Bobby Lee Cook will receive the 2017 Ben F. Johnson Jr. Public Service Award on Thursday, March 23, at the College of Law. The college presents the award each year to an attorney whose overall accomplishments reflect the high tradition of selfless public service that Georgia State Law’s founding dean, Ben F. Johnson Jr., exemplified.
“I am flattered and very humbled to be the awardee,” Cook said. “I was surprised and can think of any number of people more entitled to it than me. But I am delighted and grateful.”
Cook, an attorney at Cook & Connelly in Summerville, Georgia, is one of the most renowned and respected trial attorneys in the Southeast. Since he began practicing in 1949, Cook has tried thousands of civil and criminal cases, including more than 300 murder cases, across the country and throughout the world, in countries such as Vietnam, Germany and England.
“He is a tireless worker, a patient teacher, and a constant source of inspiration for my brother and I, and we would hazard to guess, to countless others who have been fortunate enough to spend time with him,” said C. Sutton Connelly (J.D. ’09), an attorney at Cook & Connelly and Cook’s grandson.
In his over six-decades career, Cook has been part of many high-profile and varied cases. He represented the Rockefeller and Carnegie families in an eminent domain case, and in 1985 defended C.H. Butcher, who was acquitted in what was one of the largest federal banking fraud cases of the time. He defended Savannah socialite Jim Williams in the murder case that was the inspiration for “Midnight In The Garden Of Good and Evil.”
In 1975, he represented on appeal, two of the seven men convicted of killing Cobb County doctors, Warren and Rosina Matthews, which resulted in the revelation that police framed all of the men. Their convictions were thrown out. He fought for retired Georgia teachers in a class action lawsuit which resulted in back pay for miscalculated payments in pension plans. In U.S. v Drogoul, Cook defended Atlanta banker Christopher Drogoul, who was involved in the Iraqgate scandal of the early 1990s.
His work has won him many accolades, including being inducted into the Trial Lawyers Hall of Fame and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. But it’s not the fame nor honors that motivate him.
“He is truly a student of the law, who enjoys rising early each morning to lend his own unique voice to the practice. Throughout the years, that voice has been not for his own benefit, but for the benefit of others,” said Jeffrey S. Connelly (J.D. ’12), a trial lawyer at Terry D. Jackson PC and Cook’s grandson.
It’s the fight to ensure everyone gets a fair trial and his passion for the law that keep Cook working well past the age of retirement.
“I’ve won some and lost some, but I can think of nothing more enjoyable than what I do — I am able to help people that need my assistance.
“I love the practice of law and have a very high regard for the system. More often than not it works well. When it fails us, some of us take it on and try to steer it back in the right direction. Only thing I can do is keep on working and try to do the best I can from here on out.”
Among those that have needed his assistance have been defendants in cases that were viewed as “unpopular” or “difficult.” His track record in the courtroom indicates he has a knack for such cases—but even he’s been surprised at winning sometimes, he said. Taking those “unpopular” cases is important he said, and that’s why he has never refused his service to someone just because the case seemed unwinnable.
“The responsibility of lawyers is to take those difficult cases—bad cases need good lawyers. And many of the ones that appear to be bad cases really turn out to where you are representing innocent people. That’s happened on many more than one occasion,” he said.
It’s the same reason he also devotes much of his time to pro bono work. “It’s my responsibility as a lawyer to help people who can’t help themselves. I think that lawyers such as myself that have some reasonable semblance of experience need to make a contribution to the common good; I think it’s what we should do.”
What does he think is the key to his success?
“I work hard and I have very strong and high regard for the people that I represent. I’m loyal to my clients and hope I’m loyal to the court. I feel like the work I do is good work. But I don’t know that I’m that special. I’ve been fortunate and blessed by having a long life and being to be able to practice.”
The award will be presented at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 23, at an invitation-only ceremony at the College of Law.