatient and wanted to go do something else. But as I got older I'd just sit down and listen."

That practice served him well, both with potential clients and juries. Though Butler isn't given to self-reflection and doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about the qualities that make him a good lawyer—"Who the hell knows?" he says—he does admit his upbringing played a part. "I don't think I'm better than anyone else," he says. "Which is real useful for a trial lawyer, because it's not true of all of 'em."

In addition to knowing the folks in Newton County, thanks to his grandfather, Butler says that living in then-small-town Forsyth County as a teenager meant knowing everybody. "I grew up knowing how the sheriff worked, and the newspaper and the county commissioners. I went to school with every possible class of people, from the children of millionaires to people who were lucky to have shoes. You just got exposed to everything."

If it sounds like an upbringing straight out of the movies, that may help explain the two photos hanging on the walls of the firm's Columbus office—which just happen to be the same two photos hanging in its Atlanta office: both photos show Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. In one shot, Atticus is making his case to the jury in defense of Tom Robinson. In the other, as Butler describes it, "He's leaving the courtroom, taking that first step down after walking through the door. And the reverend says to Scout, ‘Stand up, Miss Jean Louise. Your father's passin'.'

"That's my favorite scene in movie history," says Butler, who says that seeing the movie at age 11 convinced him to go into law. "It still hits me. It's the idea of being willing to represent the oppressed and those who are not powerful-and to do it notwithstanding whatever criticism might result."

The kind of credibility Atticus Finch had is an attorney's most essential possession, Butler says. "The first rule of building a practice is, Never mislead a judge as to the facts or the law," he says. "Judges figure out who they can believe and who they can't." And he's got a story to prove it.

"Over the years I've seen large corporations send in lawyers from outside the locale, for the purpose of violating that maxim, because they know the lawyer's never going back [before that judge]," Butler says. "I had one product liability case—defendant was a large corporation, in federal court, with a single judge. We had a status conference and the judge said, ‘I want lawyers to tell me how this case will progress and what will happen.' He called the plaintiff first, so I told him exactly what was going to happen. You could see him turning red. He said, ‘That's not going to happen in my court.'" When they proceeded to litigate the case—it settled on the eve of trial—everything transpired the way Butler had predicted.

"Lo and behold," he adds, "we get another case, same defendant, same product, in front of the same judge. He called a status conference and started off by saying, ‘The last time we were here together, Mr. Butler proceeded to tell me what was going to happen in the case and I told him it wasn't going to happen in my court, and I was wrong.' Then he turned to the defense lawyers—they were different lawyers, not the ones from the previous case—and said, ‘It ain't gonna happen again.'"

***  

Knowing exactly how a case will proceed is standard operating procedure for Butler. "I believe in obsessive preparation," he says. "I start getting ready for what I'm going to say to the jury when I first meet the client—I start then making notes on my legal pads."

He aspires to the preparedness of one of his heroes, Winston Churchill. "He was famous for his parliamentary ad-libs," Butler says. "In fact, he would think through the parliamentary debates in advance, figuring out who was likely to say what, and he'd prepare rejoinders, which his secretary would type up on little pieces of paper. He'd punch a hole through them and tie them together in the order in which he thought he'd need them. Then he could flip to a page and deliver this brilliant ad-lib that he'd thought of two weeks before.

"I believe in that kind of preparation," Butler continues. "When the 17th witness is on the stand and I hit the 40-minute mark in direct examination, I want to know what objection the defense lawyer is going to make, so I have my reply ready. To prepare for cross, I do a question tree. You ask a question, there is a limited number of ways a witness can go—usually only two, if you do the question right. So I'm ready whichever way he goes."

That kind of preparation helped Butler during his most famous cases: a series of product liability lawsuits against General Motors for the carmaker's "side-saddle" gas tanks, which exploded during crashes. One prominent case, Moseley v. GM, resulted in a $105 million judgment in 1993. The plaintiffs were the parents of 17-year-old Shannon Moseley, who died when the GM pickup he was driving exploded after being hit by a drunk driver. Butler argued that the automaker knew its design was defective and dangerous. The case was eventually reversed on appeal and settled.

The GM cases still resonate with Butler. "It was all so needless and deliberate," he says. "It was just calculated murder. It still aggravates me." Meanwhile, other, less famous cases hit closer to home. Take the one of Cousin Elmyr.

"There was a widow, then 91, named Elmyr Tompkins, who lived near me in north Muscogee County," Butler says. "She owned a bunch of land, and she had no children, so she planned to leave everything to two charities. Her closest relatives were second cousins, but for a long time her neighbors looked after her, more so than her family members." Suddenly, a second cousin got involved—Butler says he "captured" her—and persuaded her to change her will. A number of people in the county were drawn into the case—Butler says that someone from the sheriff's department was involved, which made getting help for Tompkins difficult. "The group that captured her hired security guards who wouldn't let friends visit her," Butler says. "They held her hostage in her own home. Eventually the guards purported to arrest three people, so we filed suit for false arrest. But what we needed was for the local probate judge to appoint a neutral guardian."

At first Butler kept his distance. "People were asking me to get involved, but I was dodging it," he says. "Finally, a neighbor of mine who I respected stopped me in the road one day as I was coming home from work. He said, ‘Now, Butler, I'm tellin' you—you need to help this lady.' So I got involved."

Butler needed help, so he approached another friend, a prominent Columbus attorney, and gave him a sales pitch. "I said, ‘Have we got a deal for you! We want to get the probate judge to appoint a guardian for Mrs. Tompkins and make sure her will says what she wants it to say. And here's the kicker: If we're successful and her will is changed back, we won't get paid a dime. Not only that, it's going to be a painful process. If, on the other hand, we're unsuccessful, the charities will probably hire us. So if we win, we lose.'

"But we won. Got paid nothing. That was a good case."

***  

Butler, who calls himself a "recovering journalist" (his bachelor's degree is in journalism), dreams of writing a book about "Cousin Elmyr." But he's still too busy rewriting briefs to make sure they are up to his standards, and periodically answering speculation in the press that he'll run for public office. "I wish I were 10 years younger," he says, when asked if he'll ever run. "First I wanted to practice law, and then I had young children. Given my compulsive nature, the last thing I needed was another distraction. And now I'm in my 50s. So the question is, how do I want to spend the rest of my life? I debate that every day."

He's also spending time fostering the next generation. Butler has endowed two $1 million scholarships at the University of Georgia. One is at the law school—"They gave me a scholarship to go to law school, and as a direct result I've gotten rich. So that's the least I could do"—and the other at the Odum School of Ecology. "We need more scientists out there studying the rivers and water," says Butler, who has served on the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Board and long been an advocate of downstream water rights. "The metro [Atlanta] growth industry [is trying to] soak up all the water inside Georgia. But there's a chance to save the streams and the down-streamers, if we do it now."

Butler also established a $1 million endowment to provide stipends for students in the Columbus State University servant leadership program, which requires both involvement in community service and maintaining a high grade point average.

Whether Butler's prepping for a case, exercising his influence in Democratic politics or hunting with his beloved bird dogs, he approaches it all the same way. "I believe the ability to work hard is just like the ability to sing: It's a God-given talent," he says. "And I've got it." He pauses. "And that's the extent of my self-reflection about the subject."  

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