July 11, 2023

The Legends tour continued with Bobby Lee Cook


One of America’s most feared and revered trial lawyers lived in Summerville

     (Note: What’s one of the easiest things do? Procrastinate. What’s one of the hardest things to not do? Don’t procrastinate. In 2013, Larry Walker and I quit procrastinating and launched a Legends Tour. All three legendary friends—Bert Lance, Bobby Lee Cook and Zell Miller—are now gone. A decade later, I decided to retrace our North Georgia tour. After Bert Lance, our second stop was with Bobby Lee Cook in Summerville. Been thinking about visiting family or friends?  Here’s some advice: “Don’t procrastinate.” This column was originally published on Aug. 1, 2013. Bobby Lee died on Feb. 19, 2021.)

     If the aluminum foil was crumpled and applied just right to the rabbit ears—pointing toward Savannah—Perry Mason appeared in frosted, black and white shades, courtesy of the CBS affiliate, WTOC. I can still hear the taaaadah-da-tump, taaaadah-da-tump of the theme song that warned us to scramble for a seat in front of our 21-inch Majestic TV. 

     Missing Perry thumping prosecutor Hamilton Burger, week after week, would have been as weird as Mother not putting pot roast, potatoes and carrots on the Sunday lunch table. Perry and pot roast were two staples in our small funeral-home apartment. Those weekly episodes got me hooked on courtroom drama. No wonder kids like me wanted to be a trial attorney. I really toyed with that notion, but that’s another story.

The Cook & Connelly law library has 4,800-plus volumes.  

When Larry Walker asked Bobby Lee Cook if he had read 

all of those books, the famous trial lawyer said, “Most of 

them. But our young lawyers just get their answers 

from computers.”

     In 1986, CBS introduced Ben Matlock. And when Andy Griffith, a.k.a. Matlock, lawyered in his seersucker suit, you could count on Big Dink to be kicked back in his La-Z-Boy and watching the Atlanta lawyer pull tricks out of his briefcase, Perry Mason-style. About that time, I heard the inspiration for the television series lived in Northwest Georgia. I made a note: One day, meet Bobby Lee Cook.

     Calendars get crowded, but on July 12, I was able to check that to-do off my list. Larry Walker and I embarked on our Legends Tour, visiting one-time DOT commissioner Bert Lance, former Gov. Zell Miller and First Lady Shirley Miller, with a stop in Summerville sandwiched between. Larry, a Houston County attorney, had collaborated with Bobby Lee before, so he set up our appointment.

     We arrived at 9899 Commerce Street 15 minutes early and walked through a wrought-iron gate, into a garden, leading to the front door of Cook & Connelly. Bobby Lee was waiting, in his seersucker suit. His office is not typical of what you’d find behind a small-town lawyer’s shingle.  Bobby Lee was gracious as he allowed us—mostly me—to walk around gawking at the high, arched ceilings, the art, the fireplace in his office and the books—thousands of books.

     Eventually, we settled into the firm’s library. Bobby Lee stroked his goatee as we absorbed the setting. The dome of the round room was about 20 feet from the carpeted floor. Over the circular conference table hung an eclectic chandelier with round light bulbs. An oak ladder with wheels could be used to access the 16-high shelves that wrapped around the room. I did the math—4,800 books, minimum. Larry asked, “Bobby Lee, have you read them all?” Our host chuckled, “Most of them. But our young lawyers just get their answers from computers.”

     For the next 75 minutes, the 86-year-old entertained us with his globetrotting courtroom jousts from Vietnam to Germany. He’s won cases in 40 states and numerous foreign countries.  Like Perry Mason and Ben Matlock, Bobby Lee is famous for surprise tactics that more often than not let his clients walk free. If you called the roll of America’s most feared and revered trial lawyers, the senior partner in Cook & Connelly would probably be on the list.

     Earning that reputation did not come easily for the most famous citizen among Summerville’s 4,500 residents. Bobby Lee has scrapped, one case at a time, winning over 90 percent of 300-plus murder trials. The Rockefellers and Carnegies were his clients, too, when they clashed with the federal government over Cumberland Island holdings. Guess who won.

     Fame and fortune rewarded Bobby Lee with a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce to take him to his Sea Island home, but he’s just as apt to take on a pro bono case to slug out his client’s right to a fair trial. (Google Bobby Lee Cook, and read Mark Curriden’s “If you can railroad a bad man to prison, you can railroad a good man.” It’s in the American Bar Association Journal.)

     Before Larry and I departed for Young Harris to visit with the Millers, I had to ask, “I’ve always heard that the Matlock series was patterned after you. Is that right?” With gold, wire-rimmed reading glasses perched on the tip of his nose, Bobby Lee closed his eyes and fingered the whiskers on his chin. He waited a minute and then leaned forward, so that I could see the mischief dance in his robin-egg-blue eyes. With a devilish smile, the legendary lawyer said, “Well, they did use a lot of my cases.”