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As a Durham lawyer, he got shot. That led to '60 Minutes' and a new career. Now, he's back.

Coleman Cowan's dangerous assignments with CBS

Coleman Cowan, 47, left his law practice in Durham to pursue journalism, landing a job as a producer for 60 Minutes. The decision was sparked in part by his being wounded in a random shooting in Durham in 1999, an experience that taught him that life
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Coleman Cowan, 47, left his law practice in Durham to pursue journalism, landing a job as a producer for 60 Minutes. The decision was sparked in part by his being wounded in a random shooting in Durham in 1999, an experience that taught him that life

If not for the bullet he took in his arm, Coleman Cowan would have stayed a lawyer in Durham, never traveling to the Brazilian jungle, never witnessing a riot on the streets of Moscow, never fighting through a snowstorm on an Australian peak.

Had he never gotten shot, Cowan would have kept his comfortable life, never dropping it to become a journalist and taking his soon-to-be wife to New York.

Without that random moment of violence, Cowan would never have thought of life as fleeting, and he would never have followed the path that took him to Emmy-winning work at "60 Minutes," supplying him with adventure stories to tell his young son.

But on a February night in 1999, Cowan was standing outside a doctor's office in Durham with a fellow lawyer, holding a fat file of documents, when a teenager with a gun rode up on a bicycle and demanded money.

Before either could hand over a dollar, the boy started shooting, hitting both lawyers. Cowan took a shot through his left wrist — the bullet lodging inside his paperwork.

As Cowan fled, the assailant kept firing, sending another bullet into the front of Cowan's car and a third through his shoe. Both lawyers survived the attack, and the shooter was never found. Cowan carries a titanium plate in his left forearm where the bone failed to knit.

But for Cowan, now 47, skirting death in a Durham parking lot left the seed for a great realization: Tomorrow isn't guaranteed. Let's get today right.

"I'm not glad that I got shot," he said. "It was not a fun experience. It made me a better person — a much better person."

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Coleman Cowan on assignment with "60 Minutes" in Australia. Photo courtesy of Coleman Cowan

As a lawyer, Cowan handled cases defending Big Tobacco and had a chance for partnership at one of the Southeast's largest law firms. But he never saw the inside of a courtroom.

So he moved to a smaller personal injury firm, where he spent his time suing Big Pharma. Still, he lived a life of paperwork and business travel.

Getting shot didn't split open the heavens and light a new path. Leaving the law took another five years. But the experience of skirting death in a Durham parking lot made him open to risk.

So in his mid-30s, he talked his way into a job at BusinessWeek in Atlanta, where he soon found himself making coffee, troubleshooting fax machines and earning $9 an hour. Friends called him crazy.

But eventually, the magazine sent him to New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, where he walked through classrooms in the 9th Ward that flooding had destroyed.

There, he first spoke the words uttered by a thousand journalists: "I can't believe I get paid to do this."

The experience took Cowan to Columbia University and "60 Minutes," which hired him fresh out of school because — luckiest of days— the show needed a journalist with legal experience.

The glamorous work didn't come immediately. But within a few years, Cowan was working on stories for Steve Kroft and Lesley Stahl, filming daredevils in wingsuits as they jumped off cliffs in Norway, interviewing members of Metallica backstage.

As a producer for "CBSN: On Assignment," Cowan tracked drug cartels in Mexico and documented gun violence on Chicago's meanest streets. At one point in Afghanistan, where he followed a bomb squad, Cowan had his recurring revelation in the back of a Blackhawk helicopter.

"I can't believe I'm here doing this," he thought. "I can't believe I'm getting paid to be here."

But after 10 years, the dream life began to strain a bit. Cowan and his family were living in an 800-square foot apartment on the Upper West Side, and North Carolina gave a powerful tug on their lives.

He imagined being able to grill out on his back porch, go to the beach for a weekend and never have to carry his laundry downstairs to the basement. The same impulse that sparked his exodus from the law brought him back to it: Why do it tomorrow? Do it today.

So now Cowan is back practicing law in Durham, working for James Scott Farrin in a firm that overlooks the diamond at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. He considers himself a better lawyer for having seen the world so far outside his comfort zone, and for learning to tell a compelling story.

In his first month on the job, Cowan tried his first case on behalf of a truck driver who struck a cow — telling the tale to a jury of 12 rather than an audience of 10 million.

Looking back on his adventures, he realizes that getting shot in 1999 acted as a catalyst. Without that terrible night, he would not have made changes. He would have stayed put.

"In a weird way," he said, reconsidering, "I'm glad it happened."

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