In 1983, a pair of young law students are sitting at Baby Doe’s Matchless Mine, a seafood and steak restaurant etched into Birmingham’s Red Mountain. That night, the famous restaurant, with its mineshaft entrance and gobs of fare, would become the star-crossed venue for future esquires Jeff Sewell and Doris Kerr.
Jeff and Doris met in Admiralty class at Cumberland School of Law, where they studied the legal ramifications when two ships collide. Jeff sat in the back while Doris was a “front row person,” as he recalls.
One day, Doris was popping gum in class and the professor, an old ancient retired maritime lawyer, took exception. Jeff, who didn’t know Doris at the time, seized the moment and took the liberty of some light needling.
“I injected myself into that conversation and drew fire from both of them,” Jeff recalls.
That “conversation” segued into an eventual date—the evening of grandeur at Baby Doe’s.
“After that date, we were pretty much inseparable,” remembers Doris.
Now, over thirty years later, Jeff and Doris sit in a conference room at Sewell, Sewell, McMillan Law Firm, describing their growing up years and how their lives converged and later flourished, centering on a life in the military and the practice of law. Doris doesn’t look a day over thirty, and Jeff is a handsomer, white-haired relic of the young barrister who went into the JAG Corp and adjudicated court-martials in the mid-1980s.
Doris Kerr was born in Mobile and attended Julius T. Wright School for Girls (now UMS-Wright). Young Doris reveled in the laid back life of the coast, the seafood and beach, and overall Southern identity of which Mobile offered aplenty. After graduation, she attended Samford University, where she received her bachelor’s, MBA, and J.D.
Jeff grew up in Center Point, Alabama and graduated from Erwin High in 1977. Although he had an opportunity to attend West Point, Sewell instead decided on a US Army ROTC scholarship to the University of Alabama.
At that time, Alabama’s ROTC program was one of the largest in the country (with 1700-plus students), and when Jeff graduated, he was Commander of the corps.
Jeff finished Alabama with a degree in finance, got accepted to Cumberland, and met Doris. After they both graduated and passed the Bar, he completed the Army Judge Advocate General (JAG) School in Charlottesville, Virginia. He married Doris in Gloucester, Virginia on May 25, 1985 in a military ceremony replete with chaplain, horns, and regalia.
The pair soon moved to the Williamsburg, Virginia area, to Fort Eustis, where Jeff negotiated a large caseload of military trials and Doris worked in private practice.
Jeff tried 68 court martial cases in three years.
Doris and Jeff thoroughly enjoyed life on the East Coast. They would often go crabbing off the pier on the York River, and host cookouts and crab boils with what they’d snagged (many of those dinner guests are now Generals and Congressmen). But after three years in Virginia, Alabama lured them home.
In February of ’87, Jeff was transferred to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, while Doris worked at MICOM, doing contract legal work including the acquisition of missile systems for the Army. Jeff and Doris also welcomed two children, Alana and Hunter, who inherited their fearless nature.
The family moved to Birmingham just a year later, when Jeff was hired as an Assistant County Attorney for Jefferson County. Doris was hired as In-House Counsel at Bruno’s Supermarkets, where she was instrumental in projects such as the opening the old Food World in Jasper.
In 2008, Jeff was promoted to County Attorney of Jefferson County, and worked closely with federal prosecutors to clean up the county.
“Jefferson County was infested with crooked county commissioners and contractors,” Sewell says. “All of the corruption involved the contracting process and it very nearly destroyed Jefferson County. I came in to clear the wreckage off the flight deck.”
Sewell says that six county commissioners are now federal convicts (five are serving substantial prison sentences), and 23 contractors are also in the slammer.
The house cleaning did not come without enormous opposition. “My life was threatened by more than one county commissioner,” Sewell admits. “One day, I was met at gunpoint by an armed security guard who tried to stop me from coming in the Jefferson County Courthouse. The threats against our family were beyond all boundaries.”
“It was off the charts stressful,” Doris reflects.
During his stint as County Attorney, there were some high points, however. Sewell argued a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court—and won. His trial experience and training in the Army proved to be invaluable in the civil arena, as well as his fearless attitude to accept these challenges head-on.
“Standing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, being an officer in the Army, and confronting corrupt politicians all require courage. I have stepped into extremely difficult situations that could have been fear-producing. But they were never able to provoke a fear response from me, which would have led to complete ineffectiveness.”
While at Bruno’s, Doris remembers sharply the moment when the Bruno’s plane crashed into a mountain near Rome, Georgia in December of 1991. Doris had previously flown on that plane, and if it were not for a scheduling rotation, she may have been on the flight that crashed.
“I remember my boss was walking down the hall,” Doris says. “He was pale as a ghost. He said, ‘The plane went down’ and he could barely breathe.’”
Perhaps the perfect respite from the stress of the legal world, from the saturnine emotions that stemmed from the constant scrubbing of Jefferson County’s tarnished chalice was needed. So in 2002, the Sewell’s bought a lake house at Smith Lake, on the Walker County side. This purchase would begin a love affair with lake life, and an eventual business, though they could not have envisioned it at the time.
After nine years of coming to the lake, the Sewells, in 2011, decided to move to Jasper permanently. They opened up their own law firm, specializing in corporate transactional work and complex litigation. They represent a long list of large corporations, financial institutions, pension plans, public officials, and small business owners.
“You can’t operate in today’s world unless you comply with the law,” Jeff says. “I’ve found that the cost of noncompliance far exceeds the cost of compliance. Nothing brings a business down faster than noncompliance with the law.”
Outside of their law practice, Doris and Jeff also run Smith Lake Concierge, a full-service concierge service. “This was born out of our own personal experience, not knowing who to call,” says Jeff. “We have crews all over the lake. We offer services such as pool, lawn, and dock maintenance, and house cleaning to non-resident homeowners around Smith Lake.”
A review of Doris and Jeff’s lives will uncover a tremendous amount of success. But what has defined them? What has been the foundation for all of these accomplishments? What has threaded them through the years?
“Hands down, above all else, our walk with the Lord,” Jeff says. “It’s the foundation upon which all else is built and it is the only part of our lives that will make an eternal difference. When we go to meet the Lord, he’s not going to care about our legal career or political philosophy. Doris and I have tried to keep our priorities right.”
“Putting the Lord first is the key to our success,” Doris adds.
Perhaps this is why Jeff and Doris have been able to lean in to their challenges and stand confidently in the face of fear. Perhaps this is why this family does not fear evil.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
“I’ve never been afraid to right a wrong,” Jeff says. “My decisions and actions come from prayer and seeking His direction. When you walk with the Lord there is nothing to fear.” 78
A Final Note: Hunter is a First Lieutenant in the Army and commands a platoon of Bradley Fighting Vehicles for the First Infantry Division at Ft. Riley, Kansas. Alana is a prosecutor and has sent some very dangerous individuals to prison. For more information about Sewell, Sewell, McMillan Law Firm, please visit www.sewellmcmillan.com. For information about Smith Lake Concierge, go to www.smithlakeconcierge.com. Sign up for our email updates below to receive more articles like these in your inbox.