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Cole Casey, The Law Offices of G. Cole Casey. Nothing to Prove

Top San Diego DUI Defense Attorney Cole Casey Works Less, Earns More, and Doesn’t Really Care What You Think

The cliché that there is “no substitute for experience” certainly applies to the practice of law. If true, it follows that it would behoove attorneys to take as many cases as possible. After all, with each case, a lawyer has the opportunity to learn—either from victories, or losses—ostensibly helping them become a better lawyer. And Cole Casey won’t contest the value of experience—he’s got it in spades.
As San Diego’s most sought after DUI defense attorney for the past two decades, suffice it to say, Casey has handled many, many cases. Thousands of them. In fact, he was known for years as the DUI lawyer who fearlessly took DUI cases to trial, week after week. He has handled cases for a literal “Who’s Who” of prominent San Diegans, from politicians to athletes to celebrities. He’s also handled some of the most heartbreaking DUI fatality cases San Diego has ever seen. His reputation has placed his services in high demand, and for over 15 years, he tried to help everyone he could. But today, he has an entirely different perspective on the practice of law. “I handle 1/10 of the cases I used to handle. I don’t stress, I make more money and I usually work a fraction of the hours I used to,” he says. “I changed everything. Now, I only represent clients who truly need my help, and if I know I can actually help them. Practicing law is more of a hobby than a job, as it should be,” he says. “It’s fun again and rewarding.”
While that all sounds great, the road to Casey’s renaissance wasn’t painless by any metric, or even close to what could be called a smooth ride. “From 2000-2014, I had a thriving firm, always with 10 or more employees. We had so many clients, and I needed so many employees to help manage the cases that I was no longer much of a lawyer. I was a businessman, something I never really aspired to be. I was responsible for marketing and advertising and business development and payroll, benefits, and personnel management. That left little time for me to get to know my clients, and less time for me to work on their cases, even though it was my name alone that brought them in the door," Casey recalls.

Life-Altering Catastrophe Leads to Catharsis

Things were on cruise control up until early 2015. At that time, the FBI had launched an investigation into corruption at the DMV, and the rumors were that a handful of top DUI attorneys in San Diego were implicated. “My name appeared on the list of lawyers they were looking into. I knew I had done nothing wrong, but being part of a federal investigation is scary, no matter who you are. And at my lowest point, while I was trying to salvage my good name from all the gossip, the people in my own firm got spooked by that same gossip, and the firm imploded in 2015. Everyone left,” he says. “They ran for the hills, worried about being associated with me.”
“That hurt,” he admits. “I lost lots of sleep throughout the years making sure my staff were all well taken care of and happy, but when the going got a little bit tough, and I needed them the most, they bailed. Right out the door. And, I could see some of my competitors, many of whom had posed as my friends throughout the years, at least when they needed my help in fixing DUI cases they had clearly fucked-up, now acting like sharks in the water smelling blood. Apparently they reasoned that if I was out of the game, they would make more money,” Casey laughs, rolling his eyes.

But Casey doesn’t harbor resentment today, because from his vantage point, the experience “was an absolute blessing in disguise.” Indeed, it forced Casey to take stock of his career, and of his life. Suddenly, the dozens of plaques and awards on the wall meant nothing to him. (They currently sit in a box in a storage unit). The round-the-clock hours at work, the stress, chasing every dollar and most importantly, missing out on life simply was not worth it. He had a 16-year-old son from his first marriage, Hunter, and now had a baby boy, Lachlan, with his new wife Chelsea. He wanted to spend his time with them, not in court or at the office.
So, he restructured his life, beginning with his practice. “I closed the firm and decided that after years of partners, associates and staff, I just wanted my firm to be small and exclusive. I would only take the cases I wanted, and I wasn’t going to be constantly exhausted and stressed, worrying about making everyone else happy. It was the best professional move I have ever made. Finally.”
But sadly, the joy was short-lived. Casey’s career renaissance was barely underway when out of nowhere, his 35-year-old wife Chelsea was diagnosed with terminal cancer. “We had this beautiful 16-month-old little boy, and she was given a death sentence. Suddenly, I had to face the reality that I was going to be a 50-plus-year-old single father raising a young son alone. Honestly, I was in a trance for about a year. Maybe more. It was incomprehensible. The fear, the pain, the despair. It’s still hard for me to talk about. I will carry the sadness forever,” he says. “I spent my entire career helping people, solving problems for them, and the one person that I wanted to help the most, I had to just sit there and helplessly watch deteriorate. It was just awful.”

