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Member Spotlight: Joan M. Bondareff

ABA Voice of Experience

Tell us a little bit about your career.

I’ve been a practicing attorney for the past 45 years and I’m still practicing, by which I mean that I feel like I’m still learning. This is the best part of practicing law –there are always new clients, new challenges and new subjects to learn.

I started out as a junior attorney at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and left there after ten years as Assistant General Counsel for Ocean Services. I had a great mentor at NOAA who made sure I got this promotion. This is how I got into the field of ocean and coastal law and became a maritime attorney. I would have stayed there forever but I was forced out by an administration that didn’t agree with my defense of state coastal zone management programs for which my office had responsibility. 

I was lucky to have been picked up by the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries of the U.S. House of Representatives where I stayed for seven years as Senior Counsel. On the Hill, I worked on a range of maritime issues including the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, and the protection of Antarctica and historic shipwrecks. Just before the incoming Speaker of the House decided to abolish this Committee, I was offered a position as Chief Counsel of the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) in which I served for four years as a Clinton Administration appointee and the first woman in this position.  

The MARAD position gave me a chance to see the challenges facing the U.S. maritime industry from shipping, to loan guarantees for shipbuilding, to national defense and the practice of shipbreaking. This position really enhanced my career as a maritime lawyer. I worked with and for a retired three-star Navy Admiral, Al Herberger, who recently passed away. I greatly admired him. Working for and with inspiring people is one of the great potential benefits of practicing law.

From MARAD, I left to join the boutique law firm of Dyer, Ellis & Joseph as Counsel. The law firm merged in 2003 with Blank Rome LLP which is headquartered in Philadelphia, PA, and has offices around the country. One of its specialties is its maritime practice. I have been at Blank Rome as counsel to both the law firm and the government relations practice for over 20 years.   

What has been the highlight of your career?

There have been three highlights: 1) helping to save the California Coastal Management Program from opposing interests in litigation; 2) working as General Counsel of a federal maritime agency; and 3) more recently serving as Chair of the Virginia Offshore Wind Development Authority (VOWDA), where I promoted and advised on the development of offshore wind off the coast of Virginia. I also saw the first research program begin the U.S. march towards clean and renewable energy.

I enjoyed my time on the Hill, but the challenges of being agency counsel were more meaningful to me and had a greater long-lasting impact on the law and society than did my role as Chair of VOWDA. 

If you could go back to the beginning of your legal career, would you have done anything differently?

I would have studied more about climate change and clean energy, but these were not a “thing” when I was in law school. Now my passion has become renewable energy and I hope to continue this work when I leave the private practice of law someday. 

To read the full article, please click here.

"Member Spotlight: Joan M. Bondareff," was published in the American Bar Association’s Senior Lawyers Division Voice of Experience newsletter on January 25, 2023.