With an illustrious resume that reads like the who’s who of Alabama law, Carl Cole is recognized as one of the state’s most preeminent attorneys; his list of high-profile cases virtually as extensive as the staggering Cathedral Caverns. Having represented professional athletes, platinum-selling recording artists and Fortune 500 companies, Cole’s expertise spans multiple areas of the law including a special appointment to serve as co-counsel in the retrial of a man on death row, proving to be instrumental in obtaining a not guilty verdict.
Along the way, in addition to collecting more than his share of prestigious awards and accolades, Cole became a registered mediator in 2007 and obtained an LL.M. in taxation from the University of Alabama School of Law in 2010, endeavoring to provide his clients with even more diverse services.
When called upon (which is frequently) by the news media for his opinions and insights on trending legal issues, headline-grabbing trials or proposed amendments to the law, it’s not uncommon for Cole to be referred to as expert, authority or legal guru. But the title he prefers and prizes most is daddy.
“I’d much rather talk about my 6-year-old son, Wynn,” he says, beaming with pride. “I admit it, I’m an obnoxious dad, but watching him learn new things, develop his personality and especially playing ball – it’s all fascinating to me. It’s more interesting than my job.”
When you consider the elder Cole has been featured nationally for representing an Nfllinebacker, is suing one of the largest chemical companies in the world for contaminating the Tennessee River and even tangled with Alabama’s governor via social media, it’s evident that pint-size, 6-year-old baseball player in the River City must be truly riveting!
BALL PRACTICE TO LEGAL PRACTICE
Actually, Cole finds a strong correlation between sports and practicing law. “Success in sports comes with practice,” he says. “Sometimes mundane, repetitive, boring practice stretches over the course of days or weeks for a game or race that might be over in mere minutes or seconds. An attorney’s day in court is very similar. People see the trial, but they don’t realize the months of preparation that goes on prior to that.”
Cole also credits his own involvement in sports as teaching him the importance of setting goals which has certainly factored into his success. “The principle is the same,” he says. “You’re just applying it in a different context. Instead of 100 free throws before you leave the gym, it’s finish three estate plans before you leave for lunch.”
“Setting short, mid- and long-range goals became a habit,” he adds. “One that has served me very well.”
It was just this kind of discipline and dedication that propelled young Cole to superstar status while growing up in the small community of Sardis, Alabama, excelling not in one, but four different sports. With high school highlights that include scoring 55 points (a county record) in a single basketball game and three state championships as a sprinter, it’s not surprising that this was also the beginning of Cole’s popularity with the press. College scouts from three sports tracked his every move, vying for the opportunity to lure him to their school. Heady stuff for a teenager. Yet, with a maturity unusual in one so young, Cole stayed focused on his long-term goal of studying law and chose Troy University and their division one track program.
It didn’t take Cole long to make his mark scholastically either. Troy University Chancellor Jack Hawkins took note of the young man in his sophomore year when he was named Political Science Student of the Year. Hawkins saw beyond the gifted athlete and, impressed with both Cole’s academic and leadership achievements, chose to take him under his wing.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever met a better leader,” says Cole of his mentor. “He reinforced the goal-setting habit and stressed leadership and achievement. I remember a paperweight he had on his desk inscribed with the single word, ‘excellence.’ He preached the theme, ‘autograph your work with excellence,’ which encapsulated the values my grandparents instilled in me – hard work, positive attitude and best effort always.”
After graduating magna cum laude, Cole worked his way through the University of Alabama School of Law by clerking at Hare Wynn in Birmingham, the oldest plaintiff firm in the state.
“It was an amazing opportunity,” he says. “I was exposed to some of Alabama’s best plaintiff attorneys.”
It also put him on the radar of the prestigious Decatur law firm of Eyster Key, where he made partner by age 29. “I went from working with these elite plaintiff ’s attorneys to collaborating with some of the best civil defense attorneys in the state,” says Cole. “I soaked up as much as I could from both sides.”