Devastated, Casey devoted all his energy to caring for his two sons and to taking care of Chelsea. A former model, she had now lost all her hair. Her brain radiation resulted in frequent seizures. Paramedics arriving in the middle of the night and taking her away was common, while Casey and Hunter tried to shield little Lachlan from that terrifying scenario. “It wasn’t easy,” Casey says simply, “she fought so damn hard and refused to give up. We all did. Chelsea was like a mother to Hunter since he was 7, and he became a man during those years, whether he wanted to or not.”
Then it got worse. As Casey stared down the barrel of life without Chelsea, and as she was in the middle of yet another round of chemotherapy, in 2016 Casey himself was diagnosed with cancer. (He received the news one hour before having to give a closing argument.) “Chelsea and I had the dubious honor of sharing oncologists and going through cancer treatment simultaneously, while trying to provide a ‘normal’ life for Hunter and Lachlan,” he says. “Fortunately, in my case, the cancer was caught very early but going through treatment was absolutely brutal. But, with my sons and a very sick wife, as well as a law practice, I did not have the luxury of weakness, or of feeling sorry for myself. I was in so much pain but there was no way in hell I was going to take the opioids they tried to push on me. They said, ‘we’ll get you addicted to Fentanyl, then wean you off it later.’ Screw that. No thanks. I just had to keep my head down and push through treatment. Seven weeks of it. Those were some very dark days.” Ultimately, Casey received the good news that his treatments had been a success, and his cancer was cured completely. But Chelsea wasn’t as fortunate. She passed away three months later, 5 days after her 37th birthday. “She spent her last birthday in a coma”, Casey recalls. Lachlan, Chelsea’s only son, had just turned 3. Casey’s life, and his perspective on virtually everything changed.
“I was a mess, trying to hold it together. I needed something, anything,” he recalls. “I contemplated suicide, just to end the agony, but I would never orphan my sons. Honestly, without them, I probably would not be alive today. Yeah, it was that bad.” A practitioner of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), Casey reflects, “I threw myself into BJJ like never before. BJJ is hard, humbling, bloody and brutal, like life. You fight like hell. Every day you hurt. You’re always bruised, frustrated and want to quit. And I wanted to quit. Both BJJ and life. I wouldn’t take the ‘happy pills’ despite everyone trying to prescribe them for me. I would just try to exhaust myself in BJJ so I could sleep at night, training daily, four hours a day sometimes. It actually helped.” To this day, Casey’s fitness and BJJ training are paramount to him. He trains twice a day, 6 days a week, doing BJJ along with a mix of strength training, kettlebells, running, boxing, yoga and cycling. “Perfect diet, no sugar, no more hard alcohol, and just an occasional beer and a cigar for vices. I have to stay healthy and strong for Lachlan – he’s 5 now. We go to Europe twice a year to watch soccer, and I carry him around on my shoulders. I know those days are numbered and I figure the stronger I am, the more I can prolong them. I will still carry him around London when he’s 10 if I can,” Casey jokes. And, along with doing BJJ with his dad, little Lachlan also plays soccer, so Casey says, “I have to be able to run with him and coach him. He deserves my best and he gets it. I’ll never be an old, lazy-ass dad sitting on the sidelines, in soccer or in life for that matter.”
Professionally, things changed too. “I stopped caring what anyone thinks. Haters are going to hate. There will always be those jealous of what I have from the work they never did. So many wanted to see my downfall. I’ve never forgotten that, and I’ve never forgotten who,” Casey recalls. “I took a hard look at the court system, and decided I wasn’t going to play that silly game of suck-up anymore either. It’s drilled into us how much we have to ‘respect the courts.’ Well that’s a two-way street in my book, pal. If I have to earn your respect, then you need to earn mine. Colleague, client, opponent or judge. At the end of the day we are all just humans doing a job. All equal. No pedestals. No bullshit. Nobody needs their ring kissed.” Casey says.

