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Attorney Stephen Benda: "The secret of happiness is keep it small."

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Menlo Park, CAStephen Benda's receptionist was away from her desk when LawyersandSettlements called him, so Benda answered the phone himself--not the kind of thing you expect from a founding partner, but consistent with his approach to his practice.

"My philosophy is to keep it small," Benda says. "We're located in Silicon Valley and I have a lot of friends in big companies, and they all tell me, 'Stephen, the secret of happiness is keep it small.'" It also means being versatile; Benda's three-person firm handles commercial litigation, commercial collections, and some civil litigation, bankruptcy, and tax litigation. "We're usually more plaintiff side than defendant side," he says.

"Commercial collections are non-consumer collections, usually arising out of a business transaction. They usually come up when somebody hasn't paid for something or there's a dispute over whether it should be paid for. I used to represent a division of Bristol Myers Squibb who sold pharmaceuticals to physicians amd pharmacies, and we'd handle collections from a physician, a pharmacy, or sometimes a distributor.

"We don't do complex commercial transactions; we handle disputes between businesses regarding a transaction, a breach of contract, non-performance, or something like that, as well as partnership disputes over questions of ownership, for example. We always try to mediate, of course, because most cases do ultimately settle whether you litigate or not. The question is, at what point do you start to use dispute resolution techniques? The question is when is a party ready to talk turkey�"it's psychological, really, and different in every case.

"It's hard to give an exact taxonomy for civil litigation, but I know it when I see it. Civil litigation would be anything outside commercial litigation. Basically, civil litigation as we practice it would be personal, private problems that require a solution in a civil court, such as the sale or acquisition of real estate.

"There are various aspects of civil litigation that we do not do, such as product liability, which is a specialty in itself. We don't do workers' compensation and we don't do immigration work, and again those are specialties in themselves."

As to the significance of his work beyond the immediate case, Benda is modest. "I've had a couple of cases published in the tax court. One would be significant to practitioners of tax law, because it set a precedent for where and when a husband could appeal something the IRS did that affected his ex-spouse. That was helpful to spouses who had differences over who pays."

Nonetheless, Benda doesn't claim to do much more than service his clients. "We're a very small firm," he says. "There are two other attorneys beside me, and most of our cases are of significance to our clients rather than to the legal profession as whole. We're like a hospital that delivers services rather than a teaching hospital. We're not claiming to be doing stuff that gets written up about much. That tax case sort of happened by fluke.

"We're here like a taxicab and we wait for whoever gets in and needs help from us, just like a general practice doctor or a non-teaching hospital. If you want good care, you usually go to a non-teaching hospital; if you've got something exotic, you'd go to a teaching hospital. We try to give our clients hands-on care."

Stephen Benda, a 1970 graduate of the University of Sussex, received his JD from Peninsula University in Mountain View, CA in 1986. He has practiced law in Palo Alto and Menlo Park since then as founding partner of the Law Offices of Stephen Benda.

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