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Sunday Interview with Neal Pope: 'I'm an officer of the court but I'm also an advocate'

Neal Pope is a product of his upbringing. Raised in a working-class family in Montgomery, Ala., Pope has become a highly successful trial attorney, holding large corporations accountable.

He works out of offices in Columbus and Atlanta and lives on the Alabama backwaters in Lee County.

He survived a heart transplant in 1993 and quadruple bypass surgery in 2004. He was won multi-million dollar verdicts on the civil side and defended those facing the Alabama electric chair.

At 77, he is still working 60 hour weeks doing a job that has shaped his life experiences.

"My job's been my life, and so when we talk about my life, we're talking about my job, really," Pope said. "This is the only job I've ever had -- other than the Marine Corps. I started working when I was 12 and worked constantly until I went into the Marine Corps, even when I was in college. My folks didn't have any money. I had to work."

Recently, Pope sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to talk about his career and life. Here are edited excerpts of that interview.

One thing, I'm going to play court reporter on you a little bit. Can you speak up?

Sure. You tell me if I'm trailing off.

Yeah, you've got a very soft voice.

I'm being soft because I don't want you to feel like I'm shouting at you.

You can shout at me.

I can do whatever I need to do with my voice. It's how I make my living.

What does being a lawyer mean to you?

I'll give it to you through the eyes of my career as opposed to outside looking in. There's two different things. To me, being a trial lawyer is to approach people and approach the courts as you approach life. Mine has a patina of the Marine Corps on it. I was trained as a Marine officer. I think it is the most special training -- leadership training -- in the world. I'm talking about on site, in school, Quantico training. I brought that with me into the practice of law and not as an intentional thing but just as part of my personality.

The Marine Corps taught me to use that tenacity with the desire to accomplish the mission. Let's face it, a Marine has only one purpose, and that's to kill somebody. Now, I never fortunately had to kill anybody or get killed, but in order to do that, one has to have a certain mental status -- and they have it at Fort Benning and it's not unique to the Marine Corps -- but what other purpose is a warrior for other than to kill? ... You go into the practice of law, it's the substitute in our society for combat. People used to settle their differences with their right hand. That's why people salute. Did you know that?

I did not.

Because that was the weapon hand and so when two knights would pass each other, in order to show that he didn't have to draw his sword because the other guy had his drawn, they both salute so the right hand was free. The practice of trial work as opposed to estate planning or corporate law is a substitute for dueling in the streets.

People get very passionate about their cases, whether it's about being charged with a criminal offense -- and I'm familiar with that; I tried 250 of those and got verdicts in 206; it's criminal work -- or whether you're working in the civil area, you represent a client and you are his surrogate. ... I believe in advocacy. I believe in many of the things that you believe in as a journalist.

We found out when they freed up the documents in Russia that Castro was in the possession of tactical nuclear weapons. Now, all the public knew about were these big ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) because you could photograph them but you can't photograph the smaller weapons, but a tactical nuclear attack on our fleet could have wiped out the entire fleet.

As I stood on the deck of the ship in 1962, with Cuba on the horizon, as far as I could see in all directions were amphibs, that is troop ships -- not the carriers and the cruisers and destroyers but troop ships. I mean, it was horizon to horizon. That's 25 miles. That entire flotilla could have been wiped out but for one thing. The documentation out of the Soviet Union confirmed that Castro wanted to use those tactical nukes but Russia had insisted that they remain under their tactical control and they would not agree to release them.

I say all that to say this: That your life is a series of passes with fortune. In 1982 I was contacted by a lady, by a lawyer in Montgomery, and her brother had his throat cut by a man on the street over there who had just been released from the state mental hospital. I brought a wrongful death suit -- you couldn't sue the state because it's immune -- but I sued all the people who were responsible for releasing that man and tried the case in Montgomery. It got a lot of attention. The result was a $25 million verdict, which was unheard of.

If you look at a new newspaper at the time called USA Today, it was a big black banner headline. I say that to say this: That launched my career -- the headline from that, the attention that got. Shortly after that I got a $5.5 million verdict here in Columbus against the Eli Lilly company involving the death of a lady here. You ask me, and I've rambled, but you asked me about my view of the practice of law. I have been around long enough to know that the criminal law does not keep our society cohesive.

