Both Sides Now
Jim Sturdivant went from JAG defense to DOJ prosecution
Published in 2022 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine on November 28, 2022
As a football player, Jim Sturdivant played on both sides of the ball—defense in high school and offensive line as a freshman walk-on at Auburn.
As an attorney, same deal. Before he was a white-collar criminal defense attorney, he was a federal prosecutor; and before that he was a JAG defense lawyer. Being on both sides of the ball, he says, helps him better understand the game.
Sturdivant quit football after his freshman year (“I like to say that I was small, but I was slow,” he jokes), then joined the ROTC program to get the discipline and structure he’d gotten from sports. A logical thinker, at ease speaking in front of people, he had considered the law from an early age. “I always felt like being in court,” he says. “I was drawn to it.”
Though joining the military in 1980 was “not cool,” he says, “I wanted to serve my country.” So after law school at the University of Alabama, he served for four years in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, handling cases of academic dishonesty, courts martial, insubordination, and assault, mostly from the defense side. One of his cases, he says, involved “one guy who bit another guy’s lip off.” In what he calls his most notorious case, a young officer on an explosive-ordinance team got black-out drunk and assaulted military police officers. Sturdivant argued that the stress of the job caused him to snap. “We made a deal: one year at Leavenworth,” Sturdivant says, “even though he had stabbed at least one MP and done other acts of mayhem.”
And in a scene straight out of A Few Good Men, he once found himself cross-examining a full-bird colonel. “My theory was that this particular colonel was inclined to believe my client was guilty because he was African American,” Sturdivant says. “I questioned him on that, he got irate and turned to the presiding officer and said something like, ‘Are you gonna allow this captain to be disrespectful to me?’” The colonel was told he needed to answer the questions.
“You get a lot of courtroom experience quickly,” Sturdivant says of the JAG Corps. “You deal with military rules of evidence, which are essentially the same as federal rules of evidence, and you learn how to try cases.” One big difference between military and civilian court? “People in the military are better than average people in terms of their record. You are not representing someone with a long criminal history. My typical client had never been in trouble before.”
Life got even busier when he joined the Department of Justice as a federal prosecutor. In a mid-size office like Birmingham, Sturdivant says, you get a lot of responsibility. “In the military you are more reactive. In the DOJ you have more in-depth investigations. You also see a lot more cases. There is a much busier docket.”
One case he remembers well involved bank robbers—“a couple of geniuses,” he mockingly calls them—who would spray-paint their old beater car a different color after each heist. “We got a search warrant and found all these empty paint cans. It was a bizarre case, not particularly sophisticated, but it was fun.”
After a few years at DOJ, he became a civil litigator in private practice, specializing in white-collar defense.
“I enjoy working cases that have a ton of gray in them,” says Sturdivant, who earned an LL.M in taxation in 2017 to better understand the tax implications of his cases. Business leaders, he adds, often have to make choices that require “an element of risk and aggressiveness. You have to make tough decisions in nuanced and sophisticated areas, and there are lots of opportunities for data to be incorrect. But that doesn’t always mean a crime has been committed.”
There are also situations where his client may have crossed a line, but “I want to be sure they get a fair shake. Their transgression is not to be excused or minimized, but people need a strong advocate in negotiating a resolution or sentencing.”
He’s very aware of the strength of the other side. “The government has, literally, unlimited resources,” Sturdivant says. “I have become more and more convinced that strong defense is an extremely necessary counterweight to aggressive, zealous government prosecution or oversight. You’ve got to have both.”
They Might Be Giants
Sturdivant is a board member of Unless U, a nonprofit serving adults with cognitive and developmental disabilities. It’s a family affair. One of his four sons, Daniel, who has Down syndrome, was a founding member, while Sturdivant and his wife, Susan, worked with their church to donate land to help expand the nonprofit’s educational, job training and support services.
“We’ve seen it go from a few students in a basement to our own campus with about 120 adults,” Sturdivant says. “My son goes four days a week, and we refer to it as the happiest place on earth. As a society we look at these folks, and the language we use is ‘impairments,’ ‘disabilities,’ ‘not high-functioning’; but I have realized these people are giants and we are not giants. They have a lot to teach us. I tell my son he is a teacher and leader in how to treat people. He is always outward-focused. He wants to know: ‘How was your day?’”