Published in 2018 Southwest Super Lawyers magazine
By Jimmy Magahern on April 23, 2018
On the wall of his office at Steptoe & Johnson in downtown Phoenix, Karl Tilleman keeps a framed photo of himself and Michael Jordan facing off against each other in the 1984 Olympics.
It’s a better photo of Jordan than of Tilleman, a Utah-born kid who moved to Canada after his dad accepted a teaching position at the University of Calgary, and who eventually did well enough in its basketball program to make the Canadian Olympic team. In the shot, Tilleman, holding the ball, is half cropped out of the frame.
But the picture captures a 21-year-old Jordan in classic form. “He guarded me in the semifinals, and whenever he would come after me, he would kick me toe-to-toe,” Tilleman says. “Not in a rude way, but he would just literally slam his toe into my foot, and then he’d slap me on the leg, as if to say, ‘Come on! Let’s go!’”
Tilleman looks impressively collected in the photo, eyeing the air above Jordan’s crouched frame for an opportunity to attempt one of the long shots that became his trademark. On his next visit to the Olympics, for the 1988 games in Seoul, Tilleman would set the Olympic record for the most three-point baskets in a single game, making 10 of 16 shots from beyond the arc and scoring 21 points in a row for Canada in a raucous game against Spain. It’s a record that, though twice tied, has never been topped.
Early on, Jordan recognized Tilleman as the man to guard.
“We had already played against each other quite a bit by then, and he knew I could score,” says Tilleman, now 57, recalling their first matchup, during the 1983 Pan American Games, when the 6-foot-2 shooting guard managed to score 28 points even with Jordan guarding him most of the way. “That one was the game of my life,” Tilleman adds. “Twenty-eight points. That’s legitimate.”
So are the scores of framed degrees, certifications and photos on the walls of his office. As a seasoned trial lawyer and class action litigator, he has litigated antitrust, IP, RICO, insurance and environmental cases while representing clients like AIG, USC and Western Union. Oh, and the Harlem Globetrotters.
You might even call his legal career a … slam dunk.
Yes, he gets a little tired of the sports analogies, too. “Let’s see: We call it a ‘full-court press’ when someone’s stalling in the courtroom,” Tilleman says. “You can have a lights-out deposition, like you can have a lights-out game.” But he definitely sees parallels between shooting a hole in a defense lawyer’s case and going for a crucial three-pointer over the mighty hands of a Michael Jordan.
“I love litigation; it does feel a lot like athletics to me,” he says. “There’s a little bit of a chase; there’s the competition part in taking an adversarial position. I enjoy the personal relations, particularly in jury trials; working with people. Plus, it’s not hard emotionally on me, because I feel—no matter the outcome—that’s the way life works out.”
The love of the chase helps Tilleman excel in any direction life takes him. He pivoted from sports to law—and, along the way, completed Mormon missionary work, served as a Sunday-school teacher and is father to five—with persistent focus, skill and drive that could be plugged into any endeavor.
He received the order to switch from basketball to law from his soon-to-be father-in-law, renowned Canadian heart surgeon Robert Harris Walker, who wanted his daughter, Holly, marrying a professional man.
“He sat me down and said, ‘Listen, Karl. If you’re going to marry Holly, you have to become some sort of professional—doctor, lawyer, dentist—I don’t care which, but choose one of those,’” Tilleman recalls. By that time, he had already played in the Pan Am Games and the L.A. Olympics, been selected in the fourth round of the 1984 NBA draft by the Denver Nuggets (“I was with them for some of the preseason games in ’84,” he says. “I was one of the last cuts. I read about it in the Denver Post that morning.”), and had led his Canadian teammates to wins against future NBA stars like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Drazen Petrovic. But Dr. Walker was not dissuaded.
“He was a basketball fan, but he wasn’t sure I could earn a good enough living at it,” Tilleman says. “So that night I went to bed and thought about it. The next morning I said, ‘OK, I’ll be a lawyer.’
“That was the summer of ’85, and I was still playing. By ’87, I qualified for law school, and I was playing and going to law school at the same time. That was pretty challenging, because I couldn’t work out nearly as much. But I finished off the ’88 Olympics and graduated law school in ’90.”
Not just graduated: he was summa cum laude, and editor in chief of the law review at Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. Then he got an interview with the U.S. Supreme Court. “I remember walking up the stairs to the Supreme Court thinking, ‘What am I doing here? I’m just a basketball player. This is way out of my league!’” Tilleman says. “But the interview went well.”
