By Jeff Tolman
I have great respect for people who take control of their lives and create a successful life and practice in the changing and evolving legal universe. That would be Bill Marler, Senior Partner at Marler Clark, The Food Safety Law Firm, in Seattle. Bill is considered the most prominent foodborne illness lawyer in America and a major force in food policy in the U.S. and around the world. Wondering if as a youngster he was innately interested in food and food poisoning – and, if not, how in the world he got into this niche practice – I gave Bill a call.
Bill grew up in Silverdale, WA, less than 10 miles from my office, the son of a Navy nurse and Marine Sergeant, both later teachers. After graduating from Olympic College in Bremerton, WA, Bill attended Washington State University. He graduated with three majors due to the fact he was elected to the Pullman City Council as a 19-year-old student and he was determined to fill out his term. After working as a paralegal in a Seattle law firm (Bog;e and Gates) for a year, Bill went to law school and received his J.D. from Seattle University School of Law in 1987. From 1987 to 1998 Bill worked in a variety of firms including Dick Krutch; McKay and Gaitan, Keller Rohrback; Perey Law Group; and Kargianis, Osborne, Watkins & Marler.
His first big civil case related to two children killed by Westley Allan Dodd. Bill decided to go right to the horse’s mouth and met with Dodd in the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, and for five hours heard about Dodd’s various contacts with the legal system. Determining the state of Washington had failed in its duty to monitor Dodd, resulting in the murders, a settlement was reached for the family of the victims.
Then came the 1993 E. coli outbreak at Jack-in-the-Box restaurants. Within a day Bill’s investigation led him to file a lawsuit and he became the face of that litigation. Sometime later, in two days of mediation, the plaintiffs received $23 million in settlements. Bill’s reputation as a foodborne illness go-to lawyer was cemented. Now, he said, there is not a significant outbreak of foodborne illness that isn’t touched by his firm.
In 1998 Marler Clark was formed, initially with four lawyers and four staff, now with six lawyers.
Bill is an enthusiastic, charming, ebullient, charismatic speaker. I wish we could have spoken for another hour or two. He was in Houston, speaking to a conference of food safety agencies. His schedule a week before and after our conversation took him all over America as a lawyer, speaker and advocate for food safety. His next stop was Utah where he is representing a group of victims of food poisoning from a store’s chicken salad, including a 20-year-old woman who became brain injured, unable to work and unable to bear children as the result of the poisoning.
Bill indicated that the foodborne illness litigation is a small community of plaintiff and defense specialists where collegiality and professionalism still reign. He would recommend becoming a lawyer (he has a daughter who plans to take the LSAT) if you go in with your eyes open. Ask yourself: What do you want to do in your career? Can you afford to get a law degree?
Describing his life, he says, “I travel all over the world trying to convince companies that it’s a really bad idea to poison people.”
Not a bad goal to have. Not a bad way to spend a professional life.