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The Advocate

Attorney Jim Butler creates a scholarship that supports the future of public interest law

by Allyson Mann (MA ’92)

In the lobby of Columbus law firm Butler, Wooten and Fryhofer, there are two framed photographs from the 1962 movie “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Chosen by Jim Butler (ABJ ’72, JD ’77), the images are of Atticus Finch as played by Gregory Peck. In one, Finch argues his case before the jury while his client—a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a small, Depression-era Southern town—sits in the background. In the other, Finch walks out of the courtroom while the audience stands, demonstrating that he’s won their respect by proving his client’s innocence despite losing the case.

“That’s the moment when I first started thinking about becoming a lawyer,” says Butler, who watched the movie as a youngster. “When he’s walking out of the courtroom and the reverend says ‘Stand up, Jean Louise, your father’s passing.’ That was it.”

More than 40 years later, Butler has earned a reputation as one of the best plaintiffs’ lawyers in the country. He has tried more than 150 civil cases to verdict, winning several verdicts over $100 million. His firm’s top 10 victories have yielded verdicts totaling more than $1 billion. But for Butler, the fight for justice is far more important than financial reward.

“Jim is committed to the representation of individuals,” says Rebecca White, Dean and J. Alton Hosch Professor at UGA’s School of Law. “He is someone who really exemplifies the difference the law can make in the lives of individuals, particularly people who are up against corporations or where there’s an imbalance of power.”

It’s a path he chose years ago after clerking one summer for Atlanta law firm Troutman Sanders. “That’s my favorite defense firm in Atlanta,” Butler says. “I love those guys.” The feeling is mutual. Chairman Emeritus and former Georgia Gov. Carl Sanders says one of his firm’s biggest mistakes was failing to offer Butler a job: “He’s reminded me of that from time to time, particularly when he’s won a case against one of our clients.”

Although he was clearly traveling toward success, the road he was on didn’t sit well with Butler. Measuring against the moral yardstick provided by his late grandfather, Herman Butler—a populist with an eighth grade education, a sterling reputation and a strong influence on his grandson—Jim Butler realized something didn’t add up.

“It became obvious to me that the wealthy and the powerful had plenty of really good lawyers and other folks did not,” he says. “So I decided to go against the grain and work for individuals.”

He’s still concerned that there are not enough lawyers who share his passion for representing plaintiffs. So recently he pledged $1 million to endow the James E. Butler Scholarship, which provides full tuition for students who want to study public interest law, at UGA’s School of Law.

“I’m really pleased that we have this opportunity—thanks to Jim’s gift—to attract these students to the law school,” says Ron Ellington, A. Gus Cleveland Distinguished Chair of Legal Ethics and Professionalism, who coordinates the Butler Scholarship program. “I’m looking forward to seeing a long line of these people making contributions in different ways to society.”

“We need scholarships to attract the best and brightest students even in our professional and graduate programs, which are often overlooked,” says Steve W. Wrigley, senior vice president for external affairs. “One of the priorities of the $500 million Archway to Excellence capital campaign is to increase endowed scholarships in the School of Law, and Jim Butler’s gift is a significant step in the right direction.”

The lobby at the Columbus office—the firm also has one in Atlanta—is plush but not posh. In addition to the photos from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” there is a bust of Abraham Lincoln and a bronze statue of a Boy Scout affectionately called Nick for his resemblance to a staff member. Upstairs, Butler’s office is well-appointed but decorated primarily with photos of friends and family: wife Susan; son Jeb, 23, a law student at UGA; and daughters Emily, 20, and Catherine, 18. His love for the outdoors—Butler served on the board of Georgia’s Dept. of Natural Resources—is evident in the photos and art scattered around his office.

After graduation, Butler moved to Columbus on the advice of J. Ralph Beaird, dean emeritus and adjunct professor of law at UGA. Although Butler had offers from firms in Atlanta, Augusta and Cumming, Beaird believed that he was a born trial lawyer and convinced him to go to Columbus, which at the time had the state’s best trial bar. Twenty-nine years later, Butler has proven Beaird’s instincts correct.

“If Jim Butler is trying a case in a particular location, it draws notice,” says Ron Carlson, Fuller E. Callaway Chair of Law Emeritus and one of several law faculty who watched Butler try a Clarke County case in December. “Members of the bar—particularly young members who want to learn how to try these cases successfully—will come and watch.”

