a law firm with a purpose.
The People's Law Firm launched in January 2015 with a single bold objective: to combat, and ultimately defeat, the assault on the people's constitutional rights being commissioned by our governmental and corporate power structure. Founded in Phoenix, the Firm was created to represent Arizonans brave enough to stand up to those who abuse their power. The PLF was the vision of Steve Benedetto -- a common lawyer who made the uncommon decision to leave one of the fastest growing personal injury law firms in the state, at the peak of its success, to start a new kind of law firm. This is his story.
It is a Monday night in early August 2014. The sun has set but the temperature still hovers around 110 degrees. Steve Benedetto is doing what all Arizonans of means do during this time of year: being lazy and enjoying the comfort of central air conditioning.
This is what Steve generally does at night. Indeed, if there is a single value his life has been based on to this point, it is comfort: Virtually every decision he makes throughout the day, every day, is aimed creating a life where he will never have to be uncomfortable. After a decade of practicing law for private law firms, he is doing a pretty exceptional job.
Steve sits in his family room with his wife, India, mindlessly flipping through the channels. He does not search for anything in particular. Quite the opposite, he has the modest objective of finding something he can turn on in the background and ignore for a few hours while he drafts a brief in a multi-million dollar lawsuit his law firm has filed against McDonald's.
He scans hundreds of channels without luck, eventually punching 2-0-2 on his remote. CNN is almost always good for mindless background noise. And, during the height of the Ice Bucket Challenge frenzy sweeping the country, the "ignorability" quotient has been off the charts: CNN's evening anchors will no doubt be spending its primetime hours tossing softball questions to whoever the latest celebrity is to post a video of their reaction dumping a cold bucket of water on their head. Steve is totally unprepared for what he sees instead.
The black of night fills the screen behind a middle-aged black reporter, whose stoic voice is beginning to crack. The man's eyes show more than a hint of terror. Tension emits through the screen. It is palpable. Its source is not clear, however, until the camera pans to the reporter's left.
A line of men stand shoulder-to-shoulder. They appear to be an elite military force, Army Rangers or Special Forces, maybe. They wear kevlar tactical vests, gas masks, and full military gear. Standing in formation, assault rifles at the ready, they form a long line. Immediately behind them sits a massive armored truck with a mounted 50-caliber machine gun on the roof.
The camera pans back to the reporter, explaining the situation for the viewers when his voice is drowned out by an ominous voice on a loudspeaker, announcing a curfew and demanding that people return to their homes. The voice continues repeating this message, in rote, almost as if it is recorded. Feedback and echoes are so loud the reporter places his hand over his ear, seemingly listening to his producer in his earpiece. He informs the viewers that he's being advised to put on his gas mask. He apologizes for doing so, and begins the surreal act of putting on a gas mask on live television...voluntarily giving up his ability to speak clearly into the microphone. He has barely gotten the rubber straps over the back of his head when it happens:
Red streaks stream across the night sky. The camera follows their arc to their ultimate landing spot -- the middle of a crowd of people. Young men (and many women) drop everything they're holding -- homemade signs, water bottles, clothes that they've removed in the heat -- and scatter. They scramble through a throng of photojournalists hauling camera equipment.
Some have gas masks. Most do not, and simply pull bandanas or t-shirts over their noses. Tear gas canisters fall to the ground and explode. Microphones pick up the muffled sounds of people screaming. Panic ensues.
Steve's chest tightens. He breathes in short, shallow gasps. Sitting in the comfort of his living room in his Central Phoenix home, he nonetheless feels exposed; vulnerable. Uncomfortable.
It's not the images that cause the fear. Although Steve rarely watches the news, he has seen this type of video footage before. It was only a few years ago that footage of the Arab Spring dominated the airwaves. He knows this is how totalitarian governments suppress dissent -- with massive disruptive force against their own people, preventing the message from ever getting loud enough for the mainstream to hear it. But, even though he saw this many times over the last few years, he can't disassociate from the fear this time.
Not this time.
Because this time the source of fear is not the hordes of people choking on teargas, or the military forces pointing assault weapons at them. He's seen that before, and been able to disconnect from it, knowing he was safe. No, this time it's the graphic on the bottom of the screen identifying where this is happening.
It doesn't say "Benghazi" or "Tripoli." Not "Tehran" or "Kabul" or "Baghdad."
It says "Ferguson, MO."
And he instantly knows that things will never be the same.
* * *
Steve Benedetto has hardly lived the life of a revolutionary activist. Indeed, if one were to review the biographies of Arizona lawyers to identify the attorney most likely to undertake a crusade for the people, Steve wouldn't be anyone's first pick. Not even close.
Until starting The People's Law Firm, he had never participated in a march or protest, much less organized one. He didn't read two newspapers a day -- or one, for that matter. He didn't have a subscription to The Nation, or listen to NPR, or even sign internet petitions.
His primary news sources were Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The only reason he knew Meet the Press is still on the air is because he would see it on his DirecTV "guide" screen as he'd scan for the NFL Pre-Game shows. And the most interested he'd been in a political race for a half-decade -- Marianne Williamson's 2014 campaign -- concerned a congressional seat in a state in which he doesn't even live.
His lack of involvement in public affairs, however, in no way prevented him from having an opinion. He had spent over a decade bending the ears of family and friends with lengthy diatribes about the governmental overreach he saw every day in our system: The for-profit prison corporations who campaign for stricter sentencing laws to increase their "client-base" of inmates; the outdated and dangerous grand jury system that allows a man to be indicted upon the presentation of virtually no real evidence (unless prosecutors chose to present such evidence to protect one of their own); and the corrupt insurance companies who "wait out" injured people rather than providing them with reasonable compensation, knowing that the overburdened court system is incapable of holding them accountable.
