Legal Help for the masses
Attorney Kerry Steigerwalt puts his reputation on the line in bid to turn around troubled law firm
By Joe Tash
With a friendly, reassuring smile, he appears on television commercials urging people with legal problems to call him. He often serves as a legal commentator on both local and national news programs, and he’s defended clients against criminal charges in San Diego County courtrooms for more than two decades.
Meet Kerry Steigerwalt, who just may be San Diego’s best-known criminal defense attorney.
Two years ago, after building a successful criminal law practice, Steigerwalt took his career in a new direction when he bought a controlling interest in the Pacific Law Center, a firm started by Arizona attorney Robert Arentz. Steigerwalt merged his own practice with Pacific Law Center, and took over as managing partner of the new entity.
At the time of the merger, Pacific Law Center faced numerous problems, from lawsuits filed by former clients to consumer complaints, to a tarnished reputation in the San Diego legal community. Steigerwalt says he has worked hard over the past two years to turn the firm around and improve Pacific Law Center’s image.
By some accounts, the efforts have borne fruit: thousands of clients use the firm’s services each year in the areas of criminal defense, DUI, personal injury and bankruptcy. Pacific Law Center also remains a desirable place for attorneys to work, according to local lawyers.
But consumer complaints continue to dog the firm, and Steigerwalt says he is taking additional steps to improve both communication with clients, and quality control.
Before going forward with the Pacific Law Center deal, Steigerwalt asked a retired judge to look over the business and give his opinion. The judge liked the business model because it allowed lawyers to focus on legal work rather than bringing in business, and it expanded access to legal services for people with low and moderate incomes. That assessment influenced his decision, Steigerwalt says.
“I thought this was an opportunity to be able to serve the masses and provide quality legal representation at an affordable price,” he says.
While he professes to love his job, he concedes he may have underestimated the challenges. “It’s been much more difficult than I ever anticipated… Had I known what I know now, it would have given me great reason to pause before consummating this transaction.”
Steigerwalt, 51, grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and came to California to attend San Diego’s Thomas Jefferson Law School. He planned to return home to practice, but became “enamored” with San Diego and decided to stay.
After passing the state bar exam in 1984 — on his first try — he was hired by Defenders Inc. to represent indigent clients for $18,000 a year. “I loved it. I learned how to represent the underdog,” he says. He later moved to the county Public Defenders office before entering private practice in 1990.
Over the years, he has earned a reputation as a gregarious and personable courtroom advocate who works hard and passionately defends his clients, say those who know him.
“He really gets along with everyone,” says Wendy Patrick, a deputy San Diego County district attorney who has tried cases with Steigerwalt, collaborated on legal presentations and socialized with him and his wife.
“Charisma is a good word to describe Kerry. Energy and charisma. He has a very approachable personality that’s responsible for his success in cases and his success in business,” says Patrick.
Attorneys who know she is friends with Steigerwalt ask her all the time if he is hiring, says Patrick. “It’s a glamorous place to work… they are trying important cases. It’s a very successful outfit.”
Superior Court Judge Frank Brown, a 21-year veteran of the bench as well as a former prosecutor and police officer, says of Steigerwalt, “He’s one of the premier defense attorneys in San Diego clearly, in my opinion. I try cases. I see lots of lawyers and he’s one of the best.”
Steigerwalt is “always prepared and he’s tenacious,” says Brown, who added that Steigerwalt’s success as a high school wrestler made him strong both physically and mentally. “He’s a tough guy, not a sissy.”
“Whenever he walks through the door into my courtroom, I’m happy to see him because I know that he knows what he’s doing,” says Brown.
Over the years, Steigerwalt has handled many high-profile cases, including one capital murder case, and he also represented Henry Hubbard Jr., a former San Diego police officer charged in a string of beach-area sexual assaults.
One of his first cases in private practice was defending Billy Elias, a North Park jazz musician accused of stabbing a female hitchhiker to death. Although police found a bloody knife in Elias’ car and bloodstains on his hand and pants when he was arrested, Steigerwalt boldly told the jury in his opening statement, “I am going to prove to you that Billy Elias is innocent,” according to a newspaper account of the trial.
The case generated a lot of publicity, in part because the body of the victim — a Native American — was exhumed from a sacred Indian burial ground so experts could take a mold of her teeth. Steigerwalt argued that the true killer was a man who had been hitchhiking with the victim. The jury acquitted Elias and he walked out of the courtroom a free man, Steigerwalt says.
“That got publicity and got the phone ringing and people started calling me… I was blessed with the ability to grow my practice,” he says.