Does civil law?

Civil law does. It does the work that the criminal law cannot do for lack of resources -- lack of a lot of things. I told juries, for almost 50 years, I'm suing this corporation. I think the corporation's great. The corporations are like children. If they have no discipline, if they have no school master, if they have no outside boundaries formed by forces that force them to do correctly, they go amok. The reason for it, corporations exist for one purpose and one purpose only: That's to make money. And it doesn't have a conscience. The conscience comes because if they step too far out of line, the criminal law steps in. You've got to be way out of line to get the criminal law activated. The criminal law also has no profit motive. On the other hand, on the civil side, there is a profit motive.

Corporations understand $25 million verdicts, right?

They certainly do. They don't understand why they're not allowed to operate without those verdicts.

You had some mortgage backed security cases. Did you see the 2008 economic crash coming?

Yes.

I was in mediation over in Macon and I called Lynn Sexton. I said, "Lynn, sell every stock I've got."

How far in advance of the crash was that?

It was in the summertime. I think it was in July.

What did you see in a mediation that led you to believe..

Nothing in the mediation. It's just in the mediation you have a lot of time to sit around and think because you're not working all the time. You could tell the mediator something, they go and it may be two hours before they come back, and I'm sitting there and I'm thinking, "Something's bad wrong." When people can get money and have no ability to pay it back and you bundle all that, I just -- it was more gut than anything.

Lynn called me up after the crash and he said I was his smartest client. Now, I won't tell you I'm a good investor -- I'm not, I'm the world's worst. I just had the nose for that situation.

As somebody who challenges corporate America, you see things before others. You're kind of the canary in the mine, right?

I don't know that I'm very good at that, but I'm probably a weak canary, yeah.

Can you give me an example of the work you're most proud of where you have taken corporations to task?

I have to be very careful of this answer because it's very privileged but I don't just sue corporations, I represent them. I represented Popeye's and still do. I represented Synovus in a very big case. I have represented corporations because I know that sometimes the best thing, the best perspective you can get on chickens is talk to the fox. ... I found that I bring a different perspective because I approach it when I talk with them and I've talked to them right here in this very room. "If I were in the position of the lawyer suing you, this is what I would do." "If I did this, this would be the result to you."

You probably have their attention by that time.

Yeah, because they don't come to see me because there's no ripples on the water. There's storm clouds and waves coming in. When they do that, I try to tell them, "Listen, you cannot get out of a hurricane without getting wet. You just can't. Now, you want to come out dry as a bone, but if you're on board a ship or a boat when the winds blow and the waves come in, the question is, 'How wet?' Are you going to get wet for good? Are you going to come out of there and be able to put on some dry clothes and go on about your business?" From that perspective, I don't view myself as just a suer of corporations. I'm an advocate. I can advocate anything. I will advocate to you that global warming's a lie. Now, I don't have to believe it, but I advocate it. It's not my purpose to believe it. It's my purpose to make the case for the client and if the client wants to make that case, now I might choose not to do that.

I've represented any number of people that were guilty as hell, that had committed murder and I knew they were guilty. Very few of them ever confessed to me, "Oh, Mr. Pope, I didn't do that." There was no logical conclusion that you could reach other than that they were guilty based on the facts. I've sat in that courtroom waiting for a jury to come back to say whether or not my client got fried in the electric chair. I'll tell you, 1960s and early '70s, in Alabama, they would cook you. They'd do it in a hurry. It was not 10 years or 15 years of waiting. I mean, you got that verdict and very shortly, you were down there getting the juice. It was pretty scary to represent those people because I didn't really necessarily oppose capital punishment. I can debate that. I read Clarence Darrow's autobiography when I was 14 years old -- probably the reason I'm a lawyer. I also don't like having somebody put their life in my hands and then them losing their lives.

That's happened several times?

I've never had anybody electrocuted. I came very close one time. It happened that a friend of mine in Russell County, a small community, was on the jury and after it was over he came back and he said, "Neal, it was 11-to-1 to cook that fellow, but I hung in there until they gave him life in prison."

Is that courtroom sacred space to you?

Sacred in what sense?

Is it sacred in the sense that you have a moral, ethical and legal obligation?

Every lawyer does that.

Some handle it differently than others.

