What do the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the University of Utah and the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center have in common? They can all count on Alan Sullivan
Published in 2007 Mountain States Super Lawyers magazine
on June 21, 2007
Updated on February 23, 2016
Alan Sullivan is huddled in the front seat of an old car. Maybe the heater is on the fritz. Maybe the radio’s death rattle came some years ago, back when it barked out “I Get Around” for the last time. But Sullivan’s not really paying attention to the chill or the dearth of tunes, because Bill Kemsley, a veteran labor union organizer, is sitting to his right, telling war stories about the Flint, Mich., auto strikes of the mid-1930s.
As Kemsley and Sullivan, 24, thread their way through New England in 1969 and 1970 hitting one blue-collar strike town after another, they hear the litany of wage and labor complaints coming from paper mill workers and others struggling to keep their heads above choppy economic waters. They travel from White River Junction, N.H., to Woonsocket, R.I., and the countless little burgs in between, reporting back to the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity. With the miles clicking away, Kemsley and Sullivan chat to fill the silence.
Forty years later, half a continent away in Salt Lake City, Sullivan still lights up when he talks about the late Kemsley. “He was totally fearless,” he says.
Those two years on the road left their mark on Sullivan. “For the first time in my life,” he says, “I experienced what it was like to be an advocate. That changed my life forever.”
On a blustery day in his office at Snell & Wilmer, Sullivan takes a breather on what promises to be another hectic morning (there are no other types for Sullivan; he can’t recall the last time he had a weekend off) and admires the view from his office high above Salt Lake’s Main Street.
Sullivan specializes in technology, commercial law, health care and securities litigation. He has represented BP Exploration in a dispute over its development of the Northstar Field in the Arctic Ocean, the Utah Transit Authority, the University of Utah, and AT&T during a squabble over its sale of The Salt Lake Tribune to Media News Group.
Over the years, Sullivan has handled some of the region’s most famous cases. These are not your average legal frays; they garner gallons of ink in newspapers, and more often than not involve the region’s most influential and visible entity: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The LDS church called on Sullivan in 2002 in its battle to prevent public protests on a piece of Salt Lake’s Main Street that it purchased. The ACLU fought to overturn the deal on constitutional grounds, making for a highly publicized case. Sullivan and the LDS church eventually carried the day.
Sullivan stood up for the church again when the city granted a business license to the Crazy Goat Saloon, a watering hole that had morphed into a strip club. Probably not a big deal in most American cities. But the Goat was located just blocks from Temple Square, the church’s most prized piece of property, and the state’s No. 1 tourist attraction. The church lost its initial court battle, filed an appeal with the Utah Supreme Court, and geared up for another fight. Then, in February 2007, the Goat closed its doors, rendering the whole thing moot. But for a few years, the case put Sullivan at center stage.
Sullivan shrugs off the media glare. “There’s an added level of scrutiny with cases like that. But there’s always pressure to win, no matter what the case is,” he says. Just about the same time as the Crazy Goat case, Sullivan and his team were victorious in a technology and IP case for Headwaters Inc., netting $173 million—the largest jury verdict in Utah history and the ninth largest in the country in 2005.
Currently, Sullivan is knee-deep in zoning issues surrounding the massive reconstruction and revitalization of the church’s 20-acre chunk of Salt Lake City’s downtown. And it’s going to be significant, with large buildings going up, others coming down, and flashing barricades through 2011. All of this to the tune of $1 billion, largely funded by the LDS church and its business partners.
Daniel Darger, an attorney and former owner of the Crazy Goat Saloon, says the church’s trust in Sullivan speaks volumes. “[Sullivan] has taken on a role as counsel and litigator for the biggest client in the state,” he says. “It says a lot when that church appreciates Sullivan’s quality and the results he can deliver.”
It’s fitting that Sullivan should be a key figure in the city’s face-lift. He’s quintessentially Salt Lake City. Sullivan was raised on the East Side, a section of town characterized by towering oaks and well-kept middle-class Victorian homes. His father owned a small neighborhood grocery store, and Sullivan spent much of his youth bagging and delivering groceries alongside his brother and sister. The market was a local hangout of sorts, attracting a cast of characters straight out of a Dickens novel. Some of them took the young Sullivan to lunch at Lamb’s, the city’s most venerable downtown restaurant where politicians and businessmen gathered for liver and onions.
Sullivan’s upbringing may have nudged his interests toward literature. After graduating from Columbia in 1969, he went on to Johns Hopkins University to pursue a Ph.D. in English, studying 17th-century poetry. But it dawned on him that he might not be on the right track. Reading great works and studying them were two different things. Also: “I wasn’t cut out for life as an academic,” he says. Finally, too many young Ph.D.s were scrabbling for the same handful of jobs—and the prospect of starving to death held little appeal. “You come to a point where you realize you have to make a living,” he says. “You realize you’re suited for some things, and not others. And I came to realize that I wanted a different kind of life.”
So he left grad school and joined Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA). That’s when he toured the strike towns of New England through a program jointly sponsored by the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity. It was during these road trips that Sullivan warmed up to the idea of becoming a lawyer. “It was the great unknown,” he says. “I didn’t know any lawyers. Growing up, I’d never known any.”
During his first week of law school at the University of Utah, everything snapped into focus. As his shell-shocked classmates were starting to realize how grueling law school was going to be, Sullivan had an entirely different reaction. “I knew I was going to love this,” he says. “Turns out I have some aptitude for it.”
After law school, Sullivan served as a clerk for the 10th Circuit, and received plenty of job offers from out-of-state firms. He wasn’t sure where to go. Then one morning, as he walked to work from his home in Salt Lake’s Avenues neighborhood, it hit him. “It had snowed the night before,” he says. “It was a clear, cold day. It was beautiful. I decided then that I couldn’t leave Salt Lake City.” He joined VanCott Bagley Cornwall & McCarthy in August 1975, and moved to Snell & Wilmer in 1998. Since then, he’s taken on everything from intellectual property to constitutional issues. “You have to become an instant expert on what comes through the door,” he says.
Daniel Medwed, an associate professor of law at the University of Utah, got more than he bargained for when he came through Sullivan’s door. He was seeking advice concerning the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center (RMIC), a coalition of litigators who investigate wrongful convictions. He knew Sullivan had experience piloting a nonprofit when he helped found And Justice for All, a group that supports free legal programs for those who struggle with poverty, violence or discrimination. Medwed had expected a convivial conversation and a handshake with Sullivan, and little else. He ended up with an ally. “If he says he’s going to do something, he’ll do it, and he’ll do more,” he says. “We go to him for advice, and he gives us more than that. He practically gives us his right arm.”
Sullivan now serves on the RMIC board, and has become one of its most fervent and vocal champions. “He has offered his law firm’s services to help us investigate and litigate,” Medwed says. “He never does anything halfway. He’s a supremely talented litigator with the ethical and moral compass of a saint.”
For Sullivan, practicing law is just as sacred as the relationship between clergy and parishioner. “Clients tell you their secrets,” he says. “They trust you with their affairs.”
Recently, Sullivan celebrated his 60th birthday. He’s at that stage in life where most would be throttling back—but not Sullivan. “When you turn 60,” he says, “you start thinking about the things you’ve done and where you are in your life. I may slow down sometime. But I don’t know when that will be.”