August 1, 2018 marked the 40-year anniversary of Dallas law firm Cowles Thompson. The celebration gathered current and former staff and attorneys who shared their humorous and heartfelt memories of life at the firm, and honored founding partner, James E. (Jim) Cowles.
Mark Stinnett, name partner of Stinnett & Masters LLP, began his career at Cowles Thompson in 1980. He joked about courtroom practices he learned at the feet of Jim Cowles, including the importance of bringing his own black and red felt-tipped pens (and not daring to borrow one from Mr. Cowles!). He praised Mr. Cowles’ persuasive talents saying, “He won the case solely on his closing argument – he was masterful.” Remarking on the legal community present at the celebration, Stinnett said, “What I'm always proudest of from my time at Cowles Thompson — we've all moved on in our careers…but, if you look around this room, you will not find better-quality lawyers…to have that number of quality people, not just quality lawyers, is a tribute to this place and to you Jim.”
Training and Trust
Jim Grau, incoming President of the American Board of Trial Advocates in Dallas, spent five years with Cowles Thompson early in his career. He picked up on Stinnett’s comments, saying, “The reason there is this caliber of lawyers here today — it's because of the opportunities we got as young lawyers. When I talk to young lawyers today — they're not getting those opportunities. You gave those to us, and so did Ken Mighell, and Chuck Green. You trusted in us. You had confidence in us. You encouraged us. …You yelled at us,” he joked. “I remember the ‘You think know how to give an opening statement — but you don't!’ speech. It was all designed to make us better. To make us understand the obligations we had as lawyers. It was that trust…that meant so much.”
Grau continued with a comparison between the foundational beliefs and standards of ABOTA and those of Cowles Thompson. “We believe in a right to a trial by jury – that's what (ABOTA) believes in & that's what Cowles & Thompson believes…to elevate the standards of honor and courtesy, to work for the preservation in our jury system, to advance the skill of its members, to cultivate a spirit of loyalty, fellowship and professionalism among our members… That's Cowles Thompson, that's why it was so impactful on my career and my time there.”
Fire in the Belly
Former shareholder Philipa Remington recalled early lessons that she carried throughout her career. “I've never seen anybody who can read a witness — read a case — like Mr. Cowles,” she said. “I still, in 99% of my cases, take a deposition the way Jim Cowles taught me because the outline is that good!” With emotion in her voice that connected to those in the room, she added: “There has been no greater honor in my life than to have been trained by Jim Cowles and to have learned and to have plied my trade by him. Jim Cowles had the fire in the belly to be the best and I like to think I still have that fire and that all those trained by him have it because that's (how) he trained us to be.”
A Lesson in Perseverance
The second longest-tenured shareholder, Chuck Green, described the firm’s early days and the goals of the founders, “They wanted to have fun practicing law, they wanted to have a balance between working and practicing law, and they wanted a firm that treated people with respect — top to bottom in the organization — it was important to treat people right.”
Green continued, outlining the elements for the firm’s long-standing success. “In order to have a 40th anniversary, perseverance is important. When I think about Jim's traits that are part of the recipe for success, I think about mental toughness…that helps you get up after you've been knocked down, that helps you keep fighting for your clients, that won't let you let go of a case until you find that key to it — the evidence — the truth that leads to a good result for your client.”
Commenting on Mr. Cowles’ character and the firm’s leadership, Green said, “I remember one of those early principles about the importance of treating people with respect. It's always been important to our firm and Jim led the way. Sort of a blue-collar respect for people that knew no bounds for title, position, or class. Jim has an understanding of human nature…drawn probably from humble means growing up in Wichita Falls and he has a basic respect for people and he cares. It's that combination of experience that allowed him to connect with juries.”
“Jim taught that you respect the people, the judges, the juries, the witnesses, and he lived what he taught,” Green paused. “I speak now to our current group of lawyers & staff: Be determined to be top shelf. Practice law the right way. Treat people right. Enjoy the challenges. Be bulldog-determined to help your client. Stay mentally tough. Heckle well. And persevere.”
Finally, Mr. Cowles took the microphone. He remarked about the group of celebrants, “This is a group of people who are top flight. No question about it. I am so proud of you.”
He continued by noting the attorneys who had journeyed through the firm, some of whom had passed on early/unexpectedly such as co-founder Charlie Sorrells, and Kaufman County Assistant DA, Mark Hasse, as well as those who have subsequently experienced career pinnacles, such as Joseph D. (Joe) Brown — recently appointed as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas.
Mr. Cowles concluded, “There's magic in being a trial lawyer. If you're not, you can still be a great lawyer, but there's magic in being a trial lawyer. It's a magic you can't be given. You have to earn it. I think the words to me that will always be magic…,” he paused and stepped away from the podium to address the crowd more closely:
“You are my family. You are my court and I'm so proud of it. Proud to say this: "May it please the court." I've said it hundreds of times — and you can't say that unless you're a trial lawyer. It's respect for the judge, respect for the process, respect for the jury – “May it please the court.” I love those words. They are magic to me and I will always think about them.
“Magic words. You're in a magic business. Be magic, will ya?”