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How William Sylianteng went from being homeless to having a successful subrogation law practice

Published in 2011 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine

As a member at Bennett, Bricklin & Saltzburg in Blue Bell, William Sylianteng is a long way from his childhood home in Southern California, where he was raised by a single mother who lived an extravagant lifestyle—and provided the same for him.

“For my 20th birthday, she bought me a convertible Mercedes-Benz,” Sylianteng says. “Sometime in the mid- to late-‘90s, we had a private audience with the Dalai Lama.”

Then, in 1999, his mother, who owned an art broking business, was indicted for mail fraud and bankruptcy fraud. She was incarcerated and evicted, and her home foreclosed upon. Sylianteng, who had been living at home while attending California State University, Northridge, had no place to go. “It was very surreal … [I was living] off of somebody’s couch and [didn’t] have the ability to pay them for living on their couch or for eating their food. It was very humbling,” Sylianteng says. “There’s a thin line between having a home and a job and being homeless. There is a really thin line.”

Though Sylianteng contemplated dropping out of college to find a job and a new place to live, friends persuaded him to finish his degree. After graduation, he was tired of being harassed by the complaining witnesses in his mother’s case and decided to leave LA. He had applied to several law schools, was accepted into most of them, but his mother had left his credit in shambles so his options were limited. Among them: Temple University, which he applied to based on his love for the basketball team.

Attending law school while working two jobs was tough, but Sylianteng persevered. His motivation? “If I’m going to be completely honest with you, it was anger. … A lot of people said some fairly mean things. Basically: ‘Where you gonna go? … You’re never gonna make it on your own,’” Sylianteng says. “I wanted to show these people that they were wrong.”

Sylianteng now chairs his firm’s large loss subrogation practice. “[Insurance companies] hire me to try to find out what caused that fire and what caused that collapse, and to pursue from a third party any monies they end up having to pay as a result of their insurance policy where they’re insured,” says Sylianteng. “I’m an insurance attorney that does affirmative litigation, plaintiff’s litigation.”

His practice puts him at the scene, where it’s his job, along with fire investigators or civil engineers, to figure out why a disaster happened. “What I like the most about litigation just in general is the mapping out of the strategy, the dance between a party that’s advancing a case and a party that’s defending a case. And then eventually getting to the truth,” Sylianteng says.

Sylianteng’s mother, after being convicted of nearly $14 million in mail fraud in 2001, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Sylianteng is in the process of repairing his relationship with her so that his daughter can know her grandmother.

“[Anger] got me where I needed to be and it kept me going, but it wasn’t really the healthiest of attitudes,” Sylianteng says. “My wife, in particular—and then eventually my daughter—has really helped ground me. It still would be anger that would be driving me if it weren’t for those two.”

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