Tim Phillips, of the Law Office of Tim Phillips, practices law in Minnesota and California. He has been providing legal representation in the areas of civil rights litigation and criminal defense for more than a decade. Since passing the California bar exam in 2008, he has handled over a dozen jury trials.
Lawyer Minds: Why do you take the cases that you do?
Tim Phillips: Plaintiff-side litigation is a great way to make a living while helping people who have been harmed. I focus on police misconduct and employment cases because law enforcement and corporations would get away with countless misdeeds if there weren’t civil rights lawyers willing to file lawsuits and take these cases to trial. I also defend a lot of protesters in criminal cases, as I see activism and community organizing as critical work in building a better world.
Lawyer Minds: What are some of the key elements of a successful case?
Tim Phillips: In civil rights cases, unlike car accident or other personal injury cases, liability can be far more important than damages. This is because state and federal statutes addressing police misconduct and employment discrimination, among other civil rights violations, often require the defendant to pay the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees if the plaintiff prevails at trial. This helps my clients, as I can add value to their cases by diligently preparing for trial, increasing the defendant’s potential exposure (and the likelihood of a favorable settlement or verdict). Another key element is collectability, as there is probably no point suing an employer, for example, that cannot afford to pay a settlement or judgment.
Lawyer Minds: What was your most trying case?
Tim Phillips: I represented four activists who caused a tar sands pipeline to shut down temporarily. They took this action to raise awareness about the ongoing and imminent harms caused by climate change. Before these felony cases went to trial, we litigated for two years, obtaining a groundbreaking pretrial order, and winning at the Minnesota Court of Appeals. When we got to trial, the judge granted my motion for judgment of acquittal after the prosecution rested. It was a giant relief and victory.
Lawyer Minds: What is the single most important thing a lawyer needs to know about trial?
Tim Phillips: Trial, like everything in life, is imperfect. Although we all make a mistake or two during trial, sometimes a memorable one, the jury generally figures out what transpired with regard to the event the trial is about. Whether you agree with their verdict or not is another matter, but they will basically understand what happened, and they will do what they think is right under the circumstances. I strongly believe in the jury system, but it is important to remember that the life experiences of each juror inform the verdict. If society were different and more people on juries knew about police misconduct, climate change, or wage theft, for example, the jury system would produce greater overall justice.
Lawyer Minds: How does your law firm embrace diversity and inclusivity?
Tim Phillips: So much in life is catered toward people who are wealthy. I try to cater my (solo) firm toward people who, for one or more reasons, are marginalized. The majority of my current clients are women and/or people of color, many of whom have ongoing civil rights or criminal cases related to the protests following the murder of George Floyd. In civil cases, in particular, I try to make my firm accessible by not charging a fee upfront and by keeping an open mind about taking on lower damages cases.
Lawyer Minds: How do you stay current on law changes that could impact a client’s case?
Tim Phillips: The legal research software I use is Casetext. Due to the qualified immunity doctrine applicable to police misconduct cases, plaintiffs’ counsel are usually required to identify prior cases that have “clearly established” that certain police behavior is unconstitutional. To assist other plaintiff-side police misconduct lawyers seeking to stay current on the law, last year I created a website – policemisconductlitigation.com – that lists essentially every useful case from the 8th Circuit, where I practice, and many similar cases from around the country.
Lawyer Minds: What unique struggles do lawyers face?
Tim Phillips: The practice of law can be pretty solitary and disheartening. We work so hard to help our clients, and the wins feel great; but we cannot win every case, and the losses are quite painful. It can feel like a zero-sum game because so often it is. Or it can feel like a truth-seeking system would be a real improvement over the adversarial system we have. Working so hard in a system where frequently only one party prevails, and that party may or may not have truth on their side, burns some wonderful people out, unfortunately.
Lawyer Minds: What’s one thing you want the readers to know about you that we didn’t ask?
Tim Phillips: Trying cases does not come naturally to me, and I am still learning as I go. Sometimes I am really in my element, and I know I belong in this profession. Other times it is incredibly stressful, and I hope my children do not follow in my footsteps. It is hard work for sure, but it is also a privilege, especially to represent people who are themselves working to make the world a better place.
Thank you, Tim, for taking time to share your insight and knowledge with Lawyer Minds!
How Will AI Affect Your Law Office?