Vol. 33, No. 7
Steve Briggs: A Profile Of the New CBA President
by Diane Hartman
"I’m an introvert," he says. "My favorite colors are different shades of beige. I’m the original conservative—I hate change. If I were an ice cream parlor, the surprise flavor of the month, every
month, would be vanilla."
|Steve Briggs and wife Jeanne Floerke on a beach vacation.|
Meet Steve Briggs, new President of the Colorado Bar Association and champion self-deprecator. Friends of more than twenty years say: he’s brilliant ("spooky smart" is the way one put it), a good lawyer, judge, mediator—and golfer—good at just about everything.
"Mix high-intelligence with a big heart and great eloquence—it’s a unique combination," said Mark Chase-Jacobson, a friend from his long-time men’s group. Another friend from that group, psychologist Les Wall, said, "He’s very fair, will fight for what he thinks is right, and is truly one of the brightest people I know—and I have lots of bright friends." Chief Administrative Law Judge Marshall Snider said they used to play music together. "Steve played guitar, I played the banjo, he had a dog named Banjo, and sometimes we’d all go camping and play music." Steve used to play a lot of Jimmy Buffet. "His best song was ‘A Pirate Looks at 40,’ a song about getting older and looking back at your wasted life." Obviously, not an autobiographical tune. Marshall also noted, "He’s just the best person around and he’s good at navigating boats down rivers."
One of the guys remembers an outing on Lake Powell. "We were navigating by moonlight by mistake." Their boat became marooned on a rock. "Steve took command, alternated the motors forward and back to rock the boat—did all the right things, and got us off the rock. We sang Beatles’ songs to keep our morale up. We finally pulled up late at night at the only available campsite: next to a boat on a sandbar where two folks were having a romantic moment. We knew Steve was the guy to negotiate the situation with the couple, because we weren’t about to move."
In his professional life, Steve has gone from clerking for Chief U.S. District Judge Alfred Arraj ("He was my hero, not universally loved except by his law clerks, but universally respected.") to being an Assistant Attorney General in Antitrust. He then became a partner with Hutchinson Black & Cook in Boulder, handling a broad spectrum of complex civil litigation, from the 1970s until he left to become a judge. From 1992 through 1999, he was a judge on the Colorado Court of Appeals, where he authored more than 600 opinions and sat on three-judge divisions that decided more than 1,200 other cases.
Feeling that the new millennium was a good time to try something new, Steve accepted a longstanding offer to join the former judges at the Judicial Arbiter Group. This allowed him to return to his passion as a full-time mediator and arbitrator. Yet, he still says, "I’ve never known what I want to do when I grow up. I’m ambiguous about most things. I’m not sure how I feel about that."
Steve, 57, was raised in Frederick, Oklahoma (technically, he was born across the Red River in Vernon, Texas where his mom’s doctor was). His father was a farmer and rancher, raising wheat, cotton, alfalfa and cattle, always active in crop improvement projects on the state and national level. He says that spending his summers working on the farm helped convince him to become a lawyer. "I like the idea of air-conditioned offices." His mother, while maintaining the home front, was "a feminist before the word was coined. She organized the first Cub Scouts and coached our den in baseball. She was on the school board, active in our church administration, and was the first female voted by the Lion’s Club as Frederick’s Most Valuable Citizen. She was also the cultural door for me." He has an older brother who has moved to Brazil. Steve says, "even though we’re very different, we get along great."
Growing up in a small town was the best possible environment, he said. He played sports and piano all through grade school and high school. He taught himself to play guitar and, with a friend who also played, started a folk duo called "The Siblings." "We stole every song and routine The Kingston Trio and The Smothers Brothers ever did." He took a trip to Washington, D.C.: "I remember standing alone in front of the Lincoln Memorial and reading his words. I wish every student could have that opportunity." He was co-valedictorian, and his classmates voted him "Most Likely to Succeed."
Steve began college at Oklahoma State but transferred to the University of Michigan, where "new worlds opened up. It was refreshing to learn that maybe I wasn’t crazy in my suspicions about stereotypes and even blind patriotism. I learned it was okay to challenge the accepted. At the same time, I learned that even in places where people think they’re enlightened, they can stereotype people because, for example, they have short hair or an accent. I came to understand the complexity of prejudice and that those who look down on others with biases don’t realize we all have biases. That’s what makes us human."
About this time, the war in Vietnam was raging. He and some buddies signed up for the reserves: "We were assured we wouldn’t be called up until we graduated." The next thing he knew, he was pulled out of college and was spending a "gorgeous eight weeks in the middle of winter in the "State of Misery"—Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri." His unit commander was known as "blood and guts Mazetti."
