Public defender assistant passionate about family law

Cary Ashby • Oct 29, 2015 at 12:51 PM

First he was graphic designer. Then he was a logger.

Now Norwalk native James Sitterly is a Huron County public defender handling juvenile cases.

Before earning his bachelor's in art from the University of Washington in 1995, the 1990 St. Paul High School graduate had his own graphic design business selling printed sports wear.

"What really helped out was the music scene in the Seattle area in the early 1990s," he said, because that created a big demand for T-shirts and posters.

Sitterly said he eventually moved back to Norwalk to continue his mostly mail order business because about 60 percent of the nation's population is within 500 miles of Ohio.

"After about a year of that, I became impatient with it and my father offered me a job in the family (logging) business," he said.

In 2003, Sitterly started attending Cleveland Marshall, Cleveland State University's law school while he worked in the logging business. He also clerked at several Cleveland and Norwalk law firms.

Sitterly started focusing on divorce and dissolutions because he was fascinated with how people can be "legally connected" to each other when they get married. Nobody in his family has ever been divorced.

He said his astute instructors who taught divorce law were practicing lawyers.

"It wasn't academic. It was (a) rubber hits the road mentality when they taught. ... I found that very helpful."

Sitterly, 34, passed the bar the first time after graduating from law school in December. He filed his first divorce case after Norwalk Municipal Judge John Ridge swore him in as an attorney.

Before that, Huron County Public Defender George Ford had interviewed Sitterly for an open position vacated by Norwalk Assistant Law Director T. Douglas Clifford.

Ford said Sitterly's ambition, intensity and dedication to hard work set him apart from the other four candidates.

"We took a long time to do this. We wanted to do it right," Ford said. "We had a lot of good candidates."

While the public defender's commission did a search that lasted seven weeks, Ford handled the juvenile case load.

"I was ready to get back to my job," he said.

On June 18, the commission hired Sitterly with a county salary of more than $30,000. He noted that he can match that figure in his private practice.

"I'm glad to be under the wing of two pros like George Ford and Dave Longo," Sitterly said.

He handles four to five juvenile court hearings each day, with each one lasting from 20 minutes to 1 1/2 hours. Sitterly joked that the most challenging part of his job is being interviewed by the Reflector, but said it actually was "handling 10 hearings in one day when it (was) 90 degrees out."

What attracted Sitterly to defending juveniles is being able to "help out children who have gone astray." He also mentioned that juvenile cases "are inherently tied to family law," one of his law school passions.

Sitterly said court is "a very scary space. ... They don't know what to expect."

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