And even those in other professions seek Butler’s expertise.

“Generally, CEOs and plaintiffs’ attorneys don’t get along, but I have great admiration for him and have used his counsel,” says Aflac Chairman and CEO Dan Amos (BBA ’73), who hunts and fishes at Butler’s farm outside Columbus. “I’ve been a better executive because he’s been my friend.”

On a warm March day, Butler settles into a chair at Evelyn’s Café, where he lunches several times a week and is on a first-name basis with the waitress. Although he’s won record-setting verdicts against corporations that are household names, his manner is decidedly low-key. He speaks with a soft drawl, enjoys talking about his family and especially enjoys telling a good anecdote: the one about his horse that points quail, for example. “I know it sounds crazy, but there were 20 witnesses,” he says.

But underneath the easygoing manner lies a powerful intellect. Butler processes information at lightning speed, but his mental processing screeches to a halt if he hears something that bears further scrutiny. The weight of his full concentration turning to the subject at hand is almost palpable. He responds and then pauses, eyes focused intently, as he awaits a reply. It’s a habit that makes the recipient of this attention feel like a quail caught in his line of sight, and one that surely serves him well in court. Combine that with his passion for representing plaintiffs, and it’s easy to understand why Gov. Sanders says, “You have to be ready to do battle if you’re going into court against Jim Butler.”

Butler is probably best known for a 1993 case in which he represented the family of a 17-year-old who was killed when his pickup truck, which had side-saddle fuel tanks, burst into flames on collision. The verdict of $105 million against General Motors was one of the largest product liability verdicts in American history. It’s one of many automobile-related cases Butler has tried, but he’s reluctant to consider why. “Self-analysis is difficult,” he says. “Which came first—the chicken or the egg? I don’t know.”

But consider the facts. At 17, Butler was seriously injured when the Corvair he was driving ran off the road and hit a telephone pole. Sober and in good physical condition at the time of the accident, he now suspects that a carbon monoxide leak—which the U.S. Transportation Dept. later warned Corvair owners about—caused him to black out. The accident “tore me all to hell,” says Butler, whose nose was reconstructed by a plastic surgeon. He suffered a broken hip and spent more than 30 years using a cane; he still walks with a limp.

One thing Butler’s cases seem to have in common is that they offend his sense of fairness. His clients have suffered in extreme ways, and Butler becomes their advocate in a quest for reparation. In April, Butler represented the family of a woman—a mother of four—who died after a pickup truck hydroplaned and collided with her car. The pickup, part of a fleet of trucks, had a rear tire with 87,000 miles on it and was sent out in inclement weather despite two employee requests for new tires.

“I think he’s driven by a sense of doing right and a sense that he is contributing in a positive way to society,” says Tom Eaton, J. Alton Hosch Professor of Law at UGA. “There’s a widespread belief … that corporations and other institutions that operate primarily from a profit motive would cut corners on safety if there was not the kind of accountability that you can have through civil litigation.”

It’s the desire for justice, the need to help those who have suffered, that drives Butler to work long hours, fight battles with corporate opponents and spend as much as $1.6 million in expenses on a case—expenses that are not recovered unless he wins. It’s also why he established the Butler Scholarship.

“After 29 years, I still get a huge charge out of helping people,” Butler says.

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Click on image to enlarge

Jim Butler (ABJ ’72, JD ’77) in the Hatton Lovejoy Courtroom at UGA's School of Law, where his court career began with moot court competitions. Butler was the first UGA law student to win both first- and second-year moot court competitions; he also won the Southern competition and was a member of the national team. Photo by Robert Newcomb.

left to right) Jessica Lawrence, Kelly Culpepper, Chase Samples and Jessica Rentz are the current recipients of the James E. Butler Scholarship, which provides full tuition for three years for students interested in public interest law. Photo by Nancy Evelyn.

The Butler Scholarship will ensure that there will be future generations of Jim Butlers, according to Rebecca White, dean and J. Alton Hosch Professor at UGA's school of law. ”That's what our legal system needs—to have people, like Jim, with that passion, that courage, that commitment, who will go out there and represent the individual." Photo by Nancy Evelyn.