June 05, 2024

Attorney Spotlight: Jim Sawtelle on Joining Venable and His Vision for the Firm’s New Denver Office

5 min

Jim Sawtelle, partner-in-charge of Venable’s Denver office, is an experienced trial lawyer who is active in commercial and IP litigation. In this Q&A, Jim shares some of the highlights from his extensive career as a litigator, why he’s excited about joining Venable, and what his team in Denver will bring to the firm. 

Q. You’ve tried close to 100 cases in court. Were you always drawn to litigation?

A. When anyone gets into the practice of law, there will be areas that will be of interest to them and others that won’t. In my case, I found the courtroom practice fascinating, and it quickly became something that I couldn’t get enough of. When I got out of law school, I had the opportunity to work for a boutique litigation firm, where I was involved in a trial nearly all the time. Being able to get that kind of experience as a young lawyer was really beneficial for me. 

Q. Is there a particular industry or area that you focus on?

A. As a litigator, you essentially do whatever you’re asked. That’s the nature of the job. But I have represented a sizeable media company headquartered in New York for the past 23 years, and that has led to more clients in that space. There’s a pretty strong presence of charitable organizations in Colorado, so I’ve done some work in that area too. I’ve also handled a lot of IP disputes on behalf of national clients, related to trademark infringement, software development, licensing, copyright, things of that nature. So, my practice is quite varied.

Q. Of all the cases you’ve tried, were any of them particularly memorable?

A. I was a very young lawyer when I got to try an environmental case in Des Moines, Iowa against one of the nation’s largest oil companies. Our small litigation boutique was up against some of the top law firms in the country representing the company, and they threw everything at us. My clients were co-owners of a strip mall that was near a gas station owned by the oil company. When the underground storage tanks leaked into the environment, the fuel traveled through the groundwater and migrated underneath a daycare center in the strip mall. Under Iowa law at the time, a release of benzene exceeding five parts per billion must be cleaned up. When our environmental consultants monitored the groundwater underneath the daycare center, the sample exceeded the allowed amount. We won the case and were awarded one of the largest punitive damages jury verdicts in Iowa state history.

Q. That must have been very satisfying, to win a case like that against major odds.

A. The best part about it was that one of our clients decided to donate his share of the recovery to building a medical clinic in a very underprivileged neighborhood. He’d had a difficult childhood. As the eldest of several children who lost their father in a railroad accident, he was forced to drop out of school after the eighth grade to help his mother take care of the family and began working as a roofer. Eventually, he began buying old homes and flipping them. By the time I met him, he was a multimillionaire. He was also a very spiritual person, who felt very strongly about giving back to his community and helping people. So, his decision to donate his portion of the recovery to build a medical clinic wasn’t all that surprising, but it did make winning the case very gratifying.

Q. With all the advances in technology, have you found IP disputes have gotten a lot more complicated?

A. That's an interesting question. The fact patterns have certainly gotten more complex, but the legal principles haven’t changed dramatically. The challenge you always have as a trial attorney is to take a complex set of facts and distill them down to principles anyone can understand. A former partner of mine used to say, “You have to be able to speak to the forklift operator on the jury.” I actually worked as a forklift driver at one time, so that’s pretty easy for me! But seriously, with IP litigation your challenge is to be able to break down some very esoteric scenarios into simple concepts that can be understood by anyone. So, in that sense, IP disputes haven’t changed significantly.

Q. You recently joined Venable along with a team of lawyers from your previous firm. Why did you decide to make this move?

A. I’ve worked with this team of lawyers in Denver for about ten years now, and we were looking to do something different. We’re all friends who respect and like one another, so when the opportunity to join Venable came along, one of the things we were focused on from the beginning was the firm’s culture and whether it would be a good fit. And when we started meeting people from Venable, we couldn’t help but notice that they genuinely seemed to like and care about each other. Then of course we wanted to be among excellent attorneys. Being around very bright, hardworking people just raises your game. And anyone who works for Venable has to bring their A game every day. So that’s exciting to be part of.

Q. What do you think your team in Denver will bring to Venable, and do you have plans to expand the Denver office?

A. One thing we have to offer is a bench of very experienced trial attorneys. Now, Venable already has excellent trial attorneys, and I'm not suggesting that we are needed to fill a gap. But the level of trial experience that our team collectively brings is not something that you find at a lot of firms. And with our central location, it’s easy to plug in some of our people to cases being tried in other parts of the country. As for expansion plans, we certainly hope to build out our office here. With the tech startup community growing in the Denver/Boulder corridor, there are a lot of opportunities for intellectual property and other tech-related work. We’re also keen to add more transactional/corporate M&A attorneys. With the reputation that Venable enjoys, getting top-tier talent to join us here shouldn’t be too difficult.

Learn more about Venable’s Denver office.