April 24, 2018 Membership Spotlight

Michael Van Zandt

Michael J. Van Zandt is a partner and co-chair of the Environmental & Natural Resources group at Hanson Bridgett in San Francisco. He is also the chair of the Senior Lawyer Division’s Experience editorial board and serves as a representative for the ABA SLD Environment, Energy, and Resources Special Committee. 

Tell us a little bit about your career.

I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force