Going the Distance

In court or on the bike path, trial lawyer Jeff Tilden stays at the top of his game

Published in 2010 Washington Super Lawyers — June 2010

If you want to make Jeff Tilden cry, ask him to tell the story about the duchess and the toll road. The one that took place in France 500 years ago.

Or the one about his sibling and the bicycle pedal, also in France. In 2007.

“There was this 15-year-old girl, Anne, who was the duchess of Brittany. Brittany was surrounded by a threatening France, and in the course of her short life, Anne married two French kings, Charles VIII and Louis XII. But in return, she extracted promises to save Brittany’s independence. One of them was that, while France was covered with toll roads, there would never be a toll road in Brittany. And to this day, there isn’t.

“It was astonishing. She told two kings who could’ve killed her, ‘I’ll marry you, but this is how it’s gonna be…’” he says, getting a bit misty.

This story touches Tilden on several levels. As an attorney who successfully represented the highest-ranking lesbian ever to be discharged from the U.S. military, he’s moved by the idea of one essentially powerless person standing up against tremendous odds. As a plaintiff’s attorney for Boeing, Weyerhaeuser, and Puget Sound Energy (formerly Puget Power) in separate Superfund-related litigation involving insurance coverage, he loves that a contract is still inviolate a half-millennium later. And really, as someone concerned about excessive corporate compensation and commercial litigation, he’s more than a bit giddy about the freebie toll-road result.

“If my great-granddaughter comes down a Breton road a hundred years from now, she will not pay a toll. Neither will anyone else,” Tilden says with characteristic enthusiasm, sitting in his office at Gordon Tilden Thomas & Cordell, in the “old black box” building, one of Seattle’s first skyscrapers.

Tilden, 54, tells a lot of tales and relishes the telling. The affable 6-foot-3 trial attorney has a ready laugh, and clearly has fun doing what he’s doing, whether standing in front of a jury or pedaling madly, perched on a bike for four days in the world’s oldest bike race, the Paris-Brest-Paris, a 762-mile odyssey. That’s where he became aware of the Duchess Anne story.

The race could be a metaphor for Tilden’s success, both professionally and personally: Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and don’t stop. 

 

Becoming Jeff Tilden

By the time he was 8, Tilden and his family had lived in Tulsa, Houston and Huntsville, Ala., where they moved when his father took an engineering job with Boeing. Tilden describes Huntsville as “half old Southern cotton agriculture, half Northern technocrats working on the space effort.”

He has fond memories of Huntsville, including playing for up to 16 hours a day in fields humming with “anything that could bite you or sting you.”

Not so amiable were the fervent disagreements among the largely fundamentalist population. Tilden compared being Catholic in Huntsville, as his family was, to “being a Muslim in Seattle. You know they’re out there, you just don’t see that many.” His neighbors came to blows over issues like “dancing or no dancing, drinking or no drinking, church on Saturday versus church on Sunday, and ‘the big one’ over baptism—sprinkling versus immersion.” Tilden’s neighborhood was poor. And hot. “When we first got air conditioning, you would sit under the air conditioner and let it drip on you.” The family car had what locals there called “four-80” air-conditioning. “You’d roll down all four windows and drive 80 miles an hour.”

His first year there at school, second grade, was also the first year that Huntsville’s schools were integrated. Tilden remembers it as “extraordinarily successful” and amazingly tension-free.

The civil rights movement indirectly awakened his interest in practicing law when he saw pictures in the newspaper of soldiers coming to town on account of a lawyer’s actions. “It was phenomenal. Three guys go into a sterile room with briefcases, talk to someone in a black robe, and make the Army appear.”

Another motivation was that Tilden’s schoolmates were all poor and their fathers worked on their own cars. “I made a reverse cause-and-effect relationship. If you work on a car, you’re poor. I wanted a job that paid well enough that I didn’t have to work on my own car.”

Tilden attended Lee High School—“one of about 15 Robert E. Lee [namesake] high schools in the state,” he says. He confesses he learned more than academics there. In Alabama, the drinking age was 21. But in Tennessee it was 18, and Huntsville was 16 miles from the Tennessee state line, where a liquor store was conveniently situated.

“I learned in high school that it was possible to get to the state line and back in the space of one 55-minute period, and to do that every day of your senior year,” he reports with a laugh.

“My world looked exactly like ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ except there were no girls in the car.”

