Written by: Nicole Black

More than Just a Lawyer

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Bill Marler is passionate about changing the world for the better. He started early on when he ran for the Pullman City Council at just 19-years-old, becoming the youngest person ever to serve in the state of Washington.

To this day, Bill, one of the top food-safety advocates in the United States, continues his efforts to improve the lives of others.

“I’m a lawyer, but I’ve always been politically oriented. The speaking and lobbying part is the political junkie part of me. A lot of lawyers make noise that what they do causes social change, and I do think that a lot of the work I have done, suing companies, has changed corporate behavior. But I also know that you have to do more to get people to change their behavior. You have to speak at conferences and tell the food industry what their products have done to people.”

Whether by litigating, lobbying, educating or speaking to leaders at the top of the food industry, his overarching goal is to make the food production process safer for consumers. He travels the world, frequently speaking at conferences on food safety and testifying before Congress. For Bill, it’s all about doing whatever it takes to “do the right thing for the public, whether in education or in my practice.”

In Search of a More Focused Practice

It wasn’t always this way. At the beginning of his legal career, in 1993, he was toiling away as an associate in a personal injury firm when his first foodborne illness case landed in his lap. He received a call from a woman whose child was a victim of the Jack in the Box E. coli poisoning. He ended up representing 100 plaintiffs in that case and it eventually settled for $15.6 million.

From that point on, although he continued to handle other types of cases, ranging from personal injury and medical malpractice to criminal defense, food poisoning cases became an increasingly large book of business for him. This practice niche seemingly chose him, but he had a passion for it. So he decided to go with the tide and follow his gut instinct – which was to limit his practice to food poisoning cases:

“[Foodborne] cases were referred to me because the other lawyers got stuck or didn’t know what to do. From ‘93 to ‘96, I was doing nothing but finishing foodborne litigation. When the Jack in the Box case was winding down in the fall of ‘98, I had a vision to start my own practice to focus on foodborne illness.”

Unfortunately, the partners at his firm weren’t on board. As Bill explains, supporting a niche practice wasn’t something they were willing to do:

“I approached my partners (but they) weren’t interested. They were older and content and I was in my late thirties and saw my career ahead of me. I thought it was worth the risk. I was confident in my ability. I had done well on Jack in the Box and Odwalla and knew I could make it successful.”

So, he took a leap of faith and started his own practice, bringing along Dennis Sterns, an associate he’d hired at his old firm, and Bruce Clark, another lawyer he’d encountered while litigating food poisoning cases.

And thus Marler, Clark LLP was born. It’s a unique firm with a unique focus and a unique way of doing business.

More than Just a Law Firm

Because Marler Clark focuses on, and has been so successful with, food poisoning cases, it’s become far more than just a law firm. As the “go to” firm for food poisoning cases, it’s become a foodborne illness clearing house and an extremely effective one at that. As Bill explains, the firm’s cutting edge legal team even includes an in-house epidemiologist:

“Nine out of 10 times, when an outbreak is announced, we know about it long before the public is aware. We have an epidemiologist on staff. People contact us first about foodborne illness, and in many cases, we’re doing the research before the Health Department even becomes aware of the problem.”

Ultimately, the firm’s goal is to prevent foodborne illness by working toward a safer food production process, whether by advocacy or by aggressively litigating on behalf of their clients. To that end, the firm even funds preemptive studies to assess food contamination, such as a recent study which concluded that most of the Seattle area chicken was contaminated with harmful bacteria.

More than just a niche practice

For Bill, advocating for food safety is more than just a job – it’s a way of life that has spilled over into his personal life. According to Bill, the lessons he’s learned as a food safety advocate have changed his family’s food choices:

“My family eats simply. We avoid risky foods like hamburgers, sprouts, raw milk, bagged spinach and lettuce, because if you cut out overly processed food and wash appropriately, you limit the risk for food borne illness.”

And it’s not just their food choices that have been affected. After he made an offhand comment on a late night talk show, his family now has six new members:

“We got six chickens because of the egg outbreak last year. It happened after I was on Larry King. In response to one of his questions about ways to prevent food poisoning, I jokingly said, ‘I’m thinking about getting my own chickens.’ When I returned from Los Angeles, my 12-year-old met me at the door and said, ‘We’re getting chickens, right?’ Now I have six chickens.”

  • Theresa Kentner

    OK, Bill I have to ask (good naturedly, of course), what is it with lawyers and cigars?

    On a freeway drive into the Minneapolis/St Paul metro, I pass 2 billboards with cigar smoking lawyers. Different guys, no less. What gives?

  • dangermaus

    Just don’t run for office…

  • dangermaus

    If you want to support peoples’ ability to produce their own eggs, urban agriculture advocates need help. In many, many communities, local ordinances make it illegal for most homeowners to keep any sort of livestock, whether it’s a chicken coop, a rabbit hutch, or a quail pen. These codes often are based on irrational claims like the, statement “Chickens spread diseases” – presented without any support or context (like How often? -moreso than the pigeons? and To whom? -kids on poultry farms don’t get sick more often than city kids).
    If there isn’t an outright ban against keeping livestock, municipal ordinances can make it impractical by banning home slaughter of the animals (slaughtering, for various reasons, is a necessary part of keeping chickens in a practical way). This can make keeping rabbits, cavies, and meat birds impossible – or at least imposes a relatively high extra cost to have them slaughtered at a city-licensed facility (if you’re lucky enough to even have one nearby).
    Should people be able to keep animals in a way that interferes with their neighbors’ enjoyment of their property? Of course not! In fact, that’s how regulations like that should work. Don’t ban roosters, ban any animal that makes enough noise to disturb neighbors! Don’t ban chicken coops, require people keep their yards free of odors that are detectable next door.
    This is the kind of problem that needs to be solved one community at a time, and fortunately a lot of people in the “Urban Agriculture” movement are working on it.
    Interesting paper: http://www.coss.fsu.edu/durp/sites/coss.fsu.edu.durp/files/Butler2011.pdf

  • Allen Long

    The hypocrisy shown by Mr. Marler is typical of most do-gooders. It is ok for him to make personal choices that are detrimental to his health and others (i.e. smoking a cigar) but I can’t have the choice to purchase raw milk. One can kill you just as dead as the other, but each person should have the FREEDOM to make that choice for themselves. There has to be personal responsibility in a society like ours and Mr. Marler shouldn’t impose his values upon the rest of us.

  • Sharon Zecchinelli

    This gives me hope, Bill. Chickens first…that’s how it starts…next thing ya know you’re going to have a house cow. Watch out. Being free from the slavery of the industrialized food system is insidious…it creeps in slowly.