Jan. 8, 2024
As we turn to a new year, my wife and I like to reminisce about our best days and milestones of the prior year (for 2023, it was a huge celebration with our best friends for my wife’s birthday, an epic bike ride with our kids on a beautiful day in Kiawah, and seeing “the Boss” in concert in Greensboro). Professionally, I find myself thinking about my friend and mentor, George Cauthen, who reached a milestone and retired from the active practice of law in 2023. George needs no introduction to an audience of bankruptcy practitioners – he joined Nelson Mullins in 1990, led our firm’s bankruptcy practice group for more than 25 years, and was involved in every major South Carolina bankruptcy case and many others throughout the county. In this post, please allow me to share just a few of the many lessons I learned from George.
Know the Rules. All of Them.
At first blush, given his curly mustache, earring, wearing shorts in the office, refusal to eat vegetables, and general embrace of all things pirate, George may not appear to be a rule follower. Quite the opposite is true: George is quite disciplined in knowing and following the rules of the Bankruptcy Court. George speaks in numbers, not just dollars but also the sections of the Bankruptcy Code, the Bankruptcy Rules, the Local Rules, and Chambers Guidelines. All of them. If you consider George’s background, this really is not surprising. George was the Clerk of Court for the Bankruptcy Court in the District of South Carolina from 1982 to 1989. He took on this role right after the Bankruptcy Reform Act was passed, and just as the Supreme Court enacted the Bankruptcy Rules and issued its critical opinion in Northern Pipeline Construction Co. v. Marathon Pipeline Co., 458 U.S. 50 (1982). It cannot be a coincidence that George, serving as a clerk of court during these formative stages of modern bankruptcy, finds not just clarity through the rules, but opportunities. In George’s practice, the starting point is to always ask the client, “What is your goal?” Then he would ultimately open his code or his rules and identify paths to achieve the client’s goal, even where the substantive law or the facts posed significant challenges. George uses his deep knowledge of the rules to foster unmatched creativity in providing solutions to his clients.
To walk into Bankruptcy Court with George is a unique experience. He is always prepared, equipped with an outline of the facts, the law, and his arguments, though he rarely looks at it, and is in complete control. He comes into court with absolute respect for the court – the judges, the staff, and his adversaries. He maintains knowledge of all participants and the structure itself, from his time as clerk, and he has endless stories. He interjects humor into nearly every presentation, whether it would be referring to a debtor’s “reverse Midas touch” or asking humorous questions in his cross of a formidable local lawyer while she was on the stand. Perhaps no one else can get away with this, but George has a well-earned reputation as a kind, charming, smart aleck. The lesson to me is not to try to be George – because I cannot pull it off – but that lawyers should be the best version of themselves in court, while armed with a command of the law and the facts and complete respect for the court and all who appear in it.
Power of Persuasion
In order to provide a substantive point and avoid the scrutiny of the Red Zone blog editors, I want to mention one of the numerous reported cases in which George played a critical role, First Union Commercial Corp. v. Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough (In re Varat), 81 F.3d 1310 (4th Cir. 1996). Varat involved a party’s attempt to – gasp! – object to Nelson Mullins’ fees after the Bankruptcy Court had already allowed the fees under the terms of a confirmed chapter 11 plan. On appeal before the Fourth Circuit, George successfully defended the allowance, resulting in a sweeping opinion affirming the lower court based on res judicata, collateral estoppel, claim preclusion, equitable estoppel, and waiver. Notwithstanding how pending decisions on such things as third party releases and other issues may play out, Varat remains a good reminder of the utility of the bankruptcy court to provide an effective forum within which parties can (and, at times, must) take a position and the power of the bankruptcy court to make a binding decision on the issues properly before it.
Help Others in Need
Most importantly, I must mention that George’s zealousness in bankruptcy court belies the fact that he is a very generous person. George has made huge contributions to the bar and communities in which he practiced, including a legendary pro bono practice. George has received every recognition for pro bono and public service from all of the bars and organizations of which he was a member.1 His efforts range from countless individual clients – such as the neighbor with an unscrupulous landlord, the staffer with an ex-spouse in bankruptcy or, when firm conflicts prevented him from taking pro bono bankruptcy cases, he started taking family court cases, often involving abuse – to transformative projects such as establishing homeless courts in cities throughout South Carolina. My most vivid memory of George’s innate need to help is when Hurricane Katrine devastated New Orleans. George was born in New Orleans and still has family there. As we all saw the tragic images on the television and heard stories from our colleagues in New Orleans, George was getting more and more anxious about not being there to help. His distress was visible; he had to do something. It became clear that George would be packing up and driving to New Orleans, boat in tow, where he was able to ensure his family members were able to get out, while also using his contacts to raise money and other resources for the hard-hit communities. In the aftermath, George led the efforts to assist people who were relocated to Columbia and, ultimately, became a state and national leader on lawyers’ roles in disaster relief efforts.
I am looking forward to continuing using these and other lessons from George as we enter a new year. This post is not a goodbye, as he lives exactly one and a half miles from our office and I will certainly be calling him, anytime I need help or a laugh (or want a hamburger and fries). I must admit, however, that I miss having him down the hall, which is to be expected when you get the chance to practice with the best of us.
1 A likely non-exhaustive list of honors: South Carolina Bar Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year; South Carolina Bankruptcy Law Association Wm. E.S. Robinson Public Service Award; South Carolina Bar Distinguished Service Award; South Carolina Bar Oasis Award for Pro Bono and Public Service; Palmetto Legal Services Special Recognition Award; Richland County Bar Civic Star Award for Public Service; South Carolina Department of Social Services Friend of Child Support Award; Outstanding Pro Bono Service Award from the Florida Bar; Partnership Award from Gift of Life; City Year Ripples of Hope, Idealist in Action Award; 2007 Advocate of the Year, South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center Award; Louisiana Supreme Court and Louisiana State Bar Association recognized George B. Cauthen for his pro bono work in the aftermath of Katrina; George Cauthen received the Service to Mankind Award from the Columbia Sertoma Club; George Cauthen received the American Bar Association Grassroots Advocacy Award for his work in advocating for Legal Services Corporation and its grantees; George Cauthen receives the George Cauthen Legacy Award from Central South Carolina Habitat for Humanity for his pro bono work; George Cauthen received the United Way of the Midlands "Live United" award for public service in April; George Cauthen received the J. Bratton Davis Pro Bono, Community and Professionalism Award, February 2016; George Cauthen received the 2016 Durant Distinguished Public Service Award from the South Carolina Bar Foundation, the SC Bar’s highest recognition; The Richland County Bar Public Service Committee honored George B. Cauthen with the 2022 H.E.L.P. Clinic Volunteer of the Year Award. It will also now be known as the George B. Cauthen H.E.L.P. Clinic Volunteer of the Year Award.
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