He wound up serving as a law clerk to both Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice Clarence Thomas—with whom he played a bit of ball. “He was a good athlete,” Tilleman says. “Unfortunately, when we were playing basketball, he tore his Achilles tendon. He really let me know about that—he had a lot of fun with me over the years. … There were probably six or eight of us playing, and it was full court. It’s a small gym, but we would always say it is ‘the highest court in the land.’
“The clerks were very smart people,” he adds, noting that he worked alongside the late U.S. Circuit Judge John T. Noonan, respected for his forward-thinking reasoning on issues like assisted suicide, the death penalty and immigration. “But, you know, it’s interesting: I learned that even when you’re working with the smartest people in the room, if you just be diligent and keep working away, you can get to the same results or be just as effective as these extraordinarily bright lawyers. I didn’t pretend to be one of the great minds at the Supreme Court. But I also felt that if I was careful enough and kept working hard enough, basically any position that they would take, I would be able to debate the other position just as effectively.”
After a couple of years at Jones Day in Washington, D.C., he and Holly were ready to raise their family in Phoenix, so they moved to the Valley and he eventually joined Steptoe & Johnson in 2001. He’s served as the managing partner in Phoenix, and, until recently, he led the firm’s 120-lawyer Complex Commercial Disputes Group.
Paul Charlton, managing partner of the Phoenix office, admits it’s cool to have a law partner who can spin tales about teaching Clarence Thomas to dribble and going toe-to-toe with Michael Jordan. But he says Tilleman’s unique experience adds up to more than just novelty.
“There are a lot of great lawyers and certainly Karl is that,” he says. “But what distinguishes Karl is his Olympic drive to win. More than that, the thing that governs that drive is a moral and ethical compass—and his is second to none. I don’t know of any other lawyer in this state that has all of those outstanding qualities.”
Tilleman’s faith is an essential component of that compass. A decade into his stint at the firm, Tilleman, a lifelong member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, requested three years off to serve as a “mission president” presiding over young missionaries.
While on the mission in Vancouver, Tilleman was attacked by a bullmastiff, which severely tore apart his hands. While reeling from the loss of blood, he fell into a concrete wall, causing a C3-C4 spinal cord injury.
“I woke up hearing the paramedics asking if I could move anything, and I couldn’t,” he says. “I was paralyzed from the neck down.”
You wouldn’t know it to look at him today—unless you asked Tilleman to throw a basketball. “I really can’t play anymore because I can’t reach my hands very much over my head,” he says. “I play around a little bit, but it’s pretty painful.”
Still, doctors regard his recovery as just this side of miraculous. He got out of the hospital about three weeks later, walking fairly well, although he says he still feels the effects of the injury: “I’m fine as long as I work really hard to stay in shape and stretch in physical therapy.”
Tilleman credits his recovery to the support of his wife, along with his faith. That faith also informs his practice.
“If I were given cases where people have clearly committed fraud or had done something unethical, then I wouldn’t have anything to do with those cases,” he says. “But in representing corporations in litigation, I feel it’s almost a good thing to be moored into a religious or some kind of moral system, because it kind of gives us good checks as lawyers. You know, you just don’t do certain things.”
That compass has come in handy in representing big insurance firms like AIG and State Farm in complex disputes. “One that was a really interesting situation, being a member of the church and having to defend a corporation against almost criminal allegations, was a case where the allegations were that my client was helping people launder money,” he says. “Representing them, obviously I didn’t feel that way, but it was very interesting presenting their case in our court system.”
One of his favorite cases remains the time he represented Mannie Jackson, chairman and owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, and a team member from 1962 to 1964, who was sued by superstar members Meadowlark Lemon, Fred “Curly” Neal, Marques Haynes and others who claimed unauthorized use of their images.
“Getting to cross-examine Meadowlark Lemon, rest his soul, was the highlight of my career,” Tilleman says. “I think we won every legal point in that cross-examination, but we ultimately lost because Meadowlark had the jury in stitches. He was just such a funny, bigger-than-life guy that I’m not even sure the jury even remembered what we said!”
Here’s one last sports analogy: You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him. While Tilleman may have lost that case against Lemon, he settled with six of the seven plaintiffs in the middle of the trial and contained the damage to exponentially less than what Lemon was seeking.
“That’s the one that really felt like athletics to me,” he says. “Just like the old days.”
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