Ask seasoned attorneys around the state who they’ve heard about in Columbus and they’ll likely mention two names: C. Neal Pope and James Butler Jr.
They’re both plaintiffs’ lawyers with a long list of multimillion-dollar verdicts to their credit. They’re both among the most successful lawyers—not only in Columbus, but also in Atlanta, where they both have offices. They’ve both won major cases all over the country.
Pope’s firm is Pope, McGlamry, Kilpatrick, Morrison & Norwood. Butler’s is Butler, Wooten & Fryhofer. They’ve never tried a case together and seem to have no interest in doing so. Pope is charming with a disarming wit. Butler is combative. They don’t go to lunch together and exchange views. They probably won’t even like being mentioned in this article together.
"Tell him I called him Avis," Pope says mischievously to a reporter who is about to leave the riverfront offices of Pope, McGlamry to head a few blocks north to see Butler. Pope is referring to the television commercials for the rental car company that took pride in being smaller than its main competitor, Hertz: "We’re No. 2. We try harder."
Pope’s firm is bigger, with 15 lawyers compared with Butler’s 13. And Pope has practiced longer. Pope graduated from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1966; Butler graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1977.
Truth be told, it would be wrong to call Butler second to anyone, as his website, www.butlerwooten.com, explains. The long list of verdicts and settlements includes: $454 million in Six Flags Over Georgia v. Time Warner Entertainment Co., in favor of the original investors in the amusement park for a scheme by Time Warner to deliberately suppress the property’s value; $161.7 million in cash settlements in U.S.A. v. J.P.Morgan Chase, in which six banks have settled qui tam cases; $153 million in McBride v. Life Insurance Co. of Virginia, a class action settlement over universal life insurance policies; $150 million in Hardy v. General Motors Corp., a product defect case that included $10 million in punitive damages against GM for failing to fix a known fatal hazard in axles and door latches; $105 million in Flax v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., for the family of a baby killed when the front passenger seat in a Dodge Caravan failed and fell backward; $105 million in Mosley v. GM, for the family of a teenager burned alive because of a defective fuel system in a GM pickup truck; plus a long list of others.
Here’s what Butler’s own biography says about him: "Jim’s accomplishments include setting the record for the largest verdict in Georgia history on four separate occasions—in four completely different kinds of civil cases (medical malpractice, trucking, auto products liability, and business torts/breach of fiduciary duty). No other lawyer has done that more than once. Cases in which Jim served as lead counsel have also set verdict records and settlement records in a number of other states. Jim was lead counsel in the Six Flags vs. Time Warner case, which is believed to be the largest collected judgment in American history. Jim has tried over 170 civil cases to verdict, and has won four verdicts over $100 million, plus another ten verdicts over $10 million, plus another 10 verdicts over $1 million, plus innumerable verdicts over $100,000."
Butler is a former newspaper reporter who graduated from the University of Georgia journalism school before he went to law school, and he says he casts a critical eye on everything written for the website.
To Pope’s disappointment, this reporter lacked the nerve to deliver the Avis line upon arrival at Butler’s office, late because of a long talk with Pope, but instead offered this compliment, also true: "Neal Pope said you’re an excellent lawyer."
Taken aback, Butler replies, "He said that?"
Pope also said that Butler’s independent nature makes for a good plaintiffs lawyer.
Columbus is a place that has spawned "a lot of lawyers seeking justice who aren’t so tied to the establishment," in the words of Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, a former partner at Pope’s firm who considers him a mentor.
It’s no accident that Pope and Butler grew their practices in Columbus. They came to Columbus from opposite directions in different decades, but both decided it was the ideal place for their law practices.
For Pope, who was born in Montgomery, Ala., the initial draw was to Phenix City, the Alabama town across the river that had a history of just about every kind of criminal activity imaginable, plus plenty of torts, too. When Pope started his practice, Phenix City was a town that was trying to clean up its notorious reputation for organized crime, prostitution and gambling.