Well, that's probably true. Personally, what I think is this: I'm an officer of the court but I'm also an advocate. When those two things conflict, then I get out of it. That's smart.

I want to go and talk a little bit about Mayor Tomlinson. You hired Mayor Tomlinson to join this firm.

Back in the '90s -- funny story -- I came in from lunch, I had an office in Atlanta then too, and I came back from lunch and there was this skinny little girl sitting there waiting to see a Mr. Pope, and I went up, the receptionist told me she was there to see me. She was a student at Emory, the law school, and so she came in and I played with her a little bit about whether I could give her a job. She was there looking for a clerk's job, not a lawyer's job. We have a little fun with them. That's part of the rite of passage, you know. She came to work with me first as a clerk.

You know her pretty well. How would you describe her?

Teresa is as hard-working a lawyer as I've ever known. I mean that. I've seen her bring law firms to their knees. Literally, five or six lawyers on the other side, plaintiff's lawyers generally can't match defense lawyers with paper. You know, defense lawyers get paid to produce paper. As long as they're producing paper, they're making money and they're not really under the gun. The hardest dollar a defense lawyer makes -- they get paid by the hour -- is that hour that he waits and that jury comes back and stands up and says, "Yes, your honor, we have. We the jury find for the ..." That is when he earns that $150 an hour, or now it's $1,000 an hour or whatever it is. He earns it that time.

Teresa had the tenacity to give it back, she'd take one and give two. She was tough. She was passionate. We didn't always agree on everything. I don't agree with my wife on everything. How I'd describe her: hard-working, passionate about whatever she's about. I have not followed very closely her career in the mayor's office.

What do you think of the job Mayor Tomlinson's done?

You know, Chuck, people do things that I agree with and things that I disagree with. If you want my overall assessment, of course I've known many of the mayors here for years. Columbus, Ga., has progressed. If you don't believe that, just go down on Broadway and walk down that street at night. When I first came here, you had to take a weapon down there to walk from...

Now Teresa's not responsible for that, but I have to believe she has a piece of that. The previous Mayor, Jim Wetherington, I knew him very well. He and his wife and I go back many years. Frank Martin, I can't tell you how close we were.

To comment on what kind of job Teresa's doing, I have to tell you I see energy. I see passion. You asked me if she brings the trial lawyer's mentality to it. Probably. I don't know how you divorce being a trial lawyer from being a mayor. I just don't think you can take it out of us

Changing gears, we measure moments in our lives by history, right?

Let me read you something. This is a letter I wrote my son, Kirk, and I'm not going to let you see it, it's pretty personal, but he was in Quantico going through training and I knew how bad he was feeling because I've been there, and this is 8 July 1992. It says, "Dear Kirk," -- now understand I've had a bad heart attack at this time, taken out about a third of my heart and it's still six or seven months before a transplant -- "Dear Kirk, I'm sorry to be so long in penning a personal note to you. I hope when I need you in the future as you need me now that you will be more thoughtful. There is so much that I want to say to you. One letter can only begin. I do, however, feel the pain of Quantico along with you every day. The memory is so strong that I have the sensation that my class graduated immediately before yours will. Remember that life is made up of three things only: The memory of yesterday, the hope of tomorrow, and the reality of today. To live fully, man must balance the three in a proper and useful proportion. To place one's offerings disproportionally at the peak of any one of those gods is to live one's life out of balance like a ship with a failed rudder. The realities of your todays at OCS will bring about memories and hopes for your ship that will make her a thing of grandeur on the high seas of your life."

Here's a man about to die -- me. My son is getting what I knew would stand him in good stead the rest of his life. He is paying the awful price the Marine Corps requires and that's why they flunk out over half of them. My point is that I picked up on what you said, that we view life from where we are. The reality of the present at the moment of the present. ... My wife handed me this today -- it was unrelated to this -- this morning and said, I'm shredding a bunch of old papers and then I found a copy of this letter to Kirk and he's now getting married so I'm going to write another letter like this to him and I said, "Well, give me that, I'm going to take it in and when I write this new letter, I'm going back to 1992." Your point is right. We tend to write, think and act in the moment. When you're dying as I was, when I wrote that, we had one perspective. When you are healthy and you're 16 years old, you give no thought to death.

My question I wanted to ask ...

