Q&A With James M. Sturdivant

James M. Sturdivant looks back on almost 50 years with GableGotwals and the $5,000 verdict that remains his favorite case

Published in 2009 Oklahoma Super Lawyers — November 2009

What drew you to the law?

When I was in undergraduate school at the University of Oklahoma, I became friends with the son of the dean of the law school there, Earl Sneed, who was a great educator, and he was the spark that lit my fire to be a lawyer. My father was a minister and I didn’t know anything about lawyers but what I’d heard and seen from a distance. But Dean Sneed inspired me and I applied, got in and that was in 1961.

 

And if you hadn’t become a lawyer, would you have become a minister as well?

No, no. I don’t think so.

 

What kind of work do you think you would have gone into?

I don’t know, maybe banking. I went through four years of undergraduate and then I was two years in the Marine Corps and then I came back to law school. I knew while I was in the Marine Corps that I wanted to come back and be a lawyer. And I knew all through undergraduate that I had two years of military duty to do, so I never really had to confront the decision of what I would have done otherwise.

 

When you started practicing, did it differ from what you expected?

Sure. I mean, the academic study of the law was great and challenging and I enjoyed it, but coming out into the real world and dealing with real people and real situations and real deadlines and finite budgets … people come in and say, “I’ve got a $50,000 problem but I can’t spend more than $5,000 to solve it.” You have to limit your resources, discipline your time and work through all of those things. You know, I’ve had one job as a lawyer. I’ve been with this law firm since January 22, 1964, and I took my last law school final that morning in Norman and drove to Tulsa over the noon hour and went to work in this firm that afternoon and I’ve been here ever since.

 

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the practice of law during your career?

The relationship between lawyers has changed. The relationship between lawyers and judges has changed. When I came to Tulsa in 1964, I think we probably had 700 or 800 lawyers in town and now we have like 4,000. You knew everybody after a while; you don’t now. Same way with the judges. They knew all the lawyers and the lawyers knew all the judges, but that’s not the case now. It’s much more structured now. You get written agreements between lawyers now for extensions of time, whereas you used to just call a guy and say, “I need five more days,” and he’d say, “You got it.”

 

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The best-prepared lawyer is generally going to prevail. Not always, but usually. There’s no substitute for preparation.

 

What was your most memorable case?

Probably my first jury trial, which was in the late 1960s. It was against the Oklahoma Tax Commission for a refund of some estate taxes that were assessed against a widow named Grace Nola Jackman. She and her deceased husband, Bert, had started a little drug store in East Tulsa. He was the pharmacist and she ran the front end of the store— the soda fountain, cosmetics, whatever. He went into WWII and was gone for four and a half years. She kept the store open, running the front end—they closed down the pharmacy. She did all the work by herself. Then he came back from the war, reopened the pharmacy and they ran it as the only two employees until the day he died in the mid-1960s.

We filed the estate tax return and said 50 percent of that business was his and 50 percent of it was hers. The tax commission said “baloney” and included 100 percent of the drug store in the estate tax return. [The tax commission seemed to say,] “A woman is not going to create value [in a business], she can’t claim to be a half owner.” There was probably $10,000 of tax in total. We paid the tax under protest and sued in state court. We got a jury trial, won it and got half of those taxes back. The tax commission appealed it to the Oklahoma Supreme Court and the Supreme Court affirmed it.

I get the most satisfaction out of the Jackman case, still to this day. Of all the trials, and I’ve been in quite a few, I can still remember every witness and every issue, the judge’s name and some of the jurors’ names.

 

What do you consider the most significant accomplishment in your career?

I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to work on a lot of high-profile and significant pieces of litigation—usually on the defense side, but sometimes on the plaintiff side through the years. I’ve been privileged to work at one law firm the whole time with a wonderful group of men and women. I don’t know if that’s an accomplishment or not, but it’s certainly something that I’m proud of.

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