Editor’s Note: In 2005, for our annual Best Lawyers in Dallas list, Tim Rogers profiled attorney Jim Coleman. He died last week. We’re republishing this story in honor of him.
The first thing you should know about James E. Coleman is that he will not enjoy this story.
The man’s been practicing law for more than 50 years, his name’s on the stationery of the firm he helped found—Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal—yet still, as best anyone can tell, he’s never once been profiled.
That’s the way he likes it.
“He doesn’t really like to talk about himself,” says Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn, who’s known him for 30 years. “Jim would be thrilled if no one ever mentioned his name in any news story.”
So he is ambivalent when presented with the news that in a survey conducted by D Magazine, he was overwhelmingly voted by his peers as the most respected lawyer in town. The No. 2 vote-getter was a highly respected man, a jurisprudential giant in this city—he didn’t come close. Coleman is flattered. But the news comes with a request for an interview and even a sitting for a photograph. He doesn’t relish the prospect of either and says he needs a few days to think about it. He doesn’t think he warrants all the fuss and attention.
This is a lawyer, understand, who is shunning free publicity.
But then the call comes and Coleman says he’ll sit for the photo and meet for an informal interview on two conditions: one, the story will have to make it plain that the last thing he would do is indulge in self-promotion. And, two, lunch is on him.
And so on a recent afternoon at the Crescent Club, wearing a gray pinstriped suit, Coleman does something very unusual, for him. He sits down to lunch and, in his buttery Georgia accent, talks about himself for nearly two hours. He lets slip a few biographical details that are apparently too flattering; he asks that they not be printed. But the basic outline is this:
Coleman was born in Georgia six years before the Great Depression. He went to high school in Atlanta and met his wife Margaret in their senior year while he was “jellying,” which, for those who don’t know, was a courting ritual wherein gentlemen would go from house to house on a Sunday, calling on girls. Sometimes, you’d call on a girl and she’d already be entertaining other callers. When Coleman met Margaret, the phonograph was playing a Frank Sinatra record. Or it could have been Duke Ellington.
Coleman graduated from high school in 1941 and went on to Georgia Tech, but when the United States entered World War II, he enlisted. That’s when he learned he was colorblind. They stuck him in the Army. And in 1945, he crossed the Rhine with General George Patton’s Third Army.
But that detail doesn’t surface at lunch. Coleman simply says he “served in the Army.” Another detail that somehow escapes him and that would be volunteered later by one of his law partners: as a combat infantry officer, Coleman handled himself well enough in battle that he was awarded the Silver Star.
After the war, he finished up at Tech in 1948, one year after he’d married Margaret. He graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1951. He planned to come to Dallas, where the oil and gas business was booming.
“Deals were being made, people were making money,” he says. “It seemed like a good place for a lawyer.” He pronounces the word “law-yah.”
Once again, though, his plans were interrupted. When the Korean War broke out, Coleman was still in the reserves. This time, the CIA wanted him. To this day, he won’t say what he did, exactly, during his two years with the agency, citing an agreement he signed when he left. But he will allow you this: no, he was not a paper pusher. In fact, on several occasions during his service in the CIA, he wished he were just a paper pusher. That, and what he did was so much fun that he considered not leaving when his tour was up.
About halfway through lunch at the Crescent Club, a judge and lawyer stop by Coleman’s table. His firm’s offices are in the building, and everyone knows him here. One of the men says he saw an article in Texas Lawyer that mentioned that the Carrington Coleman offices recently installed four defibrillators.
“You know why?” the other man says. “Because when Jim’s clients find out how much he charges, they need ’em!”
From Coleman’s reserved, yet polite, reaction to the joke, one gets the impression that he does not sit around laughing about how much he charges his clients. After working for two other firms in Dallas, Coleman and four others founded Carrington Coleman in 1970 as a sort of utopian shop for lawyers. Partners didn’t squabble over compensation or even keep track of billable hours. There was no vacation policy.
Today, things have changed a little. The firm has about 100 lawyers, and billable hours are tracked—more than anything to ensure no one is overworked. And Coleman does have some fairly high-profile clients that surely pay him what his services are worth. In fact, Coleman’s most noteworthy client right now is former Enron chief executive Ken Lay. But when Coleman travels to Houston for business, he still flies Southwest Airlines.
“Unassuming” is a good description of the man. His favorite dessert is butter pecan ice cream. They keep a tub of it at the Crescent Club just for him. He brags about this special treatment as if it were the most wondrous luxury in the world. And then, when the waiter profusely apologizes for not being able to locate the tub and instead brings three substitute flavors, Coleman pretends each is butter pecan.
Unassuming. Coleman has four children. One of them is County Judge Margaret Keliher. She says “Daddy” never talked about work at home. “Actually, I didn’t even know that my dad was so well-respected until I got out of school,” she says. After she graduated in the top five of her class from SMU law and was in the profession awhile, she began to appreciate his stature. “They would say, ‘Oh, you’re Jim Coleman’s daughter, aren’t you?’”
Indeed, as evidenced by D’s survey, people in the law community do have a high opinion of the man. If you ever want to have some fun, you can call big-time trial lawyers in town and try to get them to say something bad about Coleman.
Frank Branson: “Jim Coleman is a gentleman, a scholar, and a class act. And I don’t care whether you’re on the same side he is or opposing him, he’s a trustworthy, honorable man.”
George Bramblett, at Haynes and Boone: “Jim Coleman is unique in the Dallas legal community. He is the most successful lawyer and also the most respected, and that’s not always the case. He is our Atticus Finch.”
It only gets more difficult. Judge Lynn, as previously mentioned, has known Coleman for 30 years. She, in fact, was Carrington Coleman’s first female associate (1976) and, by the way, also the firm’s first female partner (1983). You can keep her on the phone for upwards of 30 minutes, and she won’t be able to accuse the man of having even the most minor of peccadilloes. Beyond his good manners and irreproachable sense of justice, she says there’s his sharp mind.
“He is the quickest study of anyone I have met in my entire life,” she says. “I mean, he can learn the most complicated, Byzantine facts in law on short order and then go right into the courtroom and present them in the most cogent, brilliant, folksy way that anybody’s ever been able to do. I mean, it’s really miraculous.”
But, again, Jim Coleman will have none of it. The dining room at the Crescent Club long ago emptied out, and as he’s signing for the bill, he really can’t say why people think he’s the most respected lawyer in town.
“I always have to go with what my daddy told me,” he says. “He said if you keep your shirt clean and do what’s right and work real hard, sooner or later, it’ll get out on you.”