... Before you ask your question let me tell you. It's 4 o'clock in the morning; it's pitch black; and this big man comes in my room. He's a nurse and he shaves me down here (pointing to his crotch area) and he says, "Going in for an operation aren't you?" I said, "I am." He says, "Whatcha having done?" I said, "They're going to put a new heart in me." In mid-stroke with that razor he stopped, he raised it up, he said, "For real?" I said, "For real." Then they put you on this gurney and I remember it has a wheel going 'ka-kunk, ka-kunk' and I'm rolling down, going into a room where somebody's going to cut me wide open, cut my heart out, and eight hours later I'm going to have a new heart in and I'm going to come out of it." It came from across the street over here in the Russell County courthouse and I didn't know it. The heart did.

Who was your donor?

He was a fellow who worked for the sheriff's department over there. Been in a car wreck and he was 45 years old and I got his heart. That's how small the world is.

A block from where you worked.

Yeah. The point I'm making is that it changes you. Now, you ask your question. I wanted you to get the feel of being rolled down knowing you're going to die if you don't do it and maybe die if you do do it. That's why I don't get upset when anybody comes at me. Jesus, I've already packed it in one time. Somebody going to do anything worse than that?

I want to ask this in the right way because you set it up so masterfully. Were you reborn or did you get a lease on the old life?

(Long pause) Yeah, I pause now not because it's the first time that question has come at me. I'm trying to think how to respond to it. I realize that in the history of the world, up until February 1993, nobody had lived through what I had just gone through. You talk about rebirth, you're talking about coming back in the room, you hold your hands up, you got pink fingernails. You know what it is to have pink fingernails? When they've been blue for months? Blood is flowing. You can get up and walk across the room and not have to stop halfway to the bathroom trying to breathe. I felt -- and I'm not terribly religious -- but I felt that I think whatever gods there be that I was able to view life different from all the millions of people that had come before me because you realize I'm 77.

If you took all the people ever born in the world, most of them never got past 35 or 40. The reason for it, they either got eaten by the saber tooth tiger trying to go out and get a meal, or they killed each other in tribal squabbles, or they contracted diseases for which we had no cure. ... Here I am in 1993 given a choice. I had six weeks to live. I came out of that operation and I remember having a conversation with my surgeon, Dr. (Kirk) Kanter. I said, "Doctor, what should I do now?" He said, "What were you doing before?" I said, "I was trying lawsuits." He said, "Well, go back to doing that." I said, "You mean I'm going to be able to do that again?"

He said, "Well, sure you're going to be able to do it. Do you know the people that die, that I put hearts in, are the people that sit on the porch and wait for the mailman to bring them their disability check? Those are the ones that check out. The ones that get out of bed, and go at it again just as hard as they did before or harder are going to be a better patient for me and are going to serve themselves well because they'll live longer."

I said, "Huh, do you think I'll be able to do that, because I'm very fragile at this point?" He said, "Look, I had a patient running in the Boston Marathon this year with a heart transplant." I said, "Well, that's a pretty good challenge there." You asked the question, did I feel like I was born again or living my old life? I gave you the example, my doctor said go back to your old life, but I felt that I had to do it differently because I was born again. I had not answered the question yet "Why me, Lord?" Or was it ...

Do you ask yourself?

I ask it all the time. What do you do for yourself? I mean, what am I here for? What is your purpose?

You're highly successful. You probably have made more money than you can spend in the rest of your lifetime. Why are you still working? Why aren't you on the Gulf fishing? Why aren't you doing a number of things? Why are you still working 60 hour weeks practicing law?

No. 1, I wouldn't know how not to work. I told you I started throwing papers. That means I went to school, you got out of school, the other kids are playing football or going to parties, or doing whatever they're doing. I'm riding my bicycle with a load of papers. ...

You could, if you wanted to, go fishing and just walk away from it ...

First of all, I haven't fished since I was a kid and all I've got to do is walk out my door and...

Play golf or do whatever it is that people that give up work do.

