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Meet Bay Area Bicycle Law’s Founder, Michael Stephenson

Not everybody gets to spin their passions into a career, but Michael Stephenson did when he founded Bay Area Bicycle Law (BABL) in 2010.

In the decade since BABL’s inception, Stephenson has grown the firm’s profile and expertise in bike law, making it the only Northern-California based firm to solely focus on representing cyclists. His array of legal experiences and love of cycling set Stephenson up for his dream job when he returned to San Francisco from attending law school and working in neighboring Oregon.

Stephenson — a member of the National Trial Lawyers’ prestigious “Top 40 Under 40,” of the “Million Dollar Advocates Forum,” and of “Lawyers of Distinction” — began his legal career as a criminal defense lawyer. He then worked for Davis Wright Tremaine, one of the country’s top firms, representing high-profile clients in the firm’s Oregon office.

His work with BABL has been especially rewarding, he says.

Stephenson shares the best parts of his job, how BABL’s approach works better for clients, and his favorite ride when he’s not representing Bay Area cyclists.

You’ve worked elsewhere in law. How did Bay Area Bicycle Law come to be?
I started the firm after I moved to San Francisco in 2010. As a practicing attorney I did a couple of bike accident cases for my friends. I realized I wanted to do more of this type of work, so I got a website and eventually a phone number, and an office. It started very gradually.

You’ve built an organization that’s really passionate about bike cases.
Yeah, there are a lot of firms out there that do a lot of different types of cases: dog bites, trucking crashes, slip and falls. I find that the more you can focus as a lawyer, the more skilled you are. A general personal injury firm might think about their cases in broad categories. We’re thinking of our cases in much more defined categories, such as brain injury cases, doorings, and so on.

Insurance companies seem to fear us a lot more because we know what we’re doing well, and it makes things a lot easier for our clients. The results are so much better.

How have laws impacting the Bay Area cycling community changed in the decade since you started the firm?
One of the biggest changes has been the “Three Feet For Safety” Law, which says if a motor vehicle is passing a bicycle, the motor vehicle has to leave at least three feet between it and the bicycle. Now that we have this law, it makes it easier for cyclists to get compensation when a motor vehicle does violate the law and injures a cyclist by passing too close.

What have been your proudest moments with Bay Area Bicycle Law?
More recently, we’ve been able to bring awareness to doorings, particularly those that involve Uber. We’ve had a number of lawsuits where a driver is letting out passengers in unsafe places, specifically next to or in bike lanes, so when a passenger opens their door, they hit a cyclist.

I feel very strongly that it should be Uber’s responsibility to prevent these dooring incidents from happening and that Uber should provide the necessary training to drivers to warn their passengers about opening their doors into cyclists. The company disagrees, but we’re hoping that these suits encourage Uber drivers to pull all the way to the curb to avoid obstructing a cyclist’s path.

Specializing in bike cases certainly sets BABL apart from other firms. What else makes working with your staff different?
I always knew that I didn’t want to be a firm where the lawyers had so many clients that they couldn’t keep them all straight. A lot of firms seem to operate that way, where they don’t actually know who the clients are. With a typical client, I know them, their spouse, and I may have talked to their kids or parents a few times. We really get to know our clients and how their injuries are affecting their life and the lives of their family.

In addition to being the only northern-California based law firm to specialize in bike accidents, the firm also takes on some volunteer roles. What’s your favorite part of that work?
It’s interesting! It’s a nice change from the work we usually do. We offer our assistance to a few bike advocacy groups when they have legal questions. Occasionally we’ll help when there’s an issue where a private landowner is preventing cyclists from using a trail and it ends up with the advocacy group.

Being a cyclist yourself, what’s your favorite ride in the Bay Area?
This may sound crazy, but I love riding around Oakland. I was born in Oakland and it has a soft spot in my heart.