Coleman Cowan: To Live. Not Exist.
After 10 years of practicing law, Coleman Cowan had had enough. He turned his back on a successful career as a trial lawyer filled with favorable jury verdicts, settlements, and awards, to do something different. Exactly what? He didn’t know. Just not this.
The decision was a slow burn from a fateful night a few years earlier in Durham. Cowan and another attorney chatted in a medical office parking lot about a deposition they had just completed. A teenager on a bicycle pedaled up to them and opened fire with a handgun. One bullet shattered Cowan’s left wrist. Several more potentially fatal shots missed him. The other lawyer was also shot and recovered from his wounds.
“That shooting made me think a lot about my own mortality and what was important to me, and what I wanted to experience. I realized in my life and my career, I was just existing, not really living,” said Cowan.
Living Rock and Roll Dream
Living the rock and roll dream was what Cowan aspired to as he was growing up in Greensboro, NC. He envisioned a future writing and performing music, just like the heroes of his youth.
“My dad brought me up on the music of Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and the Eagles. That led me to the soundtrack of my youth, Van Halen, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tool, and Alice in Chains,” recalled Cowan. “Eddie Van Halen was the reason that I – and countless other teenagers – picked up the guitar.”
Cowan played guitar in various bands at house parties, frat parties, and in a couple of battles of the bands. He entered UNC-Chapel Hill as a music major in 1988, but then reached the first of several pivotal moments in his life. “My guitar advisor said, ‘If you want to be successful at this, you must focus on it to the exclusion of everything else.’ At 19, I very much wanted that glory. But I wasn’t willing to shut out everything I hadn’t explored in college and the world,” recalled Cowan.
Cowan was the son of venerable Greensboro attorney Don Cowan, whose civil litigation practice ranged from Fortune 500 clients to death penalty pro bono work.
“He was very respected both inside and outside the legal community and held up as the hallmark of professionalism and how to practice law the right way,” recalled Cowan. “It wasn’t easy to grow up in his shadow.
“For the better part of my first 22 years of life, the last thing I wanted to do was be a lawyer, wear a suit and tie, and work in an office,” he continued. “It wasn’t until I understood a bit more about what [my father] did as a lawyer, the people he helped, the cases he worked on, and how he was viewed in the community, that I had a better understanding of what it really meant to be a lawyer.”
That realization took Cowan from UNC to Wake Forest School of Law and to a clerkship for Judge N. Carlton Tilley, Jr. in the Middle District of North Carolina.
I realized in my life and my career, I was just existing, not really living.
Tomorrow Might Not Come
At the time Cowan was shot in the Durham parking lot, he was an insurance defense attorney on the prestigious R.J. Reynolds legal team.
As he recovered, he had an epiphany. “The cliché, ‘Enjoy life today, because tomorrow might not come,’ suddenly had real meaning for me. It became very important to live my life to the fullest.”
Cowan decided that he didn’t have enough adventure in his life as a trial lawyer. He knew it wasn’t going to come in the courtroom, so he took a bold step leaving his law practice, and a leap of faith into a new career.
“I wanted to feel more connected to the world around me, and what better way to become attached to world events than to become a journalist.” He wanted to be Tom Wolfe. He wanted to write for “Rolling Stone” – a Rock ‘n Roll dream of a different sort.
“I didn’t want to be 10, 20, 30 years down the road at the end of my career and looking back with regret about not making a decision out of fear of the unknown.”
How did he conquer that fear? “As Hunter Thompson used to say, ‘Buy the ticket, take the ride,’” Cowan answered. Journalism became Cowan’s ticket. A dream job became his ride.
Journalism took Cowan from BusinessWeek Magazine in Atlanta to Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York. When CBS’s “60 Minutes” picked up his master’s project, Cowan suddenly found himself at the pinnacle of broadcast journalism, producing stories for Steve Kroft, Scott Pelley, Lesley Stahl, Bob Simon and Anderson Cooper.
“One of the first things I learned at ‘60 Minutes’ is that good stories are about people. Every good story has a hero you are cheering for and hoping he or she can overcome all the challenges put in their way,” said Cowan.
Oh, and about that adventure Cowan was looking for…? It practically became a job requirement.
“I look back on some of the situations I found myself in and feel fortunate that I made it out intact and unharmed. I very much lived in the moment, experiencing each story I reported. But sometimes I would look back and think about all the danger I was in – imbedding with a bomb squad in Afghanistan, following street gangs on the south side of Chicago, or caught up in a riot on the streets of Moscow led by [anti-Putin dissident] Alexei Navalny.”
Cowan said he thinks often about Navalny, who is now serving a 19-year jail term in Russia. “Alexei Navalny was an ordinary person who had a unique passion for exposing corruption, no matter the risks or dangers he faced. He was willing to risk his life for what he believed in. That made me think about the things that give my life meaning and purpose. For me, that’s my family and my work.”
Cowan won Emmy, Gracie, Murrow, Peabody, and Polk awards for broadcast journalism during his ten years at “60 Minutes.”
