Skip to main content
Law School Transparency logo

Staying Afloat to Pursue a Passion in Environmental Advocacy

Oct 19, 2015

Justin Bloom went to law school to right environmental wrongs via the law. In this episode, he talks about his range of experiences. While his first job was defending environmental takings cases, his career took a winding path from tort litigation to immigration. He even quit a job after a boss asked him to coach clients to lie. He also worked directly for a model environmental advocacy organization that utilized citizen action to help government agencies remedy legal violations of the Clean Water Act. Today, Justin runs a nonprofit that uses a variety of strategies to protect coastal areas. While he and other volunteers work to make the organization financially stable, he's practicing law on the side to ensure that he is too. Justin is a graduate of Tulane University School of Law.

Transcript

Host:

From LawHub, this is I Am The Law, a podcast where we talk with lawyers about their jobs to shed light on how they fit into the larger legal ecosystem. In this episode, Kimber Russell interviews an environmental advocate on his winding career path and how he balances his time between a sole litigation practice and the nonprofit he founded.

Kimber Russell:

Today we are joined by Justin Bloom. Justin is a 1996 graduate of Tulane University School of Law. Now, Justin, like many people going to law school, you came in really with the goal of doing environmental advocacy via the law. But over the course of a 20-year career, although you have done that, you've had to be kind of creative in how you approached it and it took you a while to get where you wanted to go. So tell us a little bit about what your first job out of law school was like. We know you worked in the Florida Keys for a small law firm, where you mainly defended Monroe County in environmental takings cases.

Justin Bloom:

I clerked at a small firm my second summer. It was a private firm that had a significant aspect of business representing Monroe County Environmental Services. That was mainly doing environmental takings defense and also doing enforcement actions typically against developers and polluters. After having a really great summer there, they invited me to work for them and I went after I graduated. Monroe County, it's beautiful. It's the Florida Keys as well as the Everglades, so we had a fairly progressive county. I was able to really dig right in on working on some good environmental issues.

Kimber Russell:

Tell us more about what it means to do an environmental takings case. What is an environmental taking?

Justin Bloom:

In the context of the work that I was doing, it was usually a developer that wanted to maximize their opportunities to develop in the Florida Keys. Everywhere was environmentally sensitive and there were quite a few restrictions. So if the county denied them the permit to build as much as possible, as high as possible, as close to the water as possible, that might have been in contravention of county regulations and they weren't able to get the permit they wanted to, they would sue the county saying that it was a constitutional taking, denying them of their property rights.

Kimber Russell:

Now, you were in this job for a fairly brief amount of time. Why did you go on to pursue another position?

Justin Bloom:

Well, I loved living in the Keys. Key West is a little island. It's a fairly transient place, and I decided to move elsewhere in Florida back to Sarasota, where I'd gone to college and I had family and relationships were involved. So it wasn't because the work wasn't fascinating and I had a great opportunity down there. I think I really would've grown into this small firm and had a successful career, but I felt like taking a hop and exploring different opportunities. At that point, I diverged a bit from the hardcore environmental law career and did all sorts of different things. I worked with a relative for a while in a general practice, where I ended up doing all sorts of cases like immigration, and tort cases, and small contracts, and pretty broad practice that got me actually quite a bit of court experience.

Kimber Russell:

What was your main practice area when you were doing the general litigation?

Justin Bloom:

I speak Spanish. When I was living in Sarasota in college, I became active in a Hispanic advocacy organization and I made a lot of contacts, so I ended up doing quite a bit of immigration. And also, I ended up doing quite a bit of torts and that was mainly just your run-of-the-mill slip and fall, and PI auto accidents, and things like that.

Kimber Russell:

That seems to be a big 180 from what you were doing previously, but you were still interested in environmental work, so were you able to do any kind of environmental work on the side at all?

Justin Bloom:

Yeah, I got involved in doing pro bono work in the environmental law community. And there wasn't as much opportunity in Sarasota to do that kind of environmental law. Though I wasn't on a day-to-day basis really engaged in particular cases, I started building relationships and started getting involved in some pro bono work. And all that PI and all the immigration and the general civil litigation came to help. And actually it's a point to make. When I was in law school, I got so frustrated with having to take real property and having to take the general courses, because all I wanted to do was do public interest environmental law, and I wasn't sure what that all had to do with it.

