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May 24, 2005 > Life Questions

Life Questions

by Stephen Von Till

You live in a townhouse. Your next door neighbor's dog got excited one day and knocked you down in a "common area" causing injury. The neighbor leases the townhouse from an absentee owner. Homeowner rules and regulations say that a homeowner who leases his property is fully responsible for his tenant's acts in common areas. Does the owner of the townhouse have any responsibility for the problem?

Questions like this are common ground for local attorney Stephen Von Till. An honors graduate of Michigan State University and the Illinois School of Law where he was an editor of the Law Review, Von Till began his career as an entertainment lawyer for a corporate law firm in Los Angeles. Gravitation toward entertainment law was natural since Von Till is an accomplished guitarist who sang and played in a college with a group of his buddies billed as The Colony Men. It is apparent that musical inclinations run in the family; his son Steve plays with a band and daughter, Katherine (also a graduate of MSU) is a professional singer and actress.

Although entertainment is a big part of his life and corporate clients included the likes of the Beatles and Columbia Pictures, Stephen found the job unfulfilling. "I wanted to do it all," said Stephen and with this determination, opened his own office first in Newark in 1971, then in Fremont in 1981. He is happiest when representing the "little guy" who has a legitimate complaint when facing large, well-financed opposition. "It's almost like a David and Goliath battle," says Von Till.

As a general practitioner, Von Till said, "Every case is an interesting story." He feels that his experience before judges and juries gives him an advantage when assessing how a potential litigant will fare in court and determining possible pitfalls for those who consult with him on matters of business or personal agreements. After all, he reasons, when all goes wrong, these issues end up in court. Who better to draft a will, partnership agreement or other type of legal document than someone who has been involved in such litigation? Stephen feels that he is able to protect his clients by anticipating legal problems due to his court experience.

There is little that is "usual" about Von Till. He not only opts for challenges that others may shrink from, but works in a unique office located in a blue Victorian House near Ohlone College in Mission San Jose, adorned with Michigan State University (MSU) paraphernalia. He says that his obsession with his alma mater stems from the moment he arrived on campus. MSU, the first (along with Pennsylvania State University) land grant college in the United States, created in 1855, began as an agricultural-based school and is impressive for the beautiful buildings but also for its wooded and landscaped areas. At age 17, college was Stephen's first venture away from home and as he approached the MSU campus for orientation, "it unfolded before me." He speaks of the "park-like atmosphere with trees and a river, bordered by gaslight-type lamps, running through the campus. It was one of the seminal moments of his life.

As a committee member of the board of directors of the alumni association, Stephen recently attended a spring meeting on campus. He said, "A visit to Michigan State is returning home for me; going back to my roots." Although born in Pennsylvania, Stephen grew up in Chicago area, attending the same high school as Harrison Ford and Hillary Clinton. He laughingly stated that he understands that Mr. Greenjeans of Captain Kangaroo fame attended the school in the 1940's. Another notable, Carrie Snodgrass (Diary of a Mad Housewife), was in his graduating class. For Stephen, however, despite the luminaries that graduated from his high school, his heart and soul remain at MSU.

Training in logical thought and action came in handy for the young attorney when, in 1981, he visited Czechoslovakia to research family genealogy. Only 30 minutes inside the country, then behind the Iron Curtain, he had a run-in with the authorities. Intrigued by convex mirrors hanging at intersections to show side traffic, he decided to take a picture. With Polaroid film developing in his hand, a stern young man in uniform approached, briskly questioned him and exchanged angry words with his guide. "I thought they were going to shoot me on the spot," said Stephen. Arrested and carried away without the niceties of reading rights, Stephen found himself in a bare room with only a desk, chair and no doorknobs.

As officials searched for an English-speaking interpreter, Stephen's trepidation increased. As a "professional interrogator" himself, he wondered how the police would proceed in questioning what they might believe to be an American spy looking to shatter the Communist Empire. After all, a Polaroid camera was a device few people isolated behind the tightly controlled borders had ever seen.

Von Till's training came in handy. Using his wits and powers of persuasion he convinced the officials of his innocence. He was released unharmed and then given an obligatory tour of Czechoslovak intersections so he could take pictures of mirrors "to my heart's delight."

His European experience illustrates Stephen's self-confidence that he said is an essential part of "hanging out a shingle" as a private practitioner. "I disliked the large law firm atmosphere so much, that I said I will never work for someone else again. I have been true to that promise. Private practice also enabled me to do, in law, whatever I wanted to do. That was important to me." In law school, Stephen says he enjoyed the experience and was stimulated by Socratic-style discussions. "Any area of law can have a novel issue to discuss legally - wills, trusts, anti-trust, taxes, etc." He said, "I wanted to try everything I learned in law school. I wanted to do it all and the only way you can do it all, is to hang out a shingle."

Stephen admits that with the introduction of more laws and regulations, the ability of a sole practitioner to handle every type of law is no longer feasible. A prior partnership with Dan Grimmer (now a Superior Court judge) allowed more specialization and Von Till began to spend more time in jury trials of injury or consumer cases. "I wanted to represent the little guy against the big guy." Although some in the law profession have a tendency to minimize sole practitioners in the belief that these people were unable to land a job at a prestigious law firm, Stephen found the opposite to be true. He said speakers at seminars he attended, many of whom were solo practitioners, impressed him with their high level of competence. "These were people who had graduated at the top of their classes in law school and on the cutting edge of tort law, medical malpractice and product liability." He adds that "Not only is a successful practitioner well versed in law and academically sound, but also must combine this with the talents of a psychologist to deal with a judge and jury. "Putting it all together in the courtroom is like putting on an unscripted play. You are a director in a situation where you are not sure what the actors are going to say - you have an idea, but you are not sure!"

Throughout his career, Stephen Von Till has been able to satisfy his desire to work in many areas of the law while remaining an independent practitioner. Whether the case involves intricate business or personal paperwork, agreements or a dispute that will settle with the outcome of a jury trial, Von Till is not only an intelligent and passionate advocate, but a man with the integrity to be true to his core values.

Stephen Von Till
152 Anza Street, Ste. 200, Fremont
(510) 490-1100

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