The next logical step came in 2012 when he founded The Cole Law Firm LLC, which today includes attorneys Russ Prickett and Logan Manthey. Cole traces the success of his Decatur-based practice from his smalltown roots, through Troy and Tuscaloosa and finally, Decatur.
“At every stage, I’ve had tremendous role models and mentors,” he says. “From men of the church and coaches growing up, to my adviser and Dr. Hawkins at Troy, to the lawyers I worked with at Hare Wynn and Eyster Key. I’ve tried to take the best traits of those people, and copy them outright sometimes, and find what works best for me.”
His respect and affection for these special individuals in his life is unmistakable. “Every one of those people gave me an opportunity,” he says. “Now, I’m never going to be as good a man as my grandfather, the leader that Dr. Hawkins is, be as well-liked as John Key or as smart as Nick Roth, but if I aim high enough I can get close enough, and with some luck, enjoy some success.”
THE NFL, DEATH ROW AND A LIFETIME OF LEARNING
Perhaps harkening back to his belief in practicing and perfecting, Cole is quick to point out that a legal education never ends. “I try to learn something new every day,” he says. “I love to watch trials and see if there might be a technique I can steal from a good lawyer.”
Only half-joking he adds, “But bad lawyers provide just as much education. Learning what not to do is just as important.”
Interestingly, it may well have been Cole’s “trial watching” that led to his involvement in his first nationally covered case. When the wife of a local doctor was brutally murdered, a young man by the name of Daniel Wade Moore was tried and found guilty of the crime in 2001. Moore spent 91 days on death row before the verdict was overthrown upon discovering that the prosecution had withheld evidence.
The second trial resulted in a hung jury. In the week prior to the third trial, Cole happened to be watching the lawyers from each side argue over a computer hard drive that had just been turned over to the defense for the first time, with the trial a week away.
“I was standing in the back of the courtroom,” Cole says, “really just to avoid sitting in my office.”
The judge refused to delay the trial to allow more time for the defense to review the contents of the hard drive. However, he did order that a new attorney would be added to the defense team to review the material and analyze any information that came from it.
“We didn’t do much criminal work,” says Cole. “When Judge Haddock asked me to be that new member of the defense team, of course I said ‘Yes,’ because I would never tell him no. But, I really never expected my senior partners to allow it.”
The judge did persuade the senior partners, and Cole joined the defense team during jury selection. Four weeks later, he delivered the closing argument. After five days of deliberation, the jury found the former death-row inmate not guilty. This infamous case was later the subject of four- CBS “48 Hours” specials, gaining even further national attention.
Modestly downplaying his role in the case Cole says, “This was Sherman Powell’s case. I was just a fresh arm in a late inning.”
Despite minimizing his contribution, this case did have another very important effect, and that was to reignite Cole’s love for his chosen profession.
“I had been a partner at a great firm and was working with great people that I really liked,” he says, “but I wasn’t enjoying myself. I was having a hard time setting goals and focusing. After that case, I felt reinvigorated and driven.”
He began taking on more criminal cases, and has not lost a criminal trial since.
Not long after that career altering case, Cole filed suit against former Alabama and Nfllinebacker, Rolando McClain for assaulting a childhood friend. Cole won’t discuss the case, but after the case was resolved and McClain faced new legal trouble in Decatur, it was Cole that the football star hired to represent him. How does it happen that the linebacker who was once sued by Cole turn around and hire him? Again, Cole will not directly respond to the details, but does say, “Rolando is a private guy and he’s a client. I’m not betraying that. I’ve been hired by people I’ve sued before and even the occasional juror, it’s not that unusual.”
“OH, OH THE WATER…” – VAN MORRISON
Most recently, Cole has been the face of litigation against 3M and other companies for contaminating drinking water from the Tennessee River. The EPA has issued health advisories about PFCs that are believed to cause cancer and one that resulted in an outright warning to not drink the water.