“I was lucky to learn a lot of important lessons from people I met at ‘60 Minutes,’” said Cowan. He carries many with him, but two are predominant in his life today. “Steve Kroft taught me to always be prepared – and how to tell a good story. [Guns N’ Roses bass player] Duff McKagan taught me the importance of staying curious and never stop learning.”
I Want to Tell Stories
Cowan and his wife, Angie, moved from NYC, where they were working, back to NC to be near family a few years after their son, Julian, was born.
A good friend and former law partner, Hoyt Tessener, convinced Cowan to return to his trial practice. In 2018, Cowan joined Tessener at the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin, representing individual victims and their families following a catastrophic injury or a wrongful death. Four years later, Tessener tapped Cowan to replace him as head of the firm’s litigation department.
In many ways, Cowan discovered his careers in journalism and the law had become mirror images of each other.
“Just like a ‘60 Minutes’ story, I want the stories I tell to juries to have an impact and to inspire action – to right a wrong. It’s a simple concept, but one that’s difficult to master,” explained Cowan.
“I prepare a case for trial the same way I thought about the stories I produced at ‘60 Minutes’ – which means focusing on my client’s story at the heart of the case. What makes it interesting? What challenges has he or she faced? And most importantly, what makes you want to see a good outcome for them? Being able to tell a good story – an interesting story – is the cornerstone of being an effective trial lawyer.”
Cowan also found that some of the skills developed as a journalist cross-walked to the practice of law.
“I’m still trying to get to what I call ‘Steve Kroft efficiency.’ Steve could nail an interview in 30 minutes. I’ve gotten away from scorched earth depositions where I’m gonna ask you every single question I can possibly think of. My goal is to focus on the information I need and leave it there. I’m better now. But I’m not yet ‘Steve Kroft efficient.’”
Cowan said NC’s courtrooms are not as far away from the mean streets as you might think. Like the stories he reported and produced at “60 Minutes,” the outcome of most of his cases will change someone’s life. But as high as the stakes get, he reminds himself of a simple, but basic tenet of his journey: “I’ve walked into many stressful situations, whether a deposition, a hearing, or a trial. (I think] I’m not gonna die today, so I’ll probably be OK.”
But even with that contrast from his former career, Cowan says he still gets nervous walking into a courtroom to start a jury trial. “That tells me that what I’m doing is still important. I’d be more concerned if I ever walk into a trial, and I’m not a little nervous.”
A Good Role Model
Cowan’s wife, Angie, was pregnant when he was producing stories for “60 Minutes” in Afghanistan and Norway. In Norway, Cowan lived in a farmhouse for two weeks with a death-defying adventurer from South Africa named Julian Boulle. “Julian proved to be incredibly knowledgeable, not only about the techniques and mechanics of wingsuit flying but also some of the greater existential aspects of living so close to death,” recounted Cowan. “Julian’s adventures had given him a very fulfilling life. He taught me to not be afraid of risk, that true happiness can only be found when you are not held back by fear.”
The two men forged a lifelong friendship that became the inspiration for Angie and Coleman to name their son, Julian.
“I hope to be a good role model and equip Julian with the skills he needs to make good decisions. More than just right and wrong, my parents taught me how to make good decisions. Knowing they had done that, they were comfortable in the decisions I made, whether it was to become a musician, a lawyer, or a journalist,” recalled Cowan.
Today, Julian Cowan might just be picking up where his dad’s rock ‘n roll dream left off. At 13, Cowan says Julian is already an accomplished and talented musician. “We’re spending a lot of time recording and editing music he is composing and performing. It’s fascinating to watch his mind sort through the creative process, developing a riff and then writing and performing music around it. Angie and I often go to bed at night to a lullaby of heavily distorted guitars coming from Julian’s studio. And neither of us could be happier.”
Tomorrow Might Never Come: The Sequel
Cowan’s lust for adventure has also pushed him to test the outer edges of his physical capabilities. He has competed in dozens of triathlons, marathons and ultramarathons, including Boston, The North Face Endurance Challenge Series 50-mile race, Badwater Cape Fear, and multiple Ironman triathlons. “I’m just out there living my life. Swimming. Biking. Running. Doing my best to outrun Father Time,” said Cowan. (Point of order…his adventure began when he first outran Father Time in a Durham parking lot in 1999.)
“In a strange way [the shooting] made me a better person. I can’t really say I’m glad I got shot, but it created a monumental change in my life so much for the better, and I would not be who I am today had that not happened because that set me off on a journey that took me around the world.”
If this were a segment on “60 Minutes,” after our story ended, we would cut back to the correspondent in the studio who would read a tagline something like this:
If you wondered whether, after spending time with Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses and members of Kiss and Metallica while at “60 Minutes,” Cowan ever questioned his decision not to pursue his rock and roll dream….
“Did I ever… Can you imagine writing songs in a garage and years later hearing 60,000 people singing them back to you? There was a moment standing backstage with Metallica before a show, with a baseball stadium full of people going crazy for them, that I wondered… What if? But that thought was quickly followed by the reality that I got lucky in a different way, and I’m pretty happy with how things have turned out for me.”
At a Glance
of James Scott Farrin
5438 Wade Park Blvd., Suite 400
Raleigh, NC 27607