During a later military summer camp, Steve wrote a long poem about Army life, which he can recite from memory. It ends, "Accepting the accepted, afraid of a thought, chided like children who need to be taught; saying the things expected to be said, but worse, following leaders who need to be led." He knew he was not what they were looking for. He did basic and advanced training and went back to Michigan to graduate with a major in sociology. He received a fellowship from the National Institute of Mental Heath for graduate work at Berkeley in social psychology.
"When I had gone from Oklahoma to Michigan, it was a step into springtime in terms of a new way of looking at the world. I envisioned Berkeley as being the next step in the same direction." Instead, he found "people who, in opposition to violence, were firebombing school buses and drug stores. When I would try to have conversations about how they thought that was helping, they’d go to another level of abstraction, talking about the capitalist pig society. It was like wrestling with clouds."
He also discovered that all the job openings in his field were "teaching social psych to social psych students. When I flushed the toilet, I saw my life passing in front of me. He corrected course after one semester, thinking he might try law as being "a more concrete application of our attempts to understand each other." He decided to pack up and move to Colorado (where he had spent a summer), go to work, pay off some debts, then go to law school.
The best job he found was at one of the K.G. Men’s stores, selling clothes. "That was when I learned that a degree in sociology is as useful as screen doors on a submarine." But within the month, several of the sales personnel became involved in a dispute over how wages were calculated. "I met with the president on behalf of the group and explained what I’d do as personnel manager." Another month later, he was offered the job. He moved up the chain and worked there for two years until he went to law school.
"Going to CU law school was the greatest experience of my life. I had teachers who believed in the law as a mechanism for helping people, who were more concerned with helping their students than getting national recognition through publications. I had classmates who I still believe made up the greatest single class (1975) to graduate from there."
His most "exciting" class was Constitutional Law, taught by Skip Chase. Other good profs included Cliff Calhoun, Ted Fiflis, Norton Steuben, and Dennis Hines, among many others. Steve discovered a niche in law school: "I learned about not just what the law is, but what the law could and should be. It was the first time in my life as a cynic that I discovered, in every cynic, there’s a disappointed idealist." He graduated second in his class.
He continued to learn as he clerked for Judge Arraj. "In his courtroom, you could check at the door any political influence, power, and money. The only thing that mattered was the law, and the law was not stale. He combined fairness, justice, and humanity. But you didn’t want to come into his courtroom unprepared."
His later practice in Boulder was not limited to litigation. Ever the social psychologist, he became more and more disillusioned with the litigation process. This led to his first involvement with mediation and arbitration. He was Boulder’s first contract mediator with the Colorado Office of Dispute Resolution and an adjunct professor at CU, teaching a course in negotiations and ADR. He was an active member of the Arbitration and Mediation Panels of the American Arbitration Association and one of its first mediator trainers.
After several years of work (which included serving as president of the Boulder County Bar Association), he took advantage of an enlightened sabbatical policy offered by his law firm and took off for a year, figuratively and literally. His travels included an Earthwatch expedition on the beaches of St. Croix. His team of volunteers worked through the nights recording data about the prehistoric giant leatherback turtles that came to shore to lay their eggs. Back in Colorado only briefly, he and a good friend bought one-way tickets around the world. They traveled for several months, with side trips and treks through England, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji.
Steve didn’t marry until he was 47 ("Can’t be too cautious."). He and psychologist Jeanne Floerke were set up on a blind date and, throwing caution to the wind, married within the year. When asked how long they’ve been married, he says he’s been trained to say "not long enough."
They live in the city of Denver, in an old farmhouse "that needs constant fixing." He says their home makes the movie "The Money Pit" look like a documentary. "Steve would really rather live on a golf course," Jeanne says. But she loves to garden. "She’s created a miniature botanic garden in our back yard."
She calls him "incredibly detail-oriented." (He says, "I know I can drive her crazy. It’s a good thing her specialty is in child psychology.") She loves to get him out on roller blades and into situations where he has to be more spontaneous. They also both ski, bike, and hike—and they travel all over the world. She said he’s organized and fun; very kind, with a compassionate heart. "He asks, ‘What’s the right thing?’ He’s the opposite of arrogant. He could use a dose of narcissism."
Steve claims to have no illusions about changing the world. "In recent years, I’m following the philosophy of Lily Tomlin: ‘No matter how cynical you get, you can’t keep up.’" Yet the theme of Steve’s life could be helping others in resolving conflict—from the men’s store to the interrupted romantic couple to mediation in private practice to the Court of Appeals and now in private practice with other former judges.
He says he’s finally figured out what he wants to do when he grows up: "retire." Nobody is taking him seriously.
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