I'll tell you what, Chuck, I'd never be a gambler. When I go to Las Vegas, it's no thrill for me. Nobody gambles any bigger money than I do. I'd left -- and I shouldn't tell you this -- I once left $35 million on the table. There were some lawyers in Birmingham that won't even speak to me. You can do the math on what their fees would have been out of that, and they were associated with me, but the bulk of that money was coming to the lawyers and not the class. ... I just told the defense lawyers, I said, "I'm not doing it. I don't care how much money you pay me." Sure enough, we went up to the Seventh Circuit and they killed our lawsuit. Once they killed our lawsuit there was no settlement to be done. That's only happened to me one time but it was painful and it was brutal and it was since my heart transplant.

The point of all that is, I do it because, first of all, I can't go out there and feed all these hungry people. I don't make money to do that with, but I'll tell you what, I can take the hurt people that see me or the people that need representation. I can put money back in the government's coffers so they can waste it on something else. I get a perverse pleasure out of that, but I also feel like I'm doing some good. Before my transplant we went, well after the transplant, we went out to Las Vegas. I took the whole firm out there. I said, "From here on out, the motto of this firm's going to be to do good and make money."

Can you do both of those simultaneously?

A few years ago I did the same thing. I said, "That's been the motto, we're going to change it." They said, "What?" I said, "It's going to be to make money and do good." If you don't make money, you can't do good. That's how we do do good.

You not only had a heart transplant, you also had bypass surgery after that, right?

Let me give you a quick thing. I settled a lawsuit in August 1991 that was a big lawsuit. It was out in Salt Lake City. It was involving the drug Halcion.

The sleeping pill?

Yeah. If you go in the hall out there you'll see on the cover of Newsweek that case that settled.

This was when?

This was in August of 1991.

Was this the psychotic episodes with it?

Yes.

On Monday, that Newsweek thing came out and I was on the cover of Newsweek Actually, it was a picture of the Halcion file and all that, but on the inside was the whole story, yeah. Anyway, I had the cover of Newsweek. Wednesday of that week I'm out at St. Francis with tubes in every orifice fighting for my life. That shows you how you can come from up here to down here in three days. On Monday, I thought I was the biggest thing in the universe. You know what I thought about me on Wednesday, lying up there struggling for breath? I thought, "You're just a piece of clay. There's nothing special about you. You're just one heartbeat away from being nothing." It puts in perspective what we all are, and I tell my people all the time, "The worst enemy of a trial lawyer is a thing called ego." I despise it. I do my best to stomp it out in my lawyers. The second thing is that none of us are as great as we think we are. We're sure as hell not as great as others think we are. We are what we are for the moment, and so as I said in my letter to my son, we view life in terms of memories of the past, hopes for the future and the realities of the present. The reality is you better do what you're going to do that you can be proud of today because tomorrow you may be in that St. Francis with all those tubes in you and not be able to do anything.

Or at Emory Hospital?

That's right. They took me to Emory. They took out about a third of my left ventricle which left me with this little pumping thing and that heart began to fail. I had to have a transplant in '93, in February of '93, and I came out of that, went back to work and in '04, as you mentioned, I had to have a four-artery bypass on that. I was the eighth one to have had that done in the world on a transplanted heart. But fortunately, my surgeon (Dr. David Vega) had done one of those with Dr. (Michael) DeBakey in Houston, and he said, "Piece of cake. Don't worry about it. Been there, done that. We'll take care of it." I've been ripped open three times. All good again because Clarence Darrow in that autobiography I was telling you about -- you ought to read that, it's pretty amazing -- said, "You know with my last breath, I'll probably struggle to take another one." He said, "You know after a long life" -- and he was about my age when he wrote this -- he said, "Life is something that I would never again visit on another human being." He had one son.

That was a cynical old man's view of the world. I don't feel that way.

Are you a better lawyer because of what you went through with your heart?

I think I'm a different lawyer. I don't know if I'm any better, because what I do is persuade people to do what I ask them to do. That's what I do. The difference is, now I can say it with more conviction. I don't know if that's because of the heart transplant or whether that's because at 35 you're in one place and at 75 you're in another place.

BIO

Name: Neal Pope

Age: 77

Job: Shareholder in Pope McGlamry, a Columbus personal injury law firm corporation. He has been practicing law in Columbus and Phenix City for 50 years.

Education: Sidney Lanier High School, Montgomery, Ala., 1957; Auburn University, History major, 1961; University of Alabama School of Law, 1966.

Family: Virginia, wife of 40 years. They have four children and five grandchildren.

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