Faculty Lives in Public Service: Jim Coleman shares his stories

Main Content

Jim ColemanJoking that for a time early in his career his frequent moves made it seem that he couldn’t hold a job, Jim Coleman said they were motivated by his pursuit of interesting public service work.

“That’s been my approach to my career–to find ways to use my skills as a lawyer to make a difference.”

In the 30 years since his graduation from Columbia Law School, Coleman has done just that, whether it has been helping establish the federal Department of Education, fighting for the right of convicted killer Ted Bundy to be treated fairly by the legal system, or for a moratorium on executions in North Carolina.

Duke Law School’s senior associate dean for academic affairs shared anecdotes, advice, and his influences with students during the semester’s first Faculty Lives in Public Service event on Sept. 13. The series is designed to give students an idea of how lawyers can contribute to public interest.

In the mid-1960s, during his senior year of high school in still-segregated Charlotte, NC, Coleman worked for prominent civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers, who was then beginning practice. Coleman described it as a pivotal experience.

“Some people in Charlotte were afraid of [Chambers], and I saw that he had the power and visibility to go into court and challenge things that were wrong in Charlotte and other places,” recalled Coleman. “I thought ‘that’s the kind of job I want’ - to use something like law to try to change things.”

Coleman deviated from that plan for a few years, having discovered an interest in teaching when he worked with troubled students through a pro bono undergraduate project at Columbia; he stayed on as faculty at the Charles River Academy in Cambridge for a year after graduating. When the Vietnam draft seemed imminent, however, Coleman chose to enter Columbia Law School as a member of the Judge Advocate General Corps; by the time he finished, the Navy had a surplus of lawyers and he was granted a discharge.

While in law school, Coleman worked full-time for the National Employment Law Project on employment discrimination cases, and credits the job with helping “develop me into a lawyer,” giving him such experiences as writing a section of a U.S. Supreme Court brief in his second year.

Judge Damon Keith, then of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, for whom Coleman clerked after law school, gave him a model of integrity in the profession and on the bench. At one point, Judge Keith was asked to consider a late motion by a young lawyer to suppress evidence that had been wrongfully seized by police–after the lawyer had clearly missed the right opportunity to raise the issue. Discussing the motion in chambers, Judge Keith said he would grant it, because it was valid, and because he didn’t want to ruin the lawyer’s career.

“I thought that’s a great thing for a federal judge to do,” said Coleman. “It’s not only that this was a very powerful person, but also a person who cared about the individuals–not just the parties but the lawyers. And so I wanted to be a lawyer who acted with the same kind of integrity I saw in Judge Keith’s chambers.”

A partner in the New York offices of Kaye Scholer, where Coleman spent a year, also proved influential when he suggested approaching law and litigation as a puzzle.

“That got me focused on looking at law as useful for solving all kinds of problems. I didn’t want to do just one kind of problem, but worked on anything that was interesting.”

Although he maintains that he has always seen himself as a civil rights lawyer, Coleman focused on natural gas regulatory work at Wilmer Cutler in Washington D.C., where he spent 15 years, 12 as partner. He made frequent forays into public service over that time, even deferring his start at the firm to oversee the investigation of two members of Congress as chief counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. He took another extended leave from the firm, before making partner, when he was invited to help establish the Department of Education during the Carter administration. And throughout his time in private practice he took on work in pro bono and public interest issues, including Ted Bundy’s capital punishment case.

It was his work on cases such as Bundy’s, which went through five levels of judicial review–including two evidentiary hearings–in just seven days, that got Coleman concerned about the way courts were handling capital cases in general. “They were going through the courts too quickly for judges to be carefully considering them.” He is involved in the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project, which seeks an end to executions across the country, and also serves on the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission, which works to eliminate judicial errors that lead to wrongful convictions. Coleman also tries to secure exonerations through his work with the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence and the Innocence Project at Duke Law School.

Coleman claims he was “drafted” into helping establish the Duke Innocence Project, but now wishes he had volunteered.

“I can’t imagine anything more depressing or dehumanizing than being imprisoned for a crime you know you didn’t commit. So I think the work we’re doing on the Innocence Project is among the most important work I have ever done as a lawyer,” he said.

Responding to a student’s question, Coleman said that its difficult to find a large firm that would encourage a career like his, with its focus on public service, given the current emphasis on billing. He advised students to look for firms that support pro bono work as part of their culture.

“To find out if a firm is really committed to it, see what their ‘stars’ are doing. If they do pro bono, the firm supports it.”