When scandal erupted, then-Gov. Robert Bentley sought to debunk the issue and refused to issue an emergency in the area impacted. Cole hit back with a humorous, albeit biting press release that a prominent, statewide political reporter described as, “one of the greatest ever,” mocking the audio recordings of Bentley in which the governor commented about groping an aide.
“I was mad,” says Cole, “but at the same time I saw an opportunity. I was mad because experts and medical professionals had been saying these chemicals are a problem and we had been dealing with it for months, and the governor sends a staffer up there for a short meeting just to be able to say, ‘all is well, drink as much as you want.’ On the other hand, the state is saying not to eat more than one fish a month from that same water.”
Cole admits to having second thoughts about sending that statement, not because he feared going up against the governor, but because he knew the media would pick up on it.
“I want to help my media friends who are trying to do a tough job,” he says, “and I obviously want to help my clients, which is why I ultimately sent it out. But honestly, I get tired of me in the media.”
Well, he might as well get comfortable with it because the big water case against 3M and other companies is set to go to trial in the winter of 2018. Cole and his lawyers are partnered with Jeff Friedman of Birmingham and Gary Davis of North Carolina. There’s sure to be plenty of press as they battle over the health issues connected to the chemicals in the Tennessee River.
One defendant, Daikin, has already agreed to pay $5 million. A temporary treatment system funded by the Daikin settlement is already operational and removing the harmful chemicals.
COACH AND MENTOR
Helping Cole navigate his hectic practice are attorneys Russ Prickett and Logan Manthey. “Russ is scary smart,” says Cole, and points to a case of local interest involving a referendum in which Decatur voters decided to change the form of government. However, the existing government officials refused to implement the changes.
“They are making it about minority voting rights,” says Cole, “and hired a ‘dream team’ of lawyers and experts. On our side is Russ. He’s been giving those guys fits for years and when he started he’d been in private practice for about 10 minutes. It’s Russ versus Goliath and no matter how it turns out he’s been stellar.”
Manthey joined the firm out of law school and was immediately thrown into the fire by Cole.
“He joined the same month we filed against 3M,” says Cole. “Logan excels at dealing with people and has been the primary point of contact for the hundreds of people contacting the firm regarding the contaminated water class action.
“Logan is going to be a hell of a trial lawyer,” adds Cole, “because he’s smart and quick, but the biggest thing is he’s a real people person. He has this genuine quality which is a trait common to most successful trial attorneys.
“Hopefully, spending time around me won’t change that,” he adds with a wry grin.
Having benefitted from the examples of great attorneys he’s worked with in the past and many who were mentors, it seems the roles are reversed at this point in Cole’s life. He tries to spend at least 30 minutes every day with his young attorneys.
“I guess I’m the mentor now,” he says. But in his typical, self-deprecating way adds, “I’m not sure if they are learning what to do or what not to do from me, but the important thing is we’re bouncing ideas and thoughts off each other helping us all become better lawyers which helps us do a better job for our clients.”
Even in those meetings, Cole can’t help but talk about his favorite subject. “They get to hear a lot of Wynn stories,” he says. “He hit three homers on three pitches one day, and I’m pretty sure I repeated that story for the next three days. But, like I said, they’re really smart so they don’t complain.”
Carl Cole might be tired of hearing and reading about himself, but based on the ongoing coverage he continues to receive, the public can’t get enough. Certainly, his skills as a barrister have a lot to do with that, but it’s also his saber wit and down-home appeal. He might be as urbane and sophisticated as any big city attorney, especially when it comes to facing off with an opponent in court, but when he’s out and about with friends or family, he’s just Carl who loves a good game and a laugh.
Regarding his frequent media appearances, Cole says he takes plenty of ribbing from his wife, Kate, and some of his friends. “Anytime I have a big case or it’s a big story my phone starts ringing,” he says with a smile. “Let’s just say, they keep me humble.”