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Getting to know Jacksonville trial lawyer Hank Coxe

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In a world where ego is king, his modesty is refreshing.

High-profile Jacksonville trial lawyer Hank Coxe has much of which to be proud. Coxe, director of the Bedell Firm, has served as president of The Jacksonville Bar Association and The Florida Bar. A good number of awards have been bestowed upon him and many of his cases have received national attention. Yet you won’t likely hear him brag about his accomplishments. Instead, Coxe fondly regales friends and acquaintances with stories about grandkids, his love of fishing or his wife of 38 years. This legal maverick has quite the tale to reveal.

After graduating from Washington & Lee law school in Virginia, Coxe visited friends in Gainesville and quickly ran out of funds. He decided to try his luck in Jacksonville—bigger city, more opportunities—and hit the road in an old car with $90 in his pocket.

Coxe was no stranger to hard work. Hailing from a working class family in the Northeast, Coxe worked his way through college and law school with the Merchant Marines. His travels brought him to Jacksonville on more than one occasion. The young lawyer did indeed find work in Jacksonville, though perhaps not the career-starter one would expect. He had already passed The Virginia Bar, but there was no reciprocity in Florida and he had to wait about a year to take the exam.

“I worked in a warehouse at night from 5:30 in the afternoon until 2 in the morning, counting automobile parts,” he recalls. “And in the daytime, I pumped gas at a gas station.”

One day, while pumping gas, Coxe met Ed Austin, who was general counsel for the city of Jacksonville at the time. The two struck up a conversation. Austin connected Coxe with Chief Assistant State Attorney Harry Shorstein. Soon after, Coxe began his first job as an attorney.

“I think I just received the bar exam results the day before or two days before, so I figured, well, with all these student loans that are about to become due, I had better stop the gas and the warehouse routine and get serious about this,” Coxe recalls. “And I did. That’s really how it started.”

He’s eternally thankful for the mentorship he received as a young lawyer. Coxe learned early on that the purpose of life is to do what you can to help others. It all started at home.

“Both parents were big influences, though they were different,” he says. “My father, on the one hand, never made much money but was incredibly talented in terms of mechanical skills, electricity, automobiles, you name it. He could do it all. So he did what she preached. We lived in a really small town and he would help an old lady fix a screen door, he would help someone fix their plumbing who couldn’t afford to fix it, he could do it all and he would. Every Saturday and Sunday, he would be around town doing stuff for other people.”

“My mother’s social conscience was as strong as anybody’s I’ve ever known. She was determined that people existed on this Earth to help other people who needed help. That’s just the way it was and that’s the mission she spoke.”

His parents’ advocacy for those in need would inspire Coxe to use his talents to help out whenever and wherever possible: “I think people who really believe in this profession will probably look back at the cases they handled that are pro bono—helping the less fortunate—those are the ones you really feel best about.”

You may have seen his work on the news, but Coxe prefers not to discuss specific cases with the press without a client’s approval. Without naming names, it’s clear that he can’t stand an unfair fight and is fiercely determined to help those who cannot help themselves, especially adolescents being tried in the adult legal system.

“If you care about children and how they’re treated and you couple that with the fact that you think you have the ability to help or the training to help, then you put the two together and you do it,” he says.

That applies even if the client can’t pay big bucks.

“I think pro bono work is important to anybody in any profession. I don’t think it’s magic about the legal profession,” Coxe says. “My mother’s commitment was that you got put on this Earth to help people who need your help if you can help them. So you should. I don’t quite understand how somebody goes through life not taking the time to help people who need help if they are in a position to do it.”

While working at the State Attorney’s Office, Coxe met Jacksonville native and fellow attorney Mary. Hank and Mary Coxe have been married 38-plus years now and have three children—Katie, Matson and Anne—and four grandchildren.

“To a great extent, Mary is a daily reminder of what the right thing is to do for other people. That’s what she does and she reminds others of it by example,” Coxe says. “I sort of characterize her as the best combination of my parents: the commitment and the moral standard and the incredible social conscience, too. That’s what she does. The children have it, too, but they have it because of her. They don’t have it because of me and they admit it—all three children are attorneys.”