Friendships, The Future, and Fatherhood

Casey admits that he seriously considered retiring after Chelsea’s passing. But thanks in part to his lasting friendship and many conversations with his former law partner Matt Terry, he realized that he could still enjoy the practice, as long as it was on his terms. To this day, Casey and Terry spend a great deal of time talking about “everything but the law, thankfully,” Casey laughs. Frequently, they discuss single fatherhood, and their philosophies on life. “I will never forget that when everyone else ran scared out the door during the hardest times, Matt came running in, ready to help.” Casey said. “To this day, we talk for hours on the phone, or by trading emails. We both have young sons and want to be the best dads we can. We challenge each other, we support each other, and we look out for each other. Matt’s been a loyal friend through all of it. One in ten million.” Today, Casey is extremely selective about the cases he takes. “I’m brutally honest from the beginning. If a client is in deep shit, I tell them they are in deep shit. But if they don’t need me, I tell them that too. If someone needs a lawyer, really needs one, then they need a good lawyer. What they don’t need is the cheapest, the nicest or the well-intentioned but impotent do-gooder. They need a legitimate defense lawyer. When I meet clients, no punches are pulled, and no sales pitches are given. My clients are smart people, they can decide for themselves. I tell 9 out of 10 misdemeanor clients that they don’t need a lawyer at all and to save their money. The truth is that the Public Defenders can handle most of these matters and are far better lawyers than some bargain-basement buffoon. The PD are some of the best lawyers in town and never get the credit they deserve,” Casey states. When Casey does meet prospective clients, he tries to keep it informal, relaxed. “Most of my meetings are at coffeeshops. I’m usually in sweatpants, on my way to or from BJJ, and I don’t bother trying to hide my full sleeves [of tattoos]. I also tell them from the very start, ‘I’m not Harry Potter, I don’t magically make everything just disappear.’” The clients he chooses to represent appreciate the direct, and very honest approach Casey brings to the table. One of Casey’s clients, a very prominent San Diegan, said, “When I first met (Casey), he scared the shit out of me. I thought I was an alpha male, but whoa, he took it to a whole new level. He’s smart as hell and can be intimidating but he also listened. It was clear he knew his stuff, and he coached me along to quit feeling like such a failure. Man, I felt so safe knowing that in the courts, the media, or anywhere else for that matter, he was the guy in my corner.”
Casey explains, “Most of my clients are professionals. They usually have something bigger to lose beyond the DUI punishment. To them it’s not about avoiding community service or a DUI class. Doctors, lawyers, cops, military officers, those with immigration issues—there are a lot of people who are at risk of losing everything from even a misdemeanor charge. Those are the cases I take—serious misdemeanors and felonies only,” he says. “And now, I spend a lot more time with the clients, and usually build friendships with them over coffee. They all have my cell phone number and are free to call whenever they want. I’m fortunate. I mainly represent the cream of the crop. Good people that may have made a mistake.” Casey acknowledges that he has been able to reshape his career, thanks in part to the years he spent working hard. “Of course, I’ve had young attorneys say that it was easy for me to restructure my career because I’m established. Fair enough. That’s true. I don’t need to work if I don’t want to work. But I didn’t win any of this on a quiz show either. I worked my butt off for years, and I invested money wisely. I saved and I invested, and I constantly tell young attorneys to make smart decisions with their money early in their careers. The Ferrari, the Aston Martin, and the Maserati will come in time.” (Casey has all 3 today, but for most of his early years, drove a used Ford pick-up.). As to whether such a shift in priorities would have been possible without the tragic personal loss, and his own health scare, Casey doesn’t know. “Can you manufacture a complete change in thinking, or does something have to cause it? For me, watching someone I loved take their last breath at 37 and leaving a little boy without a mother, made me realize what is important. Time is the most valuable commodity we have, and we only have so much of it. We never know when time is up. Choose what you do with that time wisely and stop worrying so damn much. Remember, being a lawyer is just a job, it’s not your life. Nobody ever died wishing they’d spent more time in court or the office.”
“Nowadays, my focus is on raising my little boy. I’ve introduced him to BJJ, and it’s something we both do now. My oldest son is now 20, in college, and we have always had a great relationship. I keep a small client list, I know my clients well, and I’m in a very good place. I don’t care what anyone else is doing. I don’t need or seek anyone’s approval, or care whether they like me or not. I’m not compromising what is important to me, and what is right for me.” Casey, who was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area town of Cupertino (the birthplace of Apple), counts Steve Jobs as his hero. “He had it right. Do it your way, without compromise. Trust your vision. Jobs said, ‘Your time is limited, don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your inner voice.’ “So, it’s my life on my terms. Not yours. You got a problem with that?”

The Law Offices of G. Cole Casey
2305 Historic Decatur Rd, #100
San Diego, CA 92106
(619) 930-5490

Karen Gorden

Karen Gorden is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal.

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About the Author: Karen Gorden is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal.

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