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Lawyer Limelight: Chris Stecher

Chris Stecher thrives on the rush of arguments and examinations at trial as well as the satisfaction of finding a solution before a case escalates – the paradox that he says has helped define his career at Keesal Young & Logan. The San Francisco-based shareholder, who focuses on employment and securities litigation, just passed his 17th year at a firm where he continues to draw inspiration from his colleagues. Stecher first became interested in the law through his father, who has been a lawyer for nearly 50 years. Before entering the University of San Francisco Law School, Stecher taught at an elementary school in Chicago – a formative experience that contributed to his success as a lawyer.

Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the mix of work you do within your practice?

Chris Stecher: My practice includes all business litigation, with a primary focus on employment litigation and securities litigation. I typically defend employers in lawsuits and arbitrations involving claims for wrongful termination, discrimination, harassment and other employment and wage-and-hour issues. I also spend a lot of time bringing and defending claims on behalf of employers for trade secrets theft, unfair competition and other business torts. My practice also includes defense of employers in wage-and-hour class actions and representative actions. On the securities side, I typically defend financial institutions accused of wrongdoing related to customer investments. Over time, I also have spent a considerable amount of time advising clients regarding compliance with employment and securities laws.

LD: How and when did you first become interested in being a litigator and focusing on these practice areas?

CS: I knew early in law school that I wanted to litigate. I fell in love with research and writing and ultimately making arguments to a judge or jury or arbitrator.  I loved employment law as a result of two excellent law school professors, and I was lucky enough to find a wonderful firm like KY&L that specialized in the area. I did not focus on securities law until after I started with KY&L, but I immediately began working on securities cases, as all new KY&L associates do.  This was fortuitous, and I fell in love with that field, as well.

LD: What are some aspects about this work that you find professionally satisfying? What keeps you excited about it?

CS: I initially was drawn to employment law because of the stories. What could be more interesting than workplace dynamics and important issues that pretty much every person could relate to on some level?  I have had the benefit of seeing those dynamics on both the front end – through advisory work – and also on the tail end, after litigation has already commenced.  My most satisfying moments are when I can work with a client to resolve a problem before it escalates to litigation.  Heading off problems before they reach the point of no return always requires a bit of  creativity and practical sense that might not be deeply rooted in a law textbook.  When successful, those are the moments when everyone walks away feeling at least somewhat satisfied.  At the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, the two things that keep me most excited about my job are cross-examination of an opposing party and closing argument. From a pure advocacy perspective, there really is nothing like those two events.

LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve handled?

CS: I arbitrated a securities case many years ago involving a group of investors, who were suing their individual financial advisor and his employer for a private placement investment that went awry. My partner and I only defended the employer, because the advisor allegedly made the investment recommendation outside the course and scope of his employment.  The investor group was an interesting cast, including the lead claimant who was awaiting trial for the murder of his wife.  We ended up spending a day of the arbitration in maximum security prison while that claimant testified in shackles and in front of armed guards.  It certainly was one of my more surreal experiences. Ultimately, we were able to convince the arbitrators to dismiss our client at the close of the claimants’ case.

LD: Are there any trends you are seeing in your practice in terms of the types of matters keeping you busy these days?

CS: I have not seen statistics, but it seems that there are increasing numbers of disability-related lawsuits being filed. In particular, I have seen a lot of cases in recent years where employees are suing employers or former employers for failure to accommodate or failure to engage in the interactive process with respect to stress-related disabilities. 

LD: Can you describe a recent matter that you’ve handled?

CS: I recently arbitrated a matter for an employer that was accused of disability discrimination, harassment, retaliation, failure to engage in the interactive process and failure to accommodate.  The arbitration was before the American Arbitration Association and spanned five days over the course of a couple months. I was impressed by the quality of representation by my adversaries on the other side of the table, as well as the thoughtfulness of the arbitrator in rendering a well-reasoned award. It is always gratifying when everyone engages in professional conduct, notwithstanding disagreements on the substantive facts. Fortunately, we were able to obtain a defense award for our employer client.

LD: What were the key challenges of successfully representing the employer?

CS: The key challenge in that case was dealing with a relatively friendly claimant, who unquestionably was going through difficult times. My main challenge was trying to convey to the arbitrator that, while the claimant was a nice person and was going through difficult circumstances, my client acted appropriately and did not contribute to any of the claimant’s hardship. I think we litigators sometimes tend to demonize our adversaries, but it rarely is a good strategy to “blame the victim.” In this case, I think we were able to successfully put on a strong and aggressive defense for our client without portraying the plaintiff as a “bad guy.”  It is challenging to walk that line, but my colleagues – from our founding partner Skip Keesal to our most junior associates – have taught me over the years that it is always very effective and very rewarding.

LD: Is there a specific lesson from this work or is there anything from it you will find especially memorable?