Making time for those you love isn’t always easy, but it’s vital. Coxe’s recent bout with cancer reminded him of this truth.

“I remember how often the great lawyer Eddie Booth told me, ‘Don’t let the time run by on those children. You can’t get it back.’ That was coming from the ultimate workaholic. And there’s a lot of truth to that,” Coxe says.

Becoming a trial lawyer was not a lifelong dream, nor was it a role that came easily at first. It took a lot of hard work, mentorship and grit to succeed. Coxe recalls his first court experiences: “The best way to describe it—and it’s a true story—the first time I spoke in court in front of a judge, it was like a 12-year-old’s voice cracking or an 11-year-old going through puberty. That’s exactly what it was, a high-pitched squeal. The judge made me repeat what I said because he couldn’t understand it … then a high-pitched squeal again.”

Coxe was incredibly discouraged, but he persevered.

“It’s the only job I had. I didn’t have any choice. That’s what prosecutors did, go in the courtroom. You practice it and get used to it. I think you’ve got to make a decision what sort of meaningful purpose you’re going to serve in this life and do it.”

Late-night walks help Coxe rehearse what he’ll say in court. Even after all these years, he still deals with a bit of stage fright.

“In my world of trials, I don’t care how many cases or how recently I’ve tried a case or how major or minor or however you want to call it—I’m absolutely terrified before it starts,” he says. “Even now, going into that courtroom, it’s the same as it was in the beginning.”

In addition to practicing criminal defense in both state and federal courts and serving on a number of influential committees, Coxe is recognized among The Best Lawyers in America, appears in Florida Trend’s Legal Elite Hall of Fame, and has been listed several times among the Top 10 Florida Lawyers in Super Lawyers Magazine. He is a recipient of The Florida Bar Foundation Medal of Honor. The lawyer has served on the Constitution Revision Commission (appointed by the Florida Supreme Court), Florida Supreme Court Judicial Qualifications Commission and the Florida Supreme Court Innocence Commission. He’s been awarded The Florida Bar President’s Pro-Bono Award as well as the city of Jacksonville Pro Bono Award. Coxe recently co-chaired the 2018 city of Jacksonville Transparency Task Force and the 2018 Florida Bar Criminal Summit in Tallahassee.

While he’s certainly proud of these accomplishments, it’s the more personal achievements that stand out in his mind.

“One of the highlights I look back on was when I had finished presiding over a meeting of The Jacksonville Bar Association at the Omni Hotel and the catering crew—the wait staff—one of them asked me if I would stick around after the meeting and I did,” Coxe recalls. “They gathered around and made me an honorary member of the catering staff. They gave me a badge. They’d already made it—it said ‘Omni Hotel’ with ‘Hank’ on it—and they said the reason they did it was because I was ‘one of them.’”

Other memorable moments include interviewing Judge Rosemary Barkett at the program of the Annual Dinner of the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society, interviewing Justice Barbara Pariente for the Supreme Court oral history, and receiving the American Inns of Court Professionalism Award for the 11th circuit.

“Those are fun,” Coxe says. “Those—to me—are the kinds of things I remember.”

Despite the grandeur of the historic building in which the Bedell Firm operates, there’s none of the stuffiness one might expect of one of the most successful law firms in the state. Above the pillar-flanked door are engraved the words Open to All.

“I’ll give you an illustration of what drives the thought process in this building, and that is the tone set by Chester Bedell,” Coxe explains. “Chester Bedell’s been dead for 37 years, but to this day his leadership, examples and commitment to the profession are still the standard by which other people measure things. He was considered, in his day, the best trial lawyer in the state of Florida, so everyone here demands excellence. He did not graduate from college or law school. And to this date, you will not see a diploma of any kind on any wall in this building for anybody, out of respect for the fact that he didn’t have any and he ended up great. But it’s a tradition that’s carried on to this day. Nobody hangs a diploma in this building.”

Like the firm he represents, Coxe is straightforward and unpretentious, and he is unafraid to challenge the status quo. His legal battles and successes make Jacksonville a more equitable place to reside.

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