Pope can see the Phenix City courthouse (and the Piggly Wiggly supermarket) from the window of his office in the Synovus building overlooking the Chattahoochee River. He says he probably tried more cases there than anywhere else.
In 1985, he became licensed in Georgia and moved his practice across the river, but continued to work in both states, like many Columbus lawyers. And he expanded his firm’s scope nationally. He figures he’s now tried 200 cases. And like Butler, he’s won some giant-sized verdicts.
The verdicts and settlements listed on the Pope McGlamry website rival Butler’s in number if not amount. The Pope firm success stories include: $200 million, cash settlement and in kind relief, in Hillis v. Equifax Consumer Services Inc., a consumer class action under Credit Repair Organizations Act; $150 million, cash settlement, Mabry v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., a diminished value class action of Georgia customers; $121 million in restitution plus injunctive relief valued at $936 million for consolidated class action litigation against retail and finance companies relating to alleged illegal insurance products; $12 million in Elliott Jr., et al. v. United States of America, a wrongful death and personal injury action resulting from carbon monoxide poisoning due to a defective water heater at a military base; $11 million, Gentry v. Volkswagen of America Inc., a products liability/wrongful death action as a result of defective seat belts, at the time the largest wrongful death verdict in Georgia; $6 million in Borom v. Eli Lilly Co., a pharmaceutical products liability wrongful death case against Oraflex, a drug prescribed for the treatment of arthritis that was removed from the market as a consequence; and on and on.
"He said Columbus has the best trial bar in the state," Butler recalls.
After initially working for a firm under the mentorship of the late John Denney, the beloved senior partner of Denney, Pease, Allison & Kirk who died last year, Butler set out on his own, opening an office in Atlanta as well and taking on litigation around the region.
"I was trying cases all over Georgia, going up against the top lawyers in the state," Butler says. "But in the first 20 years, I tried more cases in Columbus with better competition."
Butler has his own theory about why his law school dean’s advice turned out to be true. "I think the reason Columbus had such a good trial bar was that the city didn’t grow until later in the 1980s. We had more judges per capita. You could get to trial faster," he says. This relatively fast-paced court system has remained, he says.
In addition, he adds, compared with other cities, Columbus has a more diverse community. It’s a racially balanced former mill town with a rich corporate presence located between a U.S. Army base, Fort Benning, and the colorful Phenix City.
"That produced jurors who could be more receptive to plaintiffs’ cases, unlike say somewhere where everyone is the same," Butler says. "That said, however, I have often preached over the years that a great case can be a great case anywhere."
As his practice grew, Butler says he contemplated moving to Atlanta, since his firm has as many lawyers there as in Columbus. He remembers the exact moment when he decided not to do that. He was in the firm’s Atlanta office, then near Georgia 400 at Interstate 285. (The office is now on Buford Highway near Lenox Road in Buckhead.) It was rush hour.
"I was looking out at all the cars just backed up as far as you could see," he recalls. In Columbus, traffic is relatively light and commutes are quick and easy.
Pope’s firm has a Buckhead office on Peachtree Road at Lenox Road, by Lenox Square. He translates the traffic difference this way: "In Atlanta, you can do a morning thing and an afternoon thing. In Columbus, you can bounce around all day."
Pope, too, considered moving to Atlanta and even bought a house in Buckhead on posh Habersham Road. But he later sold it. Now he’s a regular guest at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead.
"One thing you’ll hear as a recurring theme as to why people practice in Columbus: the quality of life is very good here," says Pope. He notes there are educational and cultural opportunities without the big-city congestion. "There’s not a lot of traffic. There’s strong city leadership. This is a vibrant community with good things happening. People can live here, rear a family here and have a good quality of life."
For the record, Butler is in no way alone as a recipient of Pope’s biting humor. Pope mentions a get-well letter he received from an adversary after his heart transplant surgery a few years ago. The letter joked, "I hope they gave you a defense lawyer’s heart."
Pope returned the letter with this note handwritten on the back: "They couldn’t find a defense lawyer with a heart."