Attorney balances career with family Lawyer specializes in insurance claims
By Marc Albert
September 21, 2003
DANVILLE — Calm and soft-spoken, it’s hard to imagine a courtroom lion lurks inside Terrance Coleman.
As a young attorney at San Francisco’s Pillsbury & Coleman, Coleman battles insurers failing to honor policies. But in contrast with the Hollywood images of a corporate hired gun or cigar-chomping ambulance chaser, Coleman seems every bit the cool and collected family man.
He takes pride in breaking those stereotypes at work. Over coffee at a mini-mall Starbucks here near his home in suburban Danville, a light breeze wafted through the parking lot and Coleman related a cherished anecdote: “You really changed how we feel about lawyers,” he recalled jurors telling him after a 31/2-month-long trial. “You were believable.”
There are some things, though, that Hollywood doesn’t get entirely wrong. Coleman works long hours and is paid well by most standards — though he only recently retired his student loan debts. Work doesn’t leave much time for leisure pursuits — the downtime he can get is spent with his family, 3-year-old Garrett, 11-month-old Bridget, wife Luci, and Brandon Stoneburner, 16, his wife’s son from a previous marriage.
A native of Stockton, and graduate of St. Mary’s High School there, Coleman enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley with a love for science. But at Berkeley, Coleman learned he was a small fish in a very big pond.
“Everyone was so serious,” he said. “I decided I wasn’t cut out to be a physicist. There were far smarter people in the physics department.”
So Coleman shifted gears and went for history — a field that helped reignite a fascination with law sparked as a child when he attended a talk by controversial defense attorney F. Lee Bailey with his mother.
“I don’t know whether it was because of that, but I always knew I’d go into law.” He contemplated enrolling in a graduate history program but wanted “greater action” than he assumed he would have from research or teaching.
“The idea of being a trial lawyer … it’s a fun way of helping people. It’s tough and rewarding.”
But it was controversy and the insurance industry’s staunch opposition to the implementation of 1988’s voter-approved Proposition 103 — a measure to reform the industry — that focused Coleman’s energy on insurance. Parts of the law — particularly provisions setting up a “no-fault” system — were blocked from implementation by the industry, a fact still vexing to Coleman.
That annoyance turned to fervor while he was a third-year law student working as a clerk in cases involving victims of the disastrous 1991 Oakland hills fire whose insurers declined to honor claims.
It is something he carries with him. “People I represent have been victimized twice, once when they suffered through a tragedy and once when their insurance company refused to honor a valid claim,” he said.
Recently, Coleman became involved in a battle a little closer to home. Health Net, an insurer, declined to renew a health plan for the San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association, a group on whose board Coleman sits. Coleman insists Health Net lacks the “good cause” required under the contract to cancel the policy.
Coleman says Health Net’s move follows an industry trend: phasing out health insurance to any groups other than through employers or individuals. “No one is writing that kind of coverage anymore.”
The reason, he said, is regulatory. Health coverage through employers is regulated by federal law, while insurance written to cover other groups is managed by stricter state laws. Coleman said that federal regulations don’t guarantee jury trials and preclude breach of contract lawsuits, punitive and consequential damages.
Essentially, Coleman reasons, the threat of non-compensatory damages are required to keep insurers on the up and up.
Coleman also has a beef with the law school system. Schools are too expensive, he said. He should know, he was $75,000 in the hole at graduation.
“There’s such a built-in incentive to go the big firm route instead of (working in) the public interest,” he said.
Though he works between 40 and 80 hours a week, Coleman isn’t always thinking law. With a teen, a toddler and an infant around the house, he’s admittedly more conscious of the 5:01 p.m. to 8:59 a.m. world.
Within days of his daughter’s birth, Coleman started a lengthy trial in San Rafael — an experience he described as “grueling” for the whole family.
“It tends to make you more focused on being a provider,” he said. “Kids, they depend on you for so much, not just food and shelter. My son, he doesn’t like it when I have to go.”