Kimber Russell:

So you did make a big shift from Florida to New York. What took you to New York?

Justin Bloom:

Actually, I got married. My wife was an aspiring actress and I was excited by the prospects of moving to the big city. Moved up there and it was a big change. Never lived in New York City. I didn't have family or a whole lot of friends up there. So we just dove in. I went shopping for a job and I was fortunate to get a job with a plaintiff's firm in New York City. At the time, the head of the firm was the president of their local Bar Association and it seemed to be a job with a lot of opportunity. I was fairly disillusioned though.

Kimber Russell:

Why so?

Justin Bloom:

I had illusions of grandeur, I think, and not only did I realize that it was a real slog, but also the practice, the firm in particular, and I think that type of practice in New York City was not what I expected. I was fortunate to have worked with a small firm that had a lot of integrity and some good guidance? And got thrown into a situation, where, to be frank, there was a lot of unethical activities would've been expected of me, let's say, and I couldn't compromise.

Kimber Russell:

Could you give us a little more insight on how another young associate at a law firm might be able to identify potential unethical situations when faced with them and what they should do?

Justin Bloom:

I'll try to. Maybe I was unfortunate and then again, I was young and maybe my radar has become more refined over the years. And this is where your CLEs or your courses in ethics aren't necessarily going to prepare you for what oftentimes is really just common sense, where in my case, besides having a workload, which I think prohibited me from giving the cases the attention that they needed, but I think lawyers are faced with that oftentimes through their career. Really, the stark issue became when I was preparing clients for a deposition in an accident case and I was doing my thing, which I had developed over practicing in that area for a few years, and the senior partner came into the room to see how the new guy was doing.

And the fundamental thing that I was telling my clients, which you should always tell them I think is, "You got to be honest. If you don't know the answer, you don't know it. If you know it, you really have to be honest. And so for example, if the light is red, it's red." And the senior partner went nuts. He took me outside. He's like, "Are you kidding? If the light was red, it was green!" I don't know exactly what he said, but he basically was really demanding that I coached these clients in a way where they wouldn't be being honest. That was not a very difficult call for me to make as to whether or not this was, how this job was going to end up if I stayed in. So it would've been, I think, lucrative, but I would've been compromised.

I was in a difficult spot, because New York is a very expensive place and I didn't have family up there. And I had a wife that was pursuing a acting career, which is difficult. But I couldn't do it and I quit shortly after that.

Kimber Russell:

But there was a bright spot though. You were able to discover the Hudson Riverkeeper. So tell us about that organization and what you ultimately did for them.

Justin Bloom:

So that is a great bright spot. So I was aware of the Hudson Riverkeeper, which was the first of what's now 260 waterkeepers around the world. In looking around for other jobs, I really was focusing, trying to get back to my commitment to pursue public interest environmental law. I was fortunate at that time they were hiring a staff attorney. At the time, Hudson Riverkeeper was based in Garrison, New York, which is about an hour outside of New York City up the Hudson River in this beautiful area. So I basically took my dogs up there and camped out on the porch and somehow convinced those guys to hire me.

Kimber Russell:

Tell us more about that. How did you even manage to land that job? Because these jobs are so rare, you plopped out on the porch with your dogs and just waited to talk to somebody?

Justin Bloom:

Well, I sent them an inquiry. I emailed them my resume. I think that they initially were interested, although I didn't necessarily have a interview set up, but the office was near the trailhead of this beautiful hike up in Hudson Highlands. So I told them, "Hey, I want to come up and go for a hike. Is it all right if I stop by and check the place out?" And it seemed like it was a really good fit.

Kimber Russell:

What specifically does an organization that deals with water keeping do?

Justin Bloom:

I'm still a big promoter of this model, environmental advocacy, which was really started by the Hudson Riverkeeper, which was an outgrowth of a group called the Hudson River Fisherman's Association. That was formed by a rag tag ensemble of Korean War veterans, and commercial fishermen, and community activists on the Hudson River. I guess it was in the '60s. And it was particularly focused on the fishery. They were faced with this burgeoning industrialization of the Hudson Valley and the pollution of the Hudson River, which was affecting their livelihoods, particularly these commercial fishermen that relied on good water quality for their catch. It got to the point where they were taking in these catches on a daily basis and they could tell what color they were painting cars at the GM plant in Tarrytown by the color of the fish that they were taking up in their nets.

