Poor Bill Baldwin of Forbes – his Editorial “Needed: Tort Lawyers” in this week’s Forbes – has been printed and reprinted on other lawyer blogs and websites to tout their bona fides as food lawyers. Funny thing, all of them missed this part of Mr. Baldwin’s editorial:

Meet William Marler, a 52-year-old Seattle attorney whose career was launched with a $15.6 million settlement against Jack in the Box. (This victim survived but lost her large intestine.) Sixteen years later he can brag that his firm, Marler Clark, has extracted just shy of half a billion dollars in settlements from food vendors. This suggests cumulative revenues of maybe $150 million for a small firm (seven lawyers, one full-time epidemiologist). But letting lawyers get rich has a nice side effect. The settlements get the attention of food producers. Bill Marler is not shy about using the Web, press releases and Capitol Hill testimony to publicize what he’s doing.

The “newbie” lawyers into food litigation believe that if they put up a few Google ads and post a few blogs, the glitter of it all will attract people poisoned by the food they and their children have eaten to their firms. They then think they can cash in on the victims injuries.

But these “newbie” lawyers are mistaken it is not about the money – victims of foodborne illness today can tell the real from the fake, from the glittery website site and dazzling smile to 21 years of 24/7 365 day advocacy. Those clients, like Heather Wybrew, Carl Ours and Mari Tardiff profiled in the New York Times this Monday in “Health experts say food supply is safer today than a decade ago, but recalls raise new concerns,” understand the differences. They get it. As I said to the New Your Times:

The paradox is that even as food has grown safer, contamination scares and recalls keep coming to light. William Marler, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in representing victims of food-borne illness, said that every time his business appeared to slow from a drop-off in cases, some new type of contamination would crop up.

"It’s like the Dutch boy putting his finger in the dike," Marler said. "When you put your finger in one hole, another emerges."

The clients understand that it is not about the money, the glitz or the glitter – it is about hard work, dedication and caring. Well, time to board the plane to London. I need to put another finger in the dike.

  • Hi Bill:
    It is tough to be in a serious profession where human suffering is the actual driver of work; this can profoundly affect one’s perception. I see it a little differently being basically on the prevention side of things. It is really the same dynamic though in the food safety business as in the legal profession. I want to stop illness transmission because of the human suffering it causes, actually both to victims and to the firms that are at fault, they suffer also (ok to the tune of 500 million plus!). Most of these firms, with of course exceptions, are just doing what businesses do, and not necessarily focused on the risks that end up biting them. I have never actually met an operator who wanted to make people ill. The PCA debacle aside, I think this is mainly the case. I help my clients to the best of my ability from being on the other side of the table from you.
    Speaking now of my business, as these FBI incidents wax and wane there is more or less supply and more or less demand for prevention services. When the food supply seems safe (ok it has been a while since people felt like it was safe, but we will get there again) firms want to forget about prevention and press on with business. For example, restaurant outbreaks seem to be down, the economy is hurting and the National Restaurant Association just fired a number (seven I think) of its food safety staff in a cost cutting move. We know well that in the food industry the QA folks are the first to go because management sees them as cost centers, not profit centers. Then the inevitable happens, some bug breaks through the safety net and here we go again.
    When problems erupt, there is pressure again to train, to hire auditors, to develop food safety systems. It is hard work, knowledge, and the ability to apply the science that allows a professional in my line of work to stay afloat, of course there is a lot more to it.
    As long as we are working to solve the real problems people face, we have legitimate careers, and I have faith that the business end of things will take care of itself. Looking at it any other way is just being an opportunist and shortsighted, and unfortunately we have this too, in my line of work.
    Good travels and say hello to my colleagues on the other side of the pond.