For over a decade, however, Steve viewed his personal opinions as just that -- personal, and having no place in his law practice. He spent this time tiptoeing around political conversations in the office, refusing to allow his own beliefs and ideas to derail his only priority: his career.
* * *
Starting his second year in law school at Arizona State (after a first-year spent largely on becoming acquainted with the bars of Tempe and Scottsdale), Steve threw himself into the law. By a combination of luck and hard work (probably more the former than the latter), he got good grades in law school, secured a prestigious judicial clerkship, and was recruited to work as a litigation associate at a series of large national law firms.
At each of his three stops at big firms, Steve was enlisted by top partners to work on some of the firms' most complicated commercial litigation matters. He represented railroads against claims brought by injured employees; fought for healthcare companies whose negligent doctors and staffs had injured people; defended corporate executives against fraud and embezzlement allegations; and toed the line for multinational corporations in an assortment of commercial disputes. He participated in cases alleging failed mergers, breaches of professional services non-compete clauses, trademark disputes, and white-collar fraud.
This was not the law practice Steve had envisioned when he applied to law school, his head flush with visions of freedom fighters like Atticus Finch, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, and Jan Schlichtman. But it wasn't Keanu Reeves in The Devil's Advocate, either. He didn't feel like he was doing evil by representing commercial defendants in complex litigation matters. And he was not so stressed out by his work as he was simply bored by it.
Unknown to him at the time -- though obvious to everyone around him -- the countless hours in front of a computer monitor were taking a significant toll on his health.
In 2009, Steve was hospitalized with a "lone atrial fibrillation," an irregular heart flutter with an unknown cause. He laid in an emergency room bed as a nurse inserted an IV into his arm to allow medication to flow directly into his bloodstream. That was "Plan A." While waiting for the drugs to work, the emergency physician explained Plan B: If the medication didn't work, they would have to stop his heart...and hope they could get it restated again. He was 32 years old.
Grateful after being able to be discharged from the hospital without having to have his chest shocked with electric paddles, Steve went on a search for answers. He set out to pursue a life more aligned with his values. He started a new firm, resolving to represent real people against corporations and governments. And he soon found a kindred spirit.
Steve's long-time friend John Torgenson was similarly frustrated at his commercial law firm. He, too, was seeking something more out of the practice of law than a paycheck and a 401(k) contribution. They threw in together and started a new firm.
The partnership would prove to be a powerful one. It would only be a matter of months before Benedetto Torgenson would become one of the fastest growing personal injury law firms in the state.
Steve and John spent several years learning how to run a business, and it was 2012 before BenTorg began its real ascent. When it started moving, though, it moved fast. In an 18-month span the firm added four new lawyers; quadrupled its revenue; negotiated a series of seven-figure settlements; tried several cases to six-figure verdicts; and moved into its own building.
The partners regularly fielded calls and emails from lawyers at prestigious Arizona firms inquiring about the possibility of bringing their clients to BenTorg. And by the summer of 2014, the firm was positioning itself for an explosion: After adding one of the most respected commercial litigators in Phoenix as a partner, BenTorg was able to couple a vibrant, multi-million dollar plaintiff's personal injury practice caseload with a sophisticated commercial litigation practice that was serving Arizona businesses.
* * *
It seemed that the years of 60- and 70-hour weeks, financial belt-tightening and occasional exhaustion had finally paid off. Steve had created exactly what he thought he wanted. He was making more money than he ever had, he was helping real people, and he was working with his best friend.
Still, something was lacking. In fact, it had been for some time. It was partially masked by the amazing team of people at BenTorg, the good work the firm was doing, and the wonderful people they were doing it for. But, there was something stirring within him. Something that was no longer fulfilled by the back-slaps, emails, and congratulatory words of friends and colleagues. Something that was no longer lit up by the David-vs.-Goliath battles with massive insurance companies.
Steve knew there were people who talked about popping out of bed, excited to attack the day knowing that they would be living a life of purpose. He'd never been one of those people. And he wanted to be for a long time. He just didn't know what that looked like.
Watching what was happening in Ferguson, he faced the realization that had been brewing for some time:
He had always known his purpose. He was simply choosing to ignore it.
* * *
Growing a law firm from nothing is one of the hardest things a lawyer can do. Qualities that frequently make a great lawyer (passion for one's client, identifying nuance and shades of gray, arduous deliberation over every detail before making a commitment) are the same qualities that make businessmen go broke. The first couple of years of a firm's existence are ones plagued by ever-present self-doubt, frequent exhaustion, and contentious relationships with anyone who has never started a law firm and can't fully appreciate the experience.
Why would anyone in their right mind leave a successful law firm after navigating this emotional and financial gauntlet -- to start yet another law firm, no less? The answer is that they wouldn't.
Steve Benedetto was not in his right mind on that August night, watching American citizens get teargassed by men in body armor and armored vehicles. He was not in his right mind reading about the America that had been created while he was not paying attention, and the America that had always been there that he refused to look at. Indeed, he was not in his mind at all. He was in heart.
It was a place he avoided for decades, but it is the only place he will allow himself to live from anymore. And he wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
Steve Benedetto launched The People's Law Firm on January 5, 2015. When not working on securing justice for his clients, Steve runs (and sporadically posts on) The People's Law Blog; works on software and app development projects involving legal rights and training; plays guitar and writes obsessively. A 2014 graduate of Gerry Spence's Trial Lawyer's College, Steve has the ludicrously bold ambition of expanding the PLF into all fifty states. He spends his little remaining time with his amazing wife, India, traveling as much as possible and enjoying the company of their three rescue dogs, their family, and their their friends.