LD: As with most of the cases on which I get to work, this case reminded me of the importance of preparation, flexibility, tenacity and overall respect for my adversaries and the process.  This was a case in which nearly every procedural and discovery motion was decided in our opponents’ favor. However, the client never lost trust in the process, and we ultimately were able to prevail when it mattered most.

LD: Did any experience from your undergraduate work push you towards a career in the law?

CS: As an undergrad, I periodically volunteered in a local juvenile hall center. Spending time with the detainees was an eye-opener. Many of the kids had life experiences that completely blew me away. They also shared stories about their interactions with lawyers and judges and their sometimes-fatalistic attitude toward the criminal justice system.  While I have never been particularly drawn to criminal law, my conversations during that time certainly planted a seed in my mind. I was fascinated by how an attorney could impact lives on a truly meaningful level, and I wanted to be part of that overall justice system.

LD: Did you have any jobs between undergrad and law school? What were they and how did they contribute to going to law school?

CS: For two years between undergrad and law school, I taught elementary school in the inner city of Chicago. I had already decided to attend law school well before becoming a teacher, so my teaching experience did not really contribute to my going to law school. However, the experience left an indelible mark on me. My fourth-grade students taught me more than I ever thought imaginable. They taught me about life, struggling with different challenges in the inner city, dealing with prejudice, dealing with violence and other issues I had not been exposed to significantly during my upbringing. They taught me about problem-solving, creativity, time management and the real meaning of respect for others, especially people who are different or who may disagree with your point of view. I make light of it sometimes, but I often say that practicing law and managing caseloads is easy compared to those years of running a classroom. It is an experience I cherish and something I try to remember during my everyday practice.

LD: Why did you pursue a career in the law in the first place?

CS: I originally was drawn to the law by my dad. Later this year, my dad will have been an attorney for 50 years. Some of my earliest memories include my dad coming home from work and telling my siblings and me stories about his day. I don’t remember details, and I don’t think he ever discussed specific laws, but I was fascinated by his daily attempts to help people deal with problems. It always seemed like a riddle to be solved. My dad’s practice – estate planning and trucking law before that – could not be further from my own. However, I constantly strive to the level of respect and care he has shown everyone in his professional life. Those are qualities I feel equally blessed to see in all of my KY&L colleagues.

LD: What advice do you have now for current law school students?

CS: Be true to yourself. There are so many people out there who need effective legal representation. Above everything else, they need real people who can relate to problems on a personal level. As our world becomes increasingly automated, I believe the legal profession still needs more personality and less rote work product. Being true to oneself leads to a more satisfying work-life balance, and I also believe it leads to more satisfied clients.

LD: Was there an early experience or mentor who really helped shape the course of your professional life?

CS: Our firm is small enough where we do not have rigid practice groups. As a new associate, I worked with every partner in every area in which the firm specialized. I could never overstate how important it has been to my development to work with different lawyers in different areas of the law. It broadened my horizons immeasurably and I think it has made me a better lawyer.  I recently celebrated my 17th anniversary of working at KY&L. It dawned on me that I have been able to spend 17 years with Peter Boutin, John Giffin, Philip McLeod, Ben Suter, Lisa Bertain and Julie Taylor, each of whom I consider a cherished mentor and friend. And that does not even include our amazing partners and associates and staff in other offices, who are the best legal professionals in the country. I have been able to learn bits and pieces from all of my colleagues over the years, and they have helped shaped me into the lawyer I am today.

LD: Can you share a lawyer you have come up against in a negotiation or case that you admire, and why?

CS: There are far too many to identify in a short response. I have been fortunate to represent amazing clients, and I have been equally fortunate to go up against truly talented and professional adversaries. The singular qualities that those adversaries all embody are courtesy, thoroughness, respect for the process and confidence. It is always the attorneys who are most confident who are willing to compromise, willing to see a case from a different point of view, willing to concede challenging aspects of their case, and, perhaps most importantly, willing to work hard to either reach an amicable resolution or achieve a desired result in an efficient and professional manner. Win, lose or draw, it is going against those tough adversaries that makes the job most gratifying.

LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?

CS: I love spending time with my family.  My wife and I have 5 kids, and we helped raise my wife’s two younger sisters, as well.  My job is very time-consuming, but it also has afforded me a lot of flexibility over the years.  Because of that, I have been able to coach all of my kids in various sports, including baseball, soccer and basketball.  I love attending their events, which is taking up more and more of our waking hours these days.  I love spending summertime in Tahoe, and I am never too far from a radio or TV set during SF Giants games.

LD: Do you have a favorite book or movie about the justice system?

CS: I’ve always loved the original 12 Angry Men and A Few Good Men.  I wish I had those scriptwriters in my everyday practice!

LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now?

CS: I imagine I would be a teacher or a coach – or maybe both.

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