Admiralitas: An Interview with Michael Sturley

The current issue of the Federal Bar Association’s Admiralty Law eNewsletter — Admiralitas — turns its “Member Spotlight” on Texas Law Prof. Michael F. Sturley. Prof. Sturley is a founding member of the Admiralty Section of the FBA, as well as one of the directors on the Board of Directors. The interview below, reprinted with permission, covers Prof. Sturley’s interesting career path, his legal interests and adventures beyond just Admiralty Law, and the hobbies that occupy his time when he’s not writing and teaching.

Prof. Michael F. Sturley

Michael, please share with us a little about what first interested you in a legal career.
As an undergraduate history major, I took a couple of legal history classes in the law school. Although I then had very little idea what lawyers actually do, I found the legal analysis fascinating and decided to pursue the subject further.

Was Admiralty and Maritime law your first interest?
Far from it. During my first year of law school, the third-year student who worked with us on legal research & writing was planning to become a maritime lawyer and we all laughed at him. He ultimately became an IP lawyer doing bio-tech work and I became the maritime lawyer.

What motivated you to become a law professor and how was the transition from the practice of law in a firm?
The transition was easy for me because I love working on interesting legal problems. As a professor, my job is primarily to think and write about problems that interest me, while retaining the freedom to consult on challenging problems that arise in practice. In the firm, I was fortunate to work on a number of great projects, but ultimately my responsibility was to find solutions to clients’ problems — whether or not I thought their issues were interesting. I still remember a lunch I had with Justice Powell soon after I started teaching. I told him, “My job is much better than yours, Justice, because I get to work on anything I like. But if four of your crazy colleagues want to hear a case, you’re stuck with it.” He leaned back, laughed, and said “you have that absolutely right.”

What do you think most shaped your career in this field?
The question should really be who most shaped my career in this field. Three professors stand out from the large crowd of people who have influenced me over the years. Prof. Francis M.B. Reynolds first introduced me to the commercial and international aspects of maritime law when I was a student at Oxford, and those issues have continued to be a significant aspect of my professional life. Prof. Charles L. Black, Jr., first introduced me to U.S. maritime law, particularly the constitutional and federalism aspects of the subject. And Prof. David W. Robertson, my colleague at the University of Texas Law School for the last 33 years, has taught me so much about so many aspects of maritime law that I cannot begin to list them (although the tort aspects would certainly be high on the list).

You clerked for Justice Powell with the United States Supreme Court. What are some of your most favorite memories of that experience? Were there any maritime cases of interest?
A clerkship at the Supreme Court is such an amazing opportunity that it almost seems a shame to waste it on such recent law graduates. My fondest memories involve working with the justice, my co-clerks, and the law clerks in other chambers to address some of the most challenging legal problems in the courts at the time. Of course the Supreme Court hears very few maritime cases, but for some reason we had a bumper crop of LHWCA cases my term. The best-known was Director, OWCP v. Perini North River Associates, 459 U.S. 297, 1983 AMC 609 (1983).

What advice would you give to lawyers who are considering a career in maritime law or who have just begun to practice law in the field? How about advice to those considering teaching?
I would advise anyone going into practice or teaching to find a field that interests them, and to make the most of the opportunities in that field. Maritime law has provided me with an endless parade of interesting and complicated problems, and the courts appear to be committed to continuing that parade. But different people have different interests, and everyone has to find his or her own path. As the Romans put it, “de gustibus non est disputandum.”

Have you noticed any trends in the field or significant court decisions that have most impacted your practice in Admiralty law or in Federal Court litigation in general?
I think it is inevitable for people to view the most recent — and thus the most familiar — developments as the most important, but because I studied history in a prior life I tend to take a longer view. I have served as counsel on over a dozen merits-stage maritime cases at the Supreme Court, and each one has had an impact on maritime practice, but in a common law system change is incremental. It takes a long time to see whether something is a trend or a temporary aberration.

Despite that caveat, if I had to identify one “trend” that has affected both maritime practice and federal court litigation in general it would be the increasing tendency of federal judges to avoid actually deciding cases. In the last half-century, courts have become more willing to send cases to alternative forums (for example, by enforcing a forum selection clause) and more forceful in encouraging settlement, with the result that far fewer cases are actually tried today.

Please describe one or two of the most memorable cases that you have been involved with during your career and tell us why.
Both as a law clerk and as a director of our Supreme Court Clinic, I have worked on a wide range of interesting non-maritime cases. (The federal government actually paid me to watch Bo Derek’s 1981 Tarzan movie.) I have also been consulted on a number of interesting non-maritime cases. (I helped defend Exxon’s tiger from Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger, for example.) One of my most memorable maritime cases was Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v. James N. Kirby, Pty Ltd., 543 U.S. 14, 2004 AMC 2705 (2004). The case raised so many different issues that my co-authors and I excerpt it as a principal case in three different sections of our Admiralty casebook. And there were so many layers of complexity that I was constantly making new discoveries the more I worked on it. I got involved right after the district court’s decision, so I also participated in the tangled procedural path the case took to the Supreme Court. I am not surprised that we eventually lost 9-0, but I am disappointed that the Court never came to grips with the issues that were presented.

My other most memorable maritime “case” was not actually a case but a government project — the negotiation of the U.N. Convention on Contracts for the International Carriage of Goods Wholly or Partly by Sea, popularly known as the Rotterdam Rules. My direct involvement began when I was appointed as the rapporteur of the CMI group that prepared the initial draft for the U.N. Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL). And when UNCITRAL took up the project, I spent 6½ years as the U.S. delegation’s principal spokesman on substantive maritime issues. Examining the central issues in carriage law from the perspective of dozens of different countries, and then working out compromise solutions that could achieve consensus support, is undoubtedly the most challenging task in which I have participated.

When you are not practicing law or teaching, what are some of your hobbies that you enjoy?
I have been a big fan of live theatre for fifty years, and I enjoy going to the theatre when I can. (I am particularly pleased that I passed this passion on to my daughter, who recently graduated from college with a theatre major. Seeing a show that she has directed is my real favorite!) I still enjoy traveling, although I’ve had to do a lot of that for work. (When possible, I try to add some vacation time to my work trips.) Indeed, it was my love of travel that first drew me to such an international subject as maritime law. And when the weather cooperates, I try to be active outdoors, particularly with hiking or biking.

Can you tells us a little bit about how the Admiralty Section of the FBA came about and generally what drew you to the FBA in the first place.
The FBA’s Admiralty Section is largely the creation of Howard McPherson, our first chair. Howard recruited me to join the board, and it was his energy and initiative that got us established. It was a pleasure to work with him in the beginning, and I am pleased to continue working with his successors to keep the section running so successfully.

Interview submitted by Douglas W. Truxillo, Onebane Law Firm