And they were losing their livelihood and they banded together and they were going nuts. They were about to incite violence and they were hatching these plots to stuff kerosene-filled mattresses up the outfall pipe of the plant to blow it up and they were desperate. And remember, we're talking about pre-Clean Water Act and there weren't really a lot of tools to deal with situations like these. What came along was this guy, he was actually a reporter for National Geographic, I think at the time, or Sports Illustrated, who dusted off the Rivers and Harbors Act, which had a bounty provision saying basically, "You can't pollute public trust waterways, and if you do and you catch the polluter and there's fine, the citizens group can get a bounty."

That created the genesis, the funds that were raised through a number of these suits was the foundation for creating this nonprofit organization called the Hudson Riverkeeper. And at that time, Bobby Kennedy, Jr. was a young lawyer who got involved with Hudson Riverkeeper and he still to this day is the chief prosecuting attorney. So NRDC, and Hudson Riverkeeper, and Pete Seeger's Clearwater all came up around the same time. And they were very effective in using environmental laws as they developed back in the early '70s. The model really is you have a Riverkeeper. He or she is actively engaged in protecting a particular water body, but all around the world now, we have waterkeepers that protect their local water bodies. There's lakes, and creeks, and streams, and coasts, and they use whatever tools are available to them.

Very often it's environmental law, but there are some waterkeepers that have more of a science background or relationships with environmental educators to bring the tools that they have to bear on whatever environmental problems are affecting their watersheds in the communities that rely on those watersheds. So that's the general model that was developed by the Hudson Riverkeeper and it grew into a small band of like-minded waterkeepers. And they decided to create Waterkeeper Alliance, which became an umbrella organization to support those efforts of their member waterkeepers.

Kimber Russell:

And now, as a staff attorney for Hudson Riverkeeper, what did your day-to-day work look like? I imagine that there was a diversity of issues you would be dealing with, so walk us through a typical day.

Justin Bloom:

We were fortunate in Hudson Riverkeeper to have a pretty sizable staff and ongoing projects. And you'll find often in these smaller environmental organizations, you're just very much reactive. We were able to be a bit more proactive and to be invested in some long-term issues. So one of those issues was working on the New York City water supply and protecting the quality of that unique water supply system.

But really, more than anything, I was involved on a day-to-day basis working on Clean Water Act enforcement cases and development challenges. And in the former, the Hudson Valley and the Hudson River still has and had a lot of industrial activities and regularly would have citizen suits where we had communities or individuals or even through our own investigations, would find Clean Water Act violations of discharge waters, which were flowing into the Hudson directly, or tributaries of the Hudson, that either didn't have a permit for pollutants or were exceeding allowable levels of pollutants in their permits.

Pursuant to the statute, we'd give them a notice an warning and also give the local regulatory authority the chance to prosecute the case as they should. But in many cases, the regulatory agency, whether it be the State, the Feds, or even the county, wouldn't jump in, which would give us the green light to initiate a prosecution by ourselves as a nonprofit and often in coordination with other community groups or individuals to step in the shoes of government to prosecute under the Clean Water Act for those types of violations.

Kimber Russell:

I'm interested to know how the actual practice of being an environmental lawyer differs from what you imagined it would be when you were still in law school. We've all seen, or maybe not everybody, but many of us have seen How I Met Your Mother and the character, Marshall, who was a law student dreaming of being an environmental attorney. How do you think the reality is different from what you imagined it to be?

Justin Bloom:

When I was in college, I started getting involved in environmental issues and those formative experiences had some insight into the legal practice. So I saw how lawyers were fighting these fights. I'd been involved in them for quite a while, so I didn't really have this romantic notion of what it was going to be like. I think the reality, once I started practicing, was how much more challenging it is than maybe I thought. The funding is always a great challenge. To be able to undertake these cases, to triage all of the potential cases, and working for a environment organization that represents various communities, everybody's clamoring for us to engage in this or that issue and to prioritize which cases we have the capability of pursuing and the likelihood of success with very limited funds, that was really challenging.