It was largely because of all the contradictory things he was hearing about religion in Huntsville that Tilden decided to study a variety of viewpoints. He majored in philosophy at University of Alabama, the only university he applied to. (If you had a public high school diploma and could afford the tuition, you automatically got in.)

To expand his options to practice law elsewhere in the country, Tilden applied to the University of Virginia Law School, but was rejected because of its high grade requirements for out-of-state applicants. Tilden, not one to be easily discouraged, called the university and arranged to meet with an administrator. Arriving on a bus from Alabama, Tilden asked the man whether he could attend if he established residency in Virginia for nine months. “I bet that works,” the administrator replied. And it did.

Meanwhile, Tilden needed a job. He ran off 535 copies of his resume, one for each U.S. Congress member, and started handing them out, first to Alabama Congress members, and then in the U.S. Senate. About 10 senators in, he landed a job as a legislative assistant to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. “As the lowest male on the totem pole, I drove the senator around,” Tilden says.

What impressed Tilden about Dole, aside from his renowned wit, was that he knew so many of his constituents.

“Whenever someone came in to ask him about something, he knew who they were. If you were 18 years old, he didn’t know you, but he knew your dad.”

 

Heading West

Upon graduating in 1981, he applied to several firms in the Western U.S. The South at that time had an entrenched social hierarchy that was hard to escape, he says. “Seattle didn’t have the expression ‘the lawyer class,’ and I thought that was good.”

Tilden landed a job with Perkins Coie, and things quickly fell into place. He loved Seattle and working with Charles Gordon, whom he describes as “the best man and best lawyer I ever met.”

“Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig would give a full World Series share to the batboy. The secret of success is to know who to be the batboy for,” he says. “I was the batboy for Chuck, and it made my career.”

He started working on cases representing General Motors in car-warranty cases, and defending personal injury and property damage claims for Peugeot, a relationship that has continued throughout his career.

Soon after he started at the firm, he met his future wife, Robin, at the time a temp. He calls her “the last of the free spirits.” As evidence, he recalls that, although the two were engaged in what Tilden describes as “vigorous flirting,” one day she was gone—on a trip to Mexico. “She didn’t even have enough interest to tell me she was leaving,” Tilden laughs. About six months later he spotted her on the street, chatted her up, and six years later—got married. Tilden cites the time it took to persuade Robin to marry him as more “evidence of my staying power.” They have two sons, ages 19 and 15.

Tilden’s cases got bigger and bigger, as he represented companies like Boeing and Weyerhaeuser Co. against insurance companies in suits related to Superfund hazardous-waste liability. Those verdicts generally came down in the plaintiffs’ favor.

A different type of landmark case came in the form of Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer of the National Guard, who, after revealing her sexual orientation during a routine security interview, became the highest-ranking lesbian discharged from military service. In Cammermeyer v. Cheney et al., the judge ruled that her constitutional rights had been violated.

Whether or not this case was a direct influence, the military soon afterward adopted the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

 

New Beginning

In 1996, at the age of 40, Tilden decided it was time to open his own firm, along with Chuck Gordon and Jim Murray.

“I thought ‘one’ wasn’t the right number of jobs to have in one’s life, so I opted for ‘two,’” he says with a grin.

The first six months were spent mostly waiting for the phone to ring. It wasn’t until month seven that he finally drew a paycheck.

The insurance-related cases continued through the ’90s, but eventually the rules sorting out what was covered became clearer, and these suits became less frequent. Tilden continued taking personal injury cases (representing both plaintiffs and defendants), and defending law firms against charges of legal malpractice.

These days, with the option to choose his cases, he likes to take “cases that sound like fun, for people you like, and that are likely to go to trial.”

A “fun case” to Tilden is one in which you like the client, which “makes all the difference in the world.” And which doesn’t require too many depositions. All the better if there’s an important issue involved. 

One issue that Tilden’s latched onto is corporate misconduct. While stressing that he’s a “big fan” of corporate America, Tilden says lax oversight by shareholders means policing is necessary. He cites board members who simultaneously increased their compensation along with excessive CEO compensation packages as an example of abuses that need to be reined in.

“It’s impossible to get some poor minority kid not to steal if he sees a rich white person stealing.”

Still, Tilden prides himself on having represented both plaintiffs and defendants, big corporations and individuals, and everything in between.

“Many lawyers bring a lot of political bias to work; I just like what we do. I believe in the process, but I don’t feel that one side is morally superior to the other.

“To the extent that there is misconduct in the system, and there is, I think it’s equally divided. I’ve seen far more people try to screw insurance companies than vice-versa, but I haven’t defended an insurance company since 1984.”

