James Donald Cowan, Jr.
November 14, 1943 - April 1, 2019
Don Cowan, a nationally-known North Carolina trial lawyer who reached the highest levels of his profession representing Fortune 500 companies and criminal defendants charged with capital crimes, died on Monday in Raleigh. The cause was complications from a severe stroke he suffered eight years earlier. He was 75.
Don's legal career spanned 43 years, from the jungles of Vietnam, where he served in the U.S. Army Office of Staff Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps, to state and federal courtrooms across the United States. He was a highly sought-after lawyer, not only for his expertise across diverse areas of litigation, but also for his ability to master complex concepts of antitrust, intellectual property, and criminal law, and explain them to juries as if they were simple, straightforward, and intuitive ideas. In addition to his trial work, Don was an Adjunct Professor of Trial Practice at Duke University School of Law, and regularly taught seminars on trial practice and evidence to trial judges and lawyers. He served multiple terms on the Wake Forest University Board of Trustees and as president of the Wake Forest Law Alumni Association.
With a client list which read like a Who's Who of North Carolina business, politics, and education, Don was known for his limitless work capacity. He was also perhaps the only lawyer or judge in the state to read every decision handed down by the North Carolina Supreme Court and Court of Appeals during his career. For his law practice, no case was too complex or too challenging for Don to take on. His former law partner, Doug Ey, theorized it this way: "Don long ago saw the scariest thing he will ever see: After jumping out of helicopters at night over the Mekong Delta with the 82nd Airborne, there is no judge, jury, or case that will ever intimidate him."
Winning prestigious civil cases may have been what built Don's legal career and reputation, but it was his work on criminal cases where he paid it back. In 1987, a Superior Court judge asked Don to represent a Martin County man accused of first-degree murder. For the next 19 years, Don spent thousands of hours knocking on doors, interviewing long-forgotten witnesses, and handling the capital murder trial and appeals. Don's final legal challenge to his client's death sentence revealed flaws in the state's lethal injection drug cocktail which led to unusually painful and cruel deaths, and was the subject of a New York Times article on death penalty challenges across the country. At the conclusion of nearly two decades of complex legal work on the case, all without taking a fee, Don told a reporter, "There are a lot of lawyers who have done this more than I have. Nothing I did was unusual."
He might not have viewed himself that way, but his colleagues did. Throughout his career, Don became known as a standard for respect and collegiality. Whether they were on the same or different sides of a case, trial lawyers used Don's example as the right way to practice law in an often-contentious profession among adversaries with the livelihoods of their businesses, or themselves, at stake. Don passed his fundamentals of professionalism on to a generation of lawyers who followed him.
Suzanne Reynolds, who worked with Don early in her career, and later served as Dean of the Wake Forest University School of Law, was one of those lawyers. "One of the greatest blessings of my professional life has been having Don Cowan as a mentor," Reynolds said. "Don's heart, however, surpasses his analytical prowess. He always saved time to champion issues that favored people whom the law had forgotten or excluded. I am a better lawyer and person because of Don Cowan."
Don was known for never asking one of his associates to do something he wasn't willing to do himself. He once walked into a young lawyer's office with two files under his arm. "Pick one," he said. When the lawyer did, Don told him, "We're walking to the courthouse to pick two juries. You take that one, and I'll take this one." When the trials were over, the young lawyer asked Don why he didn't keep the better case for himself. "I don't give away losers," he said.
Don was a Fellow, Regent, and Secretary of the American College of Trial Lawyers, and a former member of the American Bar Association House of Delegates. He was a past president of the North Carolina Bar Association, and Legal Services of North Carolina (now Legal Aid of North Carolina). During the course of his career, Don was consistently recognized as one of the top trial lawyers in the state, as well as the nation. In 2009, the North Carolina Bar Association selected Don as the second recipient of the Advocate's Award, which was created to recognize lawyers with the highest degree of legal skill, ethical standards, and service to the legal community. Five years later, Don received the John J. Parker award, the highest honor given by the North Carolina Bar Association.
James Donald Cowan, Jr., was born in Raleigh on Nov. 14, 1943. Don's father worked for the North Carolina Department of Labor. His mother, as Don described her, provided the perfect nurturing balance to his father's discipline. Don attended Broughton High School, where he met his future wife, Sarah Langston. He graduated from Wake Forest University in 1965, and received his law degree from Wake Forest University School of Law in 1968, where he was Editor-in-Chief of the Law Review.
Don began his legal career in the U.S. Army JAG Corps, serving as a Captain in the 1st Infantry Division (the "Big Red One") in Lai Khe, Republic of South Vietnam, and the 1st Armored Division in Nuremberg, Germany. A military and legal colleague noted that Don's military service and the honors he received, but never discussed, "speak directly to the quiet strength and courage of this man."
After returning to North Carolina, Don began practicing civil litigation in 1973 with what was then Smith, Moore, Smith, Schell & Hunter. He remained with the Smith, Moore Law Firm for more than three decades until 2008, when he joined the Law Firm of Ellis & Winters, where he practiced until he suffered a disabling stroke on May 28, 2011, just two weeks after he made what would be his final argument before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
Perhaps the only things that slowed Don down during his career were his family and his love of music. He was a constant (and vocal) presence on the sidelines at his children's soccer games through high school, first as a coach and then as an encouraging father. At an early age, he introduced them to the music of Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and perhaps his favorite band, The Eagles, whose country-tinged philosophical anthem "Take It Easy" became part of the soundtrack of their early lives. Don's children in turn gave him the Police, Van Halen, and Guns 'n Roses, much to the surprise of young lawyers in his firm who may have ridden with Don to depositions at any point in the late 1980's or '90's, hoping to discuss the finer points of their research on the economic loss rule, or the completed and accepted doctrine, only to be serenaded by W. Axl Rose welcoming them to the jungle.
Don's career continued at a breakneck pace until Dec. 5, 2006, and the birth of his first grandchild. The trials, appeals, and seminars didn't stop, but their pace slowed, and were scheduled around trips to Potomac, Maryland, and New York City to visit his three grandchildren. They saw "Poppy", as he was known to them, as the loving, silly grandfather who always made them laugh, and never tired of singing the Lion King's "Hakuna Matata" at the top of his lungs, again and again. But in those moments, Don's family saw yet another side of the man they had known their whole lives. Perhaps it was there all along, but now they could see Don's spirit in the lyrics he sang with his grandchildren: "It means no worries for the rest of your days."
Throughout his journey from the halls of Broughton High School to Wake Forest University, Germany, and back to North Carolina, Don's wife and life-partner, Sarah, was his constant companion, as well as his source of energy and inspiration. She was a sounding board and voice of reason throughout his legal career, and devoted caretaker when Don could no longer care for himself. She made his life richer and more complete than any one man could ever dream. For Don, she was the "girl my lord in a flatbed Ford slowing down to take a look at me."
Don is survived by his wife, Sarah Langston Cowan, his children and their spouses, Coleman Cowan (Angela Abernethy Cowan) and Duren Cowan Banks (Brett Banks), his three grandchildren, Caitlin James Banks, John Mason Banks, and Julian Hayes Cowan, and his sister, Rebecca Edwards.
Visitation will be held Friday, April 12th from 6 to 8 p.m. at 3617 Alamance Dr. in Raleigh.
A memorial service will be held the following day, Saturday, April 13th at 11 a.m. at Christ Church, 120 E. Edenton St. in Raleigh.
The family suggests memorials to Legal Aid of North Carolina, P.O. Box. 28741, Raleigh, NC 27611.
Published in The News and Observer on Apr. 7, 2019.