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Three San Diego-area environmental lawyers who spend their free time surfing the water they’ve filed suits to protect have teamed up in an effort to balance public service and profitable business practice. Earlier this year, solo attorneys Rory Wicks, Gary Sirota and Marco Gonzalez formed the Coastal Law Group. They’ve opened an office about a half-mile from Encinitas, Calif.’s famed Moonlight Beach, the site of the water filtration plant the city built after Gonzalez sued them. San Diego BayKeeper v. City of Encinitas, 99-CV-1402US (Dist. Ct. S.D. Calif.). “We’ve been helping each other out for years as a network of sole practitioners,” Wicks said. “We think we can get more done for the environment and also put our kids through college if we work together as a firm.” Gonzalez said the idea of forming the firm grew out of his commitment to the legal clinic at San Diego BayKeeper, where he trains young lawyers to be clean water activist litigators. Wicks, similarly, teaches environmental litigation at California Western School of Law. Their junior partner, Todd Cardiff, and two associates all trained at BayKeeper. “We’ve all been turning away important public service work because we’ve got to make a living,” Gonzalez said. “This gives us more people to do the paying work we can bring in, [and] gives us a chance to expand and have a sustained pro-environment and nonprofit practice.” Steven P. McDonald, one of the state’s top environmental defense lawyers, called the firm “a welcome development.” “San Diego has not had a firm capable of bringing environmental prosecutions, unlike Los Angeles, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, and San Francisco, with the Environmental Defense Fund,” said McDonald, of San Diego’s Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps. Along with cutting-edge environmental lawyering, each partner brings other skills to bear. Wicks has been handling construction, trusts and contract matters for 20 years. Sirota, an experienced land use and real estate attorney, acts as counsel to foundations involved in international nonprofit work, including a $50 million water treatment project in Mexico and anti-malarial work in the South Pacific. Gonzalez, who did postgraduate work in biology before he went to law school, has a thriving clientele in the action sports industry. He represents the Quiksilver Foundation and D.C. Shoes Inc. Foundation, which builds skateboard features into community parks. “We’ve got a growing clientele in the surf industry, handling their transaction and litigation work,” Gonzalez said. “They like knowing that part of their hourly rate goes to support clean water and environmental advocacy.” PROVING THE ‘GYRE’ Over the years, Wicks, Sirota and Gonzalez have filed at least three dozen clean water, California Environmental Quality Act and related suits. In the late 1990s, Sirota and Wicks began fighting the city of San Diego over plans to pump partially treated sewage to an outfall miles offshore, arguing that a “gyre,” or circular tide, then unproven, will carry the sewage back to the shore. They lost the suit, the city built the outfall and bacteria counts rose. Just this year, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography confirmed the gyre exists. After a series of sewage suits, Wicks is crafting a consent decree with the city to resolve the final suit. San Diego BayKeeper v. City of San Diego, 01-CV-0550US (Dist. Ct. S.D. Calif.). Gonzalez’s defense of the state storm water permit — when he intervened in a suit by the Building Industry Association against the state — is expected to be tested at the California Supreme Court later this year. So far, his arguments have prevailed in Superior Court. An appeal is pending. BIA v. State Water Resources Control Board, D042385 (Cal. App. 4th). Most of those suits paid very little — if at all, Wicks noted. “At the administrative procedure level in the state cases, you have to get a superior court judge to rule that a governmental entity abused its discretion, and that’s tough to do,” he said. “That’s why I love the [federal] Clean Water Act — it’s strict liability.” Although the office is plastered with photos of the lawyers riding the lips and inside curls of big waves, work comes first. “It never fails that we get a crunch on an environmental case, where we’re working against a tough, looming deadline and a good swell hits,” Wicks said. “Many’s the time we’ve pounded out briefs while great waves went unsurfed.”

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