Honoring a Legal Legend, Cook, with the Ben F. Johnson Award
Past and present Georgia Supreme Court justices, a former governor, members of the Defense Bar of Georgia, Georgia State University College of Law alumni, faculty and students, the president of Georgia State, and many others gathered Thursday to recognize and honor the public service of Georgia attorney and legend, Bobby Lee Cook, who received the college’s 2017 Ben F. Johnson Jr. Public Service Award.
Cook, who has been a practicing attorney for 70 years and, the rumored inspiration behind Andy Griffith’s Matlock, was honored with both the award as well as stories and tall-tales Thursday evening.
“In Bobby Lee Cook, we honor a legend…who makes the choice [to help others] time and time again,” said Steven J. Kaminshine, dean and professor of law.
“[Cook] was reputed to have tried over 300 murders, many clients of which couldn’t pay him,” he said. “Public service means a lot of different things, and I’m proud that this award doesn’t try to pigeonhole what public service means.”
Hardy Gregory Jr., a former justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, said, “Franklin D. had it, Winston had it, and Bobby Lee has it: presence. Bobby Lee walks into a room and you feel it.”
Gregory told the first of many humorous stories of the night, one in which Cook represented bootleggers in the 1940s and the process by which Cook determined what his fee was to be. “Tell them a price,” Cook allegedly said, “and if they don’t shudder, add, ‘That’s the retainer.’”
Justice Carol W. Hunstein of the Georgia Supreme Court followed and spoke first of Cook’s family. “He raised a bunch of lawyers, and did it well,” she said. Justice Hunstein added, “He is the complete package, he is considered the super lawyer, and he is a good, loyal friend.”
Former Georgia Gov. Roy E. Barnes, who has been friends with Cook for more than 40 years, spoke about Cook’s philosophy, which is that everyone deserves a lawyer, regardless of whether they can afford it.
“I cannot expound on some of the things Bobby Lee and I have done because the statute of limitations has not expired yet,” Barnes said. “Bobby Lee has taught me more about collecting fees than anyone has taught me about the law.”
Barnes ended with the advice Cook gave him 45 years ago: “You represent your client and you walk into the jaws of Hell to do it.”
Bobby Lee Cook was then presented with the Ben F. Johnson Jr. award by Dean Kaminshine. Cook acknowledged that he knew almost all of the previous recipients. He spoke of his and Barnes relationship over the years, from working a gambling ring case with him to when Barnes was inaugurated as governor. “You’ve come a long way, son,” Cook said he told Barnes.
“I’ve been fortunate to have had such great friends,” Cook added, speaking of all of the introductory speakers. “I am deeply appreciative of this award,” he said.
In closing, Cook said, “As undeserving as I may be, I’ll keep trying to work a little but longer, [because] lawyers have a continuing obligation to serve the public and to do good things.”