James Cole, ’95: Breaking Barriers by Seeking Challenges

Appeared in Record issue: 
Spring 2011

When James Cole, ’95, was growing up in a neighborhood not far from the Law School, his family was often strapped for cash. “We were on welfare more than we were off of it,” he recalls. “I remember having big blocks of government cheese delivered to our house.” As a youngster he sold candies at his church, and he liked the feeling of making a contribution to his family’s well-being. He dreamed of becoming a businessman one day, maybe owning his own company.

As a teenager, he found himself at Chicago’s Dunbar Vocational Career Academy, a public high school whose graduation rate didn’t rise far above 50 percent. He kept his dream alive, though, making it to the University of Illinois where he earned a finance degree, after which it was off to the business world, as a financial analyst at General Electric.

A couple of years into that position, he concluded that an advanced degree would accelerate his business career. Thinking that the coursework for an MBA would be redundant with much of what he had studied in college, he decided on law school instead, and the University of Chicago held a lot of appeal for him: “I had been working hard for a long time and I intended to continue doing so, and Chicago in effect promised me that it would honor my hard work and pay it back in knowledge. I was interrupting my career, and I didn’t want to waste any of that time—again, Chicago promised that I’d have the same challenge, the same depth, the same rigor, in the last course I took as in the first one. All that, plus the fact that my sister had been accepted to the College, made it an easy choice for me. And the Law School kept all its promises—and then some.”

He earned a clerkship with US Court of Appeals Judge Stephanie K. Seymour, but since that didn’t begin until the fall, he took a postgraduation summer associate job at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. After his clerkship (“an extraordinary experience with a great mentor,” he says), he decided that it wouldn’t hurt to get a few years of law practice under his belt before he went back into the corporate world, so he returned to the prestigious Wachtell in its corporate department, specializing in mergers and acquisitions.

When Wachtell dispatched him to Japan in 2002 to head up the legal team for Walmart’s $1.9 billion purchase of a controlling interest in one of Japan’s largest supermarket chains, it reoriented his life. He recalls: “It was the first time I was put in charge of a major transaction, with direct client responsibility. It was a pretty complicated transaction, too, since Japan wasn’t fully open to outside investment then. I was managing the Japanese legal team as well as ours. I loved it, and I finally recognized that being a lawyer was in fact how I wanted to spend my professional life.” The next year he was made a partner (the first African-American partner in the firm’s history).

His outside interests correspond with his deep passions. He’s on the board of trustees of Prep for Prep, which prepares minority youth for educational success. “Education was paramount in my family, and it was my route to the wonderfully fulfilling life I’m privileged to enjoy now,” he observes. “I want to help others obtain the same opportunities I have had.” He’s on the board of directors of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund: “As far as America has come, there’s still too much educational disparity, economic injustice, and denial of equal opportunity in this country. I’m committed to working to change that.”

And he serves on the Law School’s Visiting Committee. He says that when he received the phone call asking him to serve, “I felt like I had won a great award. To be able to give back with more than money to this fantastic school, to be intimately involved in helping to shape its future; sure, it’s a big responsibility—but what an honor it is, too.”