Public sector protector: Attorney assists municipal clients with a broad range of legal issues


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Always active in sports, especially hockey, Justin Sterk originally looked to a career in sport management, earning his undergrad degree in that field from the University of Michigan with an eye to a career on the business side of professional sports.

“There are a lot of lawyers working in professional organizations and various U.S. Olympic governing bodies, and something along those lines was my dream job,” says Sterk, now an attorney at Bloom Sluggett in Grand Rapids. The firm specializes in representing governmental and public agencies, individuals, and associations in the areas of public sector, municipal, riparian and water law, business and transaction law, real estate and tax law.

Three years as a student equipment manager with the U-M hockey program was a great experience, he says.

“It allowed me to stay involved in a meaningful way with my favorite sport, travel to some pretty cool places, and meet a lot of people I would not have otherwise. It also helped me build skills such as how to handle and take initiative in stressful situations, and thinking on my feet, valuable skills for attorneys.”

Inheriting an interest in environmentalism from his father, Sterk added a minor in the U-M Program in the Environment.

“Growing up in a place like Traverse City was also important because I spent so much time in and around the water, with a deep love for the Great Lakes—it’s easy to take clean, fresh water and green forests for granted when that’s all you see,” he says.

Deciding on a career in this field, Sterk selected Wayne Law School for its well-known environmental faculty, especially Professors Nick Schroeck and Noah Hall.

“Both are leaders in the field and I feel lucky to have been able to work with them,” he says.

“I learned how broad environmental law and policy is. Aspects of land use and planning are intertwined with environmentalism and sustainability so there is really an endless number of areas you can address with the end goal of making your surroundings more sustainable.”

The Transnational Environmental Law Clinic provided the opportunity to work closely with Hall and Schroeck.

“I was able to do a little work for actual clients on wetlands issues and factory farming of fish,” he says. “I also learned firsthand how tedious real-life discovery can be—we once spent a whole day scanning thousands of pages of documents at an unnamed state agency.”

An articles editor for Wayne Law’s Journal of Law in Society, and a presenter at the 2015 Sustainability Scholars Symposium, Sterk also was a co-author with Schroeck of “What is a Pond?”, published in the Michigan Environmental Law Journal, a summary of a Court of Appeals decision interpreting “waters of the state” under the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.

An internship at the Detroit Land Bank Authority familiarized Sterk with real estate documents; and he also was a member of Wayne Law's Moot Court team that competes at Pace Law School’s annual National Environmental Moot Court Competition in New York. 

“It was a cool opportunity and it got me out of my comfort zone—public speaking and presentation, especially in an adversarial appellate setting, are not my favorite things, I’m much more comfortable with the research and writing aspects of legal practice,” he says. “The legal issues presented in the problems always have real life applicability so both years doing the moot court provided opportunity to gain some substantive legal knowledge.”

In his 2L year, Sterk and his teammates won the David Sive Award for Best Brief at the Pace competition.

“The award was a nice bonus, especially considering there were a number of Ivy League schools and other top law schools at the competition,” he says. “However I give most of the credit to my two much more experienced teammates, Erica Shell and Paul Stewart.”

Sterk’s interest in environmental law drew him to the field of animal law and food production.

“I think the common industrial operations and processes associated with modern food production is a big problem,” he says. “Large factory farms are major polluters of waterways and I’m wary of the effect on humans and animals from the large number of hormones and chemicals used to unnaturally increase the yield of animal meat. I think it’s important we think about the health and environmental impacts of the way we do mass production of meat and other animal products.”

Succeeding Rebecca Wrock as president of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund, he now serves alongside Wrock on the board of the nonprofit Attorneys for Animals organization. Joining AFA as a member after law school, he offered to take referrals as an attorney and staff a table at the West Michigan Veg Fest in Grand Rapids.

“I’m starting to get into more legislative analysis,” he says. “The AFA board will usually take a position on animal-related bills that come through the Michigan legislature so our job is to take an in-depth look to make sure we can take an informed position.”

A member of the State Bar of Michigan and the Grand Rapids Bar Association, Sterk enjoys his work at Bloom Sluggett where he assists municipal clients in a broad range of legal issues affecting the public sector.

“I get satisfaction out of helping others, in whatever capacity. If a client has a question, my sole focus is on getting them a correct answer. The frustrating part comes when, as is often the case, the legal answer is not clear,” he says.

“I do enjoy the ‘general counsel’ role my firm most often plays—each day usually presents something new and we try to give advice across a broad area of the law.”

In his leisure time, Sterk enjoys distance running, cycling, hiking, kayaking, and camping. Travel is another passion, especially in Europe, and he spent a month in India during undergrad.

“I’m looking forward to doing more traveling in the western U.S. in the next few months,” he says. “And I’ve got a lot of future global travel goals to check off!”