Representing both sides has also made him a better attorney.

“You learn a lot from playing the other side of the street. Motivations, what will make the other side crack…”

 

Structured Approach

Tilden credits his philosophical studies with helping develop his approach to trial law: “Every legal argument rests on three levels: the structure of the argument: if ‘A’ then ‘B;’ the facts: ‘if you were speeding, then you were liable;’ and third, how you feel about your client.” Tilden says it’s vital to keep these factors separate, especially the third. “One’s personal feelings shouldn’t influence the first two parts. But often it does.”

“Personal feelings” can also inappropriately influence juries. But while Tilden acknowledges the jury system is imperfect, and occasional jurors “may not bring that much to the auction,” he says the only relevant question is whether it’s better than any alternative you have. “And the answer is ‘yes.’”

And when the verdict goes against you, Tilden waxes philosophical again.

“The hardest thing about lawyering is losing. To be a successful lawyer for the long haul, you have to hate losing enough to do everything in your power to avoid it, but be able to take it when it comes.”

He’s less sanguine regarding the often prohibitive costs of filing a lawsuit. “You can’t have a quarter-million [dollar] lawsuit that costs a half-million to defend,” he says.

He places part of the blame on too many rules with too many variables that allow for too many time-wasting motions, counter-motions and procedures.

“We’ve shaded everything in the law gray,” he says of his generation of lawyers and judges. “We’ve shaded nothing in black and white. That makes everything costly to run.

 “[But] the basic purpose of law is not to resolve one specific case. It’s so everybody else not involved knows how to act to stay out of court.”

Tilden predicts the cost pressures will only get worse in coming years, unless there are drastic changes. To reduce overall costs to the system, he thinks society will have no choice but to legalize some drugs and make it more expensive to file cases in court. To make lawsuits less onerous financially to plaintiffs, he would like to see stronger limits on what lawyers can do in trial preparation, such as limit the number of depositions a lawyer can take. He also points to Oregon, which has no “expert discovery” process, as something he’d like emulated.

Yet another cause of rising legal costs, he says, is a rise in incivility among lawyers who choose to fight over every tiny issue. Like others of his generation, Tilden longs for a time when there was more collegiality among attorneys.

“One of the great things about being an older trial lawyer is most of my opponents I’ve known for 25 years. We can resolve things on the phone.”

Paul Taylor of Byrnes & Keller has opposed Tilden several times in court and concurs: “Jeff is a class act and a man of his word. You don’t need to have a written stipulation with him.”

As a past state chair of the American College of Trial Lawyers and a veteran of more than 70 trials, Tilden also longs for the days when more cases went to trial, and he feels sorry for young attorneys who don’t get much courtroom experience.

 

On the Road

Despite his love for trying cases, when he’s not working, Tilden is one of those people who can leave “the office” behind. Way behind.

In 2003, Tilden, a long-time Seattle bicyclist, entered the Paris-Brest-Paris, a race nearly 800 miles long and 5,000 bikers wide, with his brother, Brad. Brad finished, Tilden didn’t.

In 2007, he tried again, this time with Brad and another brother, Kevin. He wrote a long piece about the experience for the Web site of Seattle Randonneurs, his bike club. Part of it read:

“The abject skill-lessness of bicycling is its greatest virtue. It requires nothing. A four-year-old can master it. A little balance, not much; far less than, say, being a spider. We know this as children, but we forget. We already have everything we need.”

And:

“Bicycling is primordial. We come from an unbroken line of winners, stretching back to the first day we crawled up out of the mud. Every one of our ancestors, all the way back, kept going long enough to beat predators, disease, starvation. Long enough to have a child. With really only the skill it takes to ride a bike.”

With just 80 miles to the finish line, Tilden’s bicycle pedal broke. Brad switched bikes with his brother so that he could finish. “That was the best and most moving gift I’ve ever received. By far,” he says.

 Racers have 90 hours to cross the finish line, and Tilden clocked in at 89 hours and 43 minutes. “I figured I paid for all 90 hours and I wanted to use them,” he jokes.

He expects to do the race again in 2011.

“I think that there are sprinters, middle-distance runners and marathoners, and somewhere beyond the latter are the trudgers. I’m a trudger. I’ve never been particularly good at putting a ball through a hoop. But if the contest is not to stop, just to keep going, I have a better chance of succeeding.”

And there you have the secret to Jeff Tilden’s long, successful career: Just keep trudging.

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