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Niche law firms cater to motorcyclists

There's plenty of call for the specialty in California, and bikers appreciate being represented by lawyers who share their passion or at least understand them.

May 05, 2009|Carol J. Williams

Sy Nazif's new workplace is not your Wilshire Boulevard law firm.

The pinstriped suit he wears to court mostly lives on a hanger in an office lacking adornment, unless you consider the helmet, saddlebag and leather jacket stacked on a filing cabinet to be installation art.

The Canoga Park firm's seven lawyers prowl their warren of cluttered rooms in jeans and sport shoes, few showing up much before noon to cater to a clientele with few morning persons. A quilt made of biker-club patches and photographic mementos of road trips decorate a dark-paneled waiting room.

Nazif landed among the biker barristers at the law firm of Richard M. Lester after getting laid off from a general practice -- a quirk of recession-driven fate that acquainted the half-Irish, half-Arab business litigator with a dream job he didn't know existed.

"I've been a bike rider since I was a pup," said Nazif, 34. "I never realized I could combine the two things I love and do it for a living."

Lawyers who ride were a rarity in the days when motorcyclists were portrayed in film and television as outlaws. But a motorcycle's attractive gas mileage, and the appeal of the powerful machines that have become pricey status symbols for aging baby boomers, have expanded and gentrified the motorcycling public.

With the number of motorcycles registered in California more than doubling over the last decade to 824,244 last year, at least half a dozen law firms between the Bay Area and the Mexican border now deal exclusively with the wounds and woes of bikers.

Biker-lawyers like Nazif can relate to their clients. Most having been catapulted to the pavement themselves by inattentive drivers, they know the pain of crunching bones, the terror of the left-turning vehicle, the injustice of judges and juries who view their misfortunes as self-inflicted.

"I had an accident in law school -- my shoulder still sticks out," said Nazif, reflexively massaging his right shoulder as he recalled the motorist who pulled in front of him on a busy San Francisco street six years ago, sending him flying onto the roadway. "I had to fight the insurance company tooth and nail just to get my medical bills paid."

Having amassed more than 40 injured clients in his first month with Lester, Nazif sees a sobering parade of injuries through the firm every day.

"Being here makes me a safer rider," he said. "These clients are daily reminders that cars just don't see us."

Most of the firm's work involves negotiating with insurance companies, especially for uninsured accident victims who can collect only out-of-pocket medical costs and lost wages. Proposition 213, a 1996 ballot initiative, prohibits compensation for pain, suffering, disfigurement and other non-monetary damages to those driving without coverage.

The firm also wages 1st Amendment battles for riders who have been victims of discrimination and fights what the biker bar sees as bad legislation across the country.

Lester, odd man out in a tie and suspenders, founded the National Coalition of Motorcyclists, a biker lobby that promotes safety and defends the free-speech principles that the riding community hold dear.

Riders now are as likely to be educated professionals as ponytailed leather-clad rumblers, says the firm's founder, referring to those who have diversified the riding crowd as RUBs: rich, urban bikers.

Still, he says, most people retain an image of bikers as tough customers looking for trouble.

Private establishments have prevailed in excluding bikers displaying overt signs of club membership, whether the "one-percenters" associated with crime and violence or riding groups united by faith, interest or profession, Lester said. Christian Unity, he says, is the fastest-growing bikers club.

As governments impose laws meant to crack down on gang activity, they have swept bikers into the definition by prohibiting identifying logos and patches, Lester says.

"There may be someone doing something illegal. But you shouldn't come in and paint everyone with a broad brush," he said.

Joey Lester, the founder's son, took the case of four members of the Top Hatters riding club who'd been thrown out of the Gilroy Garlic Festival through eight years of state and federal court challenges. He lost in the final review by a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last fall because the festival was protected by private security, not government law enforcement.

The younger Lester, who said he doesn't ride much anymore because he's got a 2-year-old child he wants to see through to adulthood, accuses the government of targeting bikers for their individuality.

"They want a Stepford America," said the lawyer, his boot-clad feet propped up on a carved desk. "The way they define gangs could apply to the Boy Scouts."

Bob Poelker of Hollister, one of the four riders tossed from the garlic festival in 2001, attests to the importance of having riders defend riders.

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