Veen, Vidi, Vici
Bill Veen has traveled a long way since his days in Satan's Chauffeurs
Published in 2009 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine on July 13, 2009
It’s a long way from the Satan’s Chauffeurs motorcycle gang to the 2008 San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association Lifetime Achievement Award. Or is it? Bill Veen’s hair may be thinner than it once was, but the founder of The Veen Firm seems very much the same cocksure self-styled juvenile delinquent who once rode the streets of East Detroit with the gang he belonged to in his teens.
“We thought quite highly of ourselves,” Veen says, “but the local police did not.”
If you spend a little time with Veen, you will see a direct line from teenage rebel to successful attorney. Every one of Veen’s life experiences has contributed to the creation of the man—and the law firm—who has spent the past three decades earning a reputation as the Bay Area’s most prominent advocate for victims of “catastrophic, life-changing or career-altering events.”
“Because of my background, I was always a little off the center of society, so I’ve always felt empathy for people who took a wrong turn,” he says.
Once, when Veen was a neophyte law student, he visited the prison in Jackson, Mich. “There behind bars was one of the guys in my riding group,” he recalls.
“There are cusps,” says Veen, explaining life’s twists and turns. Seeing the bars between him and his friend from earlier days was one of them.
Another was his performance on the SAT test. He took the test “as a lark,” he says, but his score was high enough to get him into Michigan State University. He went to law school at the University of Michigan, and, not surprisingly, initially gravitated to criminal defense.
After graduation, Veen tried insurance defense but found it so disagreeable that he volunteered to join the Coast Guard, serving from 1968 to 1972. During his stint, he gained invaluable legal experience, trying cases first in a moot court in Rhode Island and then as one of only three lawyers for the Coast Guard’s South Pacific region, based in Hawaii.
“We handled everything,” he remembers. “Ship explosions, aircraft crashes, dealing with [local] chieftains, general discharges, medical discharges.”
He left with the rank of lieutenant commander. Still feeling nowhere near the mainstream, he “hopped a Russian freighter from the West Coast to Japan, then another from Japan to Hong Kong to Bangkok.” He celebrated his 30th birthday in Katmandu, his only ambition to continue traveling for as long as he could.
After a few years, Veen landed in San Francisco, over 30 and looking for a job. He’d been to the city once, in 1967, when a law school classmate offered a ride west in exchange for gas money. He worked as a banquet waiter at the Fairmont Hotel during the Summer of Love. Like many ’60s pilgrims, he was dazzled.
This time he rented a Victorian on Pine Street, and began to work for a pro-plaintiff firm, doing workers’ comp cases. Soon, however, he found himself at another cusp.
“I was smoking, gambling, drinking and working obscene hours,” he says. “I looked at myself and said, ‘This is going to destroy you, morally or whatever.’ It wasn’t a good trajectory.”
Armed with $5,000, and knowing “virtually no one,” Veen decided to start his own practice. He rented a desk in an existing law office at 228 McAllister (the present site of the Hastings College Law Library) for $50 a month. Within a month, he had too much work to handle alone. “I had to hire a secretary,” he says. It was a two-person, one-desk office. “She’d sit at the desk and I’d stand up, or vice-versa,” he says.
That was in 1975. Today, The Veen Firm has 15 lawyers and lots of desks.
Veen created his reputation by taking what he calls a “holistic” approach to plaintiff law. He looks for connections—between workers’ comp, victims’ rights, disability claims—to maximize potential compensation. He describes it as “Opening a basket and finding all this stuff.”
“I had a guy that was on a Yamaha motorcycle who was hit on the side by a vehicle, a drunk driver,” Veen begins. “He lost his leg because of a hex nut that stuck out. There shouldn’t have been a hex nut there. It was like an anvil waiting for a hammer.
“But he had been going to get a key for his employers. That made it a workers’ compensation case. So I had product liability. The guy had been off work for a long time before he saw me, so I had a Social Security case. I got state disability to bridge that, and then I got on the Victims of Violent Crime Act for the drunk driver.”
Over time, Veen’s client base has developed to where the firm now usually handles only cases involving catastrophic injury. These are people who’ve lost limbs, whose way of life has been severely compromised. It’s a heavy responsibility.
“If a person comes to me, he’s already been messed with by reality, or he wouldn’t be here,” he says.
Veen knows that, starting out, he could have made an even loftier living as a corporate lawyer or a tax attorney. His zeal wouldn’t allow it. “Many areas of the law have a Night of the Living Dead quality to them,” he says. “But this area of helping people and trying cases, it’s exciting.”
He has surrounded himself with merry men and women who feel the same. He prides himself on the exotic makeup of his firm. He talks of Jim Butler, who left home at 13, eventually wrangling his way into the University of San Francisco School of Law. Kevin Lancaster, Veen’s machinery expert, was an iron worker and managed a ranch before entering law school at age 32. Cynthia McGuinn, 2008 president of the San Francisco chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates, was once a special-education teacher. Both Lancaster and Butler have been with the firm for more than 20 years. McGuinn, who recently left the firm, was there for 19.
What Veen and his cohorts share—in addition to colorful backgrounds—is a sense of outrage at seeing people wronged by the system. It fuels the all-night work sessions and keeps them from burning out. “There is a certain personality type,” Veen says, “that really wants to help people … and really enjoys flying in the face of authority.
“People find this firm not because someone said it was a good idea, but because it spoke to them personally.”
It probably doesn’t hurt that Veen himself, after 34 years of running his own firm, is still full of vigor and good humor, as eager to delve into the minutiae of a case as he was when he was sitting at his $50-a-month desk at 228 McAllister. This is, after all, a 66-year-old man who lists his hobbies as “motorcycling, skiing, scuba diving and hiking.”
“Bill’s background brought this all together,” says Ellen Blattel, whose public relations firm, Blattel Communications, works with The Veen Firm. “His background is something unique to a lawyer.”
Veen argues that his side trips and wanderings that kept him out of the mainstream into his 30s aren’t as important as the fact that his primary mission stayed unchanged. “I think there’s an inherent potential for fairness in the law that almost doesn’t exist in other parts of our society,” he says. “That concept of pure fairness; it’s been abused, but somehow it’s still really attractive. There’s a pure element to that.”
He likes poring over documents and doing exhaustive investigations, and the sense of exhilaration he gets from helping the underserved has remained as strong as when he first opened his law office.
“Going into a courtroom, seeing the robed judge … it can be very satisfying; kind of a ‘wow,'” Veen says.
But an even more satisfying kind of “wow” is having the judge or the jury rule in your favor, and here Veen is on strong ground. He hasn’t lost a case in 23 years.