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January 03, 2007

Child-Support ‘Anti-Lawyer’ Draws on Lessons From Former Pro Career
By Noah Barron
Daily Journal Staff Writer

VISALIA – Golf. Racquetball. Yachting. These come to mind as sports befitting an attorney.
Not for Tulare County child-support lawyer Phil Esbenshade, a.k.a. “Phil E.”
Before he was a lawyer, Esbenshade was a well-known professional skateboarder, and now, at 39, he’s still riding hard when he’s not in court in Visalia.
“I got into skating when I picked up a skateboard magazine in 1979, but I really got into it when I moved in with my dad who was kind of an abusive type,” Esbenshade recalled.
For a time, he ran away from home and lived on the street.
“My dad took away my skateboard, locked it in the trunk of his car – I picked the lock and hit the bricks. I knew some punkers that had a house – I slept in the bathtub at their place for a while.” He says, “It was just a bad scene at home.”
He was turned on to skate culture at a young age by pro skater Eric Grisham. When Esbenshade went pro himself in the late ’80s, skateboarding was at the height of its first wave of popularity. Esbenshade, who went by Phil E. to distance himself from his father’s name, had shots in skate magazines like Thrasher and Transworld, a few of them taken by photographer-cum-film-director Spike Jonze.
“Right after high school, it was either college or a pro skateboard career. I chose the skateboard career with very little consideration,” Esbenshade said. “They made skateboards with my name on them. There were girls all over the place.”
Esbenshade’s signature skateboard decks still line his bedroom wall. He was sponsored by big names like Santa Cruz Skateboards, Converse and Venture Trucks well into the 1990s. He skated against legend Tony Hawk and was a teammate of skate-celebrity-turned-murderer Mark “Gator” Rugowski’s.
At the height of his professional skateboard career, Esbenshade simply walked away.
“It always annoyed me: You’d see guys in their mid-20s still hanging around, trying to be cool,” he said. “I just figured I’d give [professional] skateboarding back to the up-and-coming kids.”
“I actually thought I had enough money to last forever,” Esbenshade said, laughing. “I had someone I was paying to open my mail for me. I wasn’t that smart with my money back then.”
He didn’t make enough cash to last forever, but his skate career paid for college and law school.
Esbenshade chose the law because he wanted to be an advocate for rebels like himself.
“I wanted to show everybody that I was on the right path,” he said, “that I could still be what they perceived as successful without changing who I was.”
Esbenshade always has been intensely private, shunning the fame that came with being a pro; his life has been spent shuttling between separate worlds: skateboarding and the law.
“I kept my education life away from my skate cohorts,” he said. ” In law school, I kept my skateboarding past away from the other law students. My neighbors here have no idea what I do – I tell them I’m a welder.
“Even now, when I’m at a work party and people see my tattoos, they’re surprised. I keep a lot of aspects about myself under wraps, because people tend to judge.”
After he graduated from University of Laverne Law School in Ontario in 2003, he decided to set up a law firm geared toward representing skateboarders.
“I was stopped by the police for skating in the parking lot of my own law office,” Esbenshade said.
Ever the rebel, he showed the cop his business card and asked, “What are you doing in my parking lot?”
Esbenshade knows firsthand that skateboarders often have trouble with law enforcement.
Once, when he was skateboarding in Encinitas, a police officer detained him and said, “You’re 22 years old, you drove 25 miles just to skateboard? Why do I find that hard to believe? Where are the drugs?”
Esbenshade says he calmly escorted the officer across the street to a 7-Eleven and showed him a copy of a skateboard magazine with Esbenshade’s picture in it, skating at the very same spot, San Marcos Banks, which is famous with skaters.
“[The officer] ended up saying he would buy his kid my signature board,” Esbenshade said.
The skateboard law practice didn’t work out, though – it was difficult to get clients through the door. Most skaters were being represented by public defenders, so he decided to work there himself, where he rose to head the juvenile division.
After a while, he said, he found being a public defender wasn’t a perfect fit, so he looked for something new.
Esbenshade moved to his current position as an attorney with the Tulare County Department of Child Support, where he enforces child support orders in the courts.
“It’s something I really get behind,” he said. “I think it’s driven by having kids myself as well as growing up as the child of a single mother with five kids.”
In court, Esbenshade manages to strike a balance between his counterculture roots and the serious environment of the law.
“I’m kind of the anti-lawyer,” he said. “I respect the decorum of the court, but I’m a no-nonsense person. I like to get in and get out – and get right to the point.”
Esbenshade’s other interests are just as off-beat as his skateboard lifestyle. He’s written a law review article on hacking, “Juveniles and Undeterred Recreational Cybercrime,” he played bass in a garage punk band and he frequently speaks about reptile-related legal issues at snake enthusiasts’ conventions.
He raises and breeds boas and pythons with his two sons.
“I think that’s because, when I was a kid, nobody took care of me, so I like taking care of things,” he said, as his son Max, 4, handled several baby ball pythons. He also wrote an unpublished autobiography titled, “From Skateboarder to Lawyer.”
“It’s a story about a guy who was an outcast, a misfit,” Esbenshade said. “Everybody thought that, because of the way he looked, that’s just who he was.
“Then he grew up and looked like a success, but inside was still that outcast – and he enjoyed every minute of it.”
His entire life, Esbenshade said, he has been “totally straight-edge,” that is, 100 percent drug-, alcohol- and tobacco-free.
“People say, ‘My God, you were in the whole punk scene,’ but I never got into the drugs,” he said. “By the time I was 17 or 18, I was so into skateboarding, I figured, Why get into it. What’s the use?”
Nowadays, he spends his time with his ophidian pets, his two sons and his wife. He still finds time do what he calls “high-speed cruising” on his skateboard around his block in Visalia. Skateboarding is forever in his blood.
“Wherever I see benches that are all scraped up from skaters or when I hear the clack-clack-clack of skateboard wheels, it’s just so comforting,” he said. “In court, I sit there, and they’ve got the bar that separates the gallery from where the lawyers are, and it’s so smooth. … I think it looks like I could rail-slide that.”