Lawyering is not just a job; it's more of a calling for Hezekiah Sistrunk Jr., particularly in making sure the rule of law is fairly applied to everyone. He says growing up in Orangeburg helped set the foundation for what has become a fruitful professional career.
Sistrunk is a national partner and president of the Cochran Firm, chairman of the firm’s executive management committee and managing partner of the firm’s Atlanta office.
Since he began practicing law in 1982, Sistrunk has prosecuted and defended hundreds of litigated matters before state and federal courts and administrative agencies and has tried more than 300 cases to verdict. He was recently inducted into the Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame for the significant mark he has made on the American legal system through his work in the courtroom.
Through it all, Sistrunk has never forgotten growing up on Goff Avenue in Orangeburg.
“I’m a proud guy to be from Orangeburg. I think Orangeburg kind of set the template for me to be where I am today. I grew up around some really good people. My parents, for one, and at Wilkinson High School, where I grew up around some really good, supportive teachers who encouraged you to be the best that you could be and not let anyone or anything hold you back,” he said.
The son of Lugenia Sistrunk, 85, and the late Hezekiah Sistrunk Sr. said the support system he had in his formative years was critical to his success.
“I would hope and pray that the school system currently has teachers that are supportive of the students and encourage them to go out and be the best that they can be and try to foster change in the world,” Sistrunk said. “That’s what those folks did for me and ... for a number of the kids who I went to school with and (who) are doing good things in the country and in the state.”
He recalls growing up in a segregated school system at Wilkinson High, which is now Robert E. Howard Middle School.
“I am what I call a 'Plessy vs. Ferguson' high school kid … . I grew up in a time when Orangeburg was struggling with trying to find a way to make sure everything was fair and equal for everybody,” Sistrunk said. “How I look at the world and how I made the decision about becoming a lawyer and what to do with my life as a lawyer was probably created and formed in the mid-'60s right before and during the time of the Orangeburg Massacre and all of that stuff that happened in my hometown.”
On Feb. 8, 1968, three students were killed and 28 others were injured when S.C. Highway Patrol troopers opened fire on a crowd of protesters following three nights of escalating racial tension over efforts to desegregate the All-Star Triangle Bowl in Orangeburg.
South Carolina State College students Henry Smith and Samuel Hammond, along with 19-year-old Wilkinson High School student Delano Middleton, were killed. Sistrunk had played football with Middleton, or "Bump," as he called his classmate.
“As a young man, I spent a lot of time over on the university campuses. A number of the members of my family attended Claflin College and at the time, South Carolina State College … . So when all of the protests were going on at the time, I was probably still in high school, but creating my thoughts and ideas about how I was going to view the world and how the world viewed me,” Sistrunk said.
He added, “That’s kind of how I started out as a young person, thinking about becoming a lawyer and what I could do to try to foster change, not only in the local community, but in the world at large. If these young kids could be shot just for trying to voice an opinion, then something about the world had to change.”
Ebony and Jet magazines were Sistrunk’s “social media” tools at the time.
“My family was a big Ebony magazine and Jet magazine family. So I read about everything that was going on in the world. I knew about the NAACP Legal Defense Fund ... . Thurgood Marshall and other folks were trying to lead the charge early on to change the law that would allow for equity for folks like me,” he said. “It kind of set the template for how this process was going to work.”
Effecting change for the greater good became his passion, and he knew a good education was the gateway to a successful future, Sistrunk said. After graduating from Wilkinson High School, he spent nearly five years in the United States Army before attending North Carolina State University, where he majored in political science and government and earned a bachelor’s degree. He went on to attend Duke University Law School, where he obtained his law degree in 1982.
As president of the Cochran Firm, Sistrunk has seen his share of cases – thousands of them, in fact.
“The Cochran Firm has got 26 offices and subdivisions throughout the United States, and as president of the firm, I’m kind of tangentially involved in almost all of them one way or the other. So there’s almost too many cases to talk about" but the principle of law remains the same, he said.
“What we try to do is see if we can level the playing field for everybody. One of the biggest problems we have in the country – and still have – is making sure that everybody … has equal access to counsel. What we try to do is make sure that everybody has equal access to lawyers that (are), in our mind, competent lawyers. We think we’ve done a pretty good job of that, but that’s for other people to decide,” Sistrunk said. “But that (was) the goal of the firm initially and is still the goal today.”
He said the practice of law is an ongoing process.
“You always try to get better at it. You’re not going to perfect it because the law itself is a growing, living entity … . When I talk about Orangeburg and how I grew up and how times have changed, that’s a positive thing and, quite frankly, a reflection of the law," Sistrunk said.
“Orangeburg has changed, America has changed and a lot of that is obviously the result of the maturation of our government and our rule of law."
“But the truth of the matter is if lawyers weren’t in there fighting all the time to foster change in our society, we would almost never move forward," he added.
“I feel like it’s an ongoing effort on the part of me and other lawyers similarly situated to make sure that the law is applied fairly to everybody and that the rule of law is going to be strictly adhered to. Because without it, we really do have a problem in this country.”
Sistrunk says he considers lawyering a service business and doesn’t want anything to distract from the mission of helping people.
“It’s about clients and the people you’re trying to help. Clients are number one … . Lawyering is such a specific kind of calling if you do it right. You have a special charge, a special responsibility to make sure that the rule of law and the system works for everybody,” he said.
Sistrunk said he is proud to see the progress that has been made in Orangeburg, particularly when he comes back to visit.
“It’s a different time from what it was in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and that’s about progress," he said. "That’s what this whole journey I’ve been on for the last 35-plus years as a lawyer has been about – trying to be a part of fostering and making sure that progress occurs and that some of it sticks."