And having to say no to these passionate community advocates that wanted to stop this proposed development or that issue, those are hard decisions to make. And although I was more of a younger staff attorney and didn't have to make a lot of those decisions, those were hard issues to grapple with, besides just the challenges of the law and the politics involved. And once you have the case and you're pursuing it and you're trying to win it, there are always challenges involved with that. But there is a lot more in being involved with a community organization, a nonprofit organization, that has funding challenges.

Kimber Russell:

So you did spend several years working for the Hudson Riverkeeper, but ultimately, you chose to return to Florida and begin your own waterkeeper group. What motivated that shift and how did you deal with the funding challenges that you've already mentioned?

Justin Bloom:

Well, I'm still very much dealing with those funding challenges. I mean, I started my own waterkeeper about four years ago, but from that day that I started working with the Hudson Riverkeeper, I really saw how that model, the waterkeeper model, is very successful. And I always thought that it would be great one of these days to be the waterkeeper, be the Riverkeeper, to set up my own program. I settled in Sarasota and started my own waterkeeper organization, which is one of the several things that I do and it's growing. It's a small organization and ideally, these waterkeeper organizations have a full-time staff. But we are a startup and maintaining it with volunteers and a lot of my time. But at the same time, I have to continue with my private practice and other ways of making money to keep the organization afloat.

There are different ways of starting an organization, and this is a startup. Although it's a waterkeeper, Waterkeeper Alliance doesn't provide funds for these programs. You really need to tailor it to the needs of your community and come up with your own funding plan. I wasn't in a position to be able to start the organization without funding commitments, so I relied on my time and energy and some savings that I had to create what's called the Suncoast Waterkeeper and have been working at it for a number of years. We were faced with chicken versus egg. Do we start by trying to get a lot of funding and build up a staff and then really go at it? Or start slowly and get involved in the issues, working really with volunteers and to create an organization with integrity and respectability and to build a name in the community and recognition and then try to raise money?

We took that second route and now we're at the point where I think we have a very good reputation and have been involved in some interesting issues. And now, we're setting about really trying to do some fundraising.

Kimber Russell:

So you are doing what you are passionate about, working with the Suncoast Waterkeeper, but you do have to support yourself financially. So how are you making ends meet?

Justin Bloom:

I multitask. I have a lot of things going on. Probably should spend more time on the areas of my practice that are lucrative. I hope I don't neglect them by working so much on my passion and the Waterkeeper Program. But I've maintained a small practice that I've developed over the years. From shortly after I left Riverkeeper, I got involved in toxic tort and pharmaceutical litigation, developed a small niche practice. For a number of years I really focused on that while continually working with waterkeepers and Waterkeeper Alliance and helping them pro bono. And ultimately, actually, for a while I worked for Waterkeeper Alliance. But all along I've maintained my private practice, which at this point, it's working.

There was one case though, that took 11 years, but finally, we settled recently, which I actually, I got involved in when I first was at Hudson Riverkeeper. And it's this case in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where ExxonMobil and other oil companies had a major oil spill, actually, a series of oil spills over the years. And Newtown Creek, this border between Brooklyn and Queens, was the birth of the Industrial Revolution in the US and still is really terribly contaminated. But there was this one spill in particular where millions of gallons of oil ended up leaking out into the aquifer underneath the community and these homes were built up and people living on top of this oil spill for decades. We discovered the situation, which had really been shoveled over and ignored and brought it to light.

And then it was a really good example of nonprofits working with for-profit firms and also, working with regulatory agencies to address the situation. And address it from the perspective of the nonprofit that was looking at water quality, and the environmental benefits, and the for-profit firm that addressed the contamination issues, then the damages to the property owners and the people living in the community, and the regulatory agency as well that jumped in and enforcing the environmental laws. That was a great example of how a case can work well, but they're hard to come by.

Host:

I Am The Law as a Law Hub production. Don't forget to subscribe and rate this show on your favorite podcast app.

Episode #26 Episode #28

Related episodes