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Father-daughter duo are city attorneys in Midfield, Birmingham

Birmingham City Attorney Nicole King knew at age 5 she wanted to be a lawyer just like her father, David Sullivan, who used to take her to court when he had cases. “I have learned, and he’s always taught me, ‘Don’t ever go into a profession when you can’t help somebody,’” she said.

Not only did King, 43, follow her father into the profession, but they have achieved a rare feat: father-daughter city attorneys in adjacent jurisdictions.

Sullivan, 73, represents the city of Midfield.

Sidney Jackson, immediate past president of the Magic City Bar Association, can’t remember father-daughter city attorneys in the Birmingham metro area.

“I think it is certainly a special situation, especially as related to Black attorneys,” said Jackson, who is a board member of the Magic City Bar Association, which was founded in 1984 to promote the professional advancement of African American attorneys.

“I think we are unique, I know, to this county, probably to this state, maybe to the nation,” Sullivan said.

King added, “Definitely, no African Americans.”

Mom’s influence

King was prepared for her profession as much by her mother, Juliette Sullivan, a retired social worker after 35 years, as she was by her dad. Both parents taught their daughter to always give back and not think about just herself.

“I will say that I get my kind and gentle nature from my mom,” King said. “I get my pit bull nature from my dad.” Her mother sometimes took her daughter along on the job, where she met some of her mother’s clients and witnessed her passion for her work.

Sullivan said he wouldn’t call himself a pit bull in the courtroom. “I don’t, but a lot of folks do.”

Midfield City Attorney David Sullivan and his daughter, Birmingham City Attorney Nicole King, both considered other careers before settling on law, although King had wanted to grow up to be a lawyer as a child after she accompanied her father to court. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr. / The Birmingham Times)

Because of his daughter, Sullivan knows exactly how many years he has been a lawyer: 43. He remembers because his daughter was born the day he took the bar exam.

King, the Sullivans’ only child, was born eight weeks premature, weighing 3 pounds, 8 ounces.

“This was her head, and this was her feet,” her father said, motioning from the tip of his middle finger to the base of his palm.

The elder lawyer credits Juliette Sullivan for his legal career. “She supported me through law school and financed my daughter also in her matriculation through law school and undergrad,” he said. “Whatever we are, we owe it to my wife.”

Career paths

King grew up in the Birmingham subdivision of Winewood in the Echo Highlands neighborhood and graduated from Ramsay High School. She earned her law degree at Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in Houston.

Sullivan graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in psychology and a minor in sociology before earning a law degree at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law.

Midfield Mayor Gary Richardson said Sullivan “is a legal scholar. He’s a fighter. He’s taken on some giants and won for the city. If I had to go to battle, I’d definitely want him by my side.”

The father and daughter each considered a career other than law. He initially wanted to be a dentist, and she wanted to be a teacher. Late-night chemistry labs influenced Sullivan to change course, and he remembers what prompted his daughter to shift career paths after teaching for about a year.

“A little student picked up some rocks and hit her in the back of the head,” he said. “She told me, ‘I can’t be a teacher. I’ve got to do something else with my life. … She made up her mind then, ‘I think law is a better option than teaching.’”

King said Circuit Judge Tamara Harris Johnson, the first African American female city attorney for Birmingham, has been a mentor. Harris Johnson hired King as a paralegal and ultimately promoted her to an attorney on her staff.

“Not only was she a hard worker, but she wanted to do good work,” Harris Johnson said of King. “She came from a family that was accomplished in terms of their work ethic, so I wasn’t worried about her work ethic. She demonstrated that throughout the entire time I was there.”

Harris Johnson was Birmingham city attorney under Mayor Bernard Kincaid from January 2000 until the end of November 2007, when Larry Langford assumed the office. King, who was hired during Harris Johnson’s first term, started as a law clerk because she had passed the Texas Bar and had not taken the Alabama Bar.

Dogged determination

In her role as city attorney, King believes it is her duty to reach out and help other young people – especially young women – to know what they are capable of being. A wife and mother of a 5-year-old daughter, a 3-year-old son and a 23-year-old “bonus” daughter, King said she is determined to effect change within the city of Birmingham.

That dogged determination led to the creation of the Office of the City Attorney Drug and Nuisance Abatement Team.

“I created that team as a way to help Mayor (Randall) Woodfin in his No. 1 priority, which is neighborhood revitalization,” she said. “Our goal is to help clean up drug and nuisance properties within the city of Birmingham.”

That determination dates back to when King was 3 years old and ran away from home three times in one night, her dad recalled.

“That’s the way she started out in life, and that’s what it is,” Sullivan said. “She’s a hard-headed, wonderful person, and I just love her almost to death.”

This story originally was published by The Birmingham Times.