Last year, he represented a man charged with murder for a drunken driving crash that resulted in two deaths. A jury convicted Shannon Shimp of the lesser charge of gross vehicular manslaughter.
Steigerwalt also represented Matthew Yanke, one of the so-called Bird Rock Bandits, a group of young men who landed in legal trouble after a La Jolla brawl in 2007 resulted in the death of 24-year-old professional surfer Emery Kauanui.
Yanke and several of his co-defendants were sentenced to local jail time and probation, rather than given lengthy prison sentences, which the judge told them was the “break of a lifetime.” In December, the men landed back in jail for violating the terms of their probation by associating with each other and smoking marijuana.
Steigerwalt calls the men’s actions “disheartening,” and says they “let the judge down.” Last month, Yanke was sentenced to three years in prison.
Steigerwalt’s decision to take over the Pacific Law Center has left some in the legal community with mixed feelings, says Stephen Cline, a San Diego defense attorney and friend of Steigerwalt’s.
The firm’s model of using intensive television advertising (Steigerwalt says his ad budget is “several million a year”) to generate a high volume of clients, and allowing clients to pay in monthly installments, worked well in Arizona, but has proven a tougher sell in San Diego, says Cline.
While some legal purists object to any television advertising by attorneys, says Cline, others are more pragmatic, and realize, “The world has changed, the Yellow Page ads don’t do it.”
The Pacific Law Center model — with its easy financial terms — has also made it possible for the less-affluent to hire private attorneys. “It opened up private counsel to a whole realm of people that normally wouldn’t be able to do it,” says Cline.
In any event, he says, Steigerwalt has his work cut out for him in moving beyond Pacific Law Center’s past problems.
“He took his absolutely stellar reputation and laid it on top of this. People are having a tough time meshing the two,” says Cline. “People love him, they struggle with the other thing.”
Pacific Law Center, which has offices in North University Town Center, Chula Vista, Escondido and Riverside, and employs some two dozen attorneys, continues to rack up complaints from consumers, which has resulted in an “F” rating by the San Diego Better Business Bureau.
As of Jan. 22, the bureau’s Website listed 67 consumer complaints against Pacific Law Center over the past 36 months, including 28 over the past 12 months.
Sheryl Bilbrey, the bureau’s chief executive officer, says numerous consumers have filed complaints stating that Pacific Law Center failed to respond to e-mails and phone calls when they were unhappy with the firm’s services. In the past year, she says, an increasing number of complaints have come from those who hired the firm to help with home loan modifications or bankruptcies.
The bureau considerers a complaint resolved when the business responds to and addresses the consumer’s concerns, says Bilbrey, even if the consumer remains unsatisfied. The Website listed four complaints regarding Pacific Law Center as unresolved.
“The business has earned this grade,” says Bilbrey. “I think Kerry Steigerwalt is working to improve it, but unfortunately, Pacific Law Center has been around for a long time. Whenever you see an F grade, you have to be very leery and really do your homework when considering that company.” As to the number of complaints filed with the bureau over the past year, she says, “Frankly, that’s not encouraging to me.”
Steigerwalt says he met with the bureau shortly after taking over Pacific Law Center and asked to have a clean slate with its rating system. Instead, he says, the bureau merely added his name to the firm’s designation on the BBB Website and kept the “F” grade in place.
“To my knowledge, if somebody complains, their issue is addressed,” Steigerwalt says. He says clients often come to his office in crisis situations, and some act irresponsibly. He also pointed out that since he took over Pacific Law Center, the firm has handled nearly 12,000 cases of all types, and the complaints received by the bureau represent a small fraction of the firm’s caseload. “That’s serving a heck of a lot of people in San Diego who really need help,” he says.
Since taking over, he has replaced all but one of the firm’s criminal attorneys and has instituted policies to ensure complaints are handled properly. He said he is in the process of hiring a staff person to monitor the quality of the firm’s work and track customer satisfaction, and he is installing software that will allow clients to track their cases online.
When he’s not in court, or at his desk in a corner office in the firm’s UTC headquarters, Steigerwalt enjoys spending time with his wife, Beth, and the couple’s three children — a daughter in college, a son in high school and a son in middle school. The family lives in La Jolla, and Steigerwalt volunteered for several years as a coach and manager with the Tecolote Youth Baseball League.
An avid hunter and fisherman, he vacations in Alaska, Colorado, Idaho and other remote spots, and at least every other month, he takes a family member along on a half-day outing on a fishing boat.
“I’m awfully proud of being a lawyer, I think it’s one of the most honorable professions you can have,” he says. “I’d like every client knowing when they leave here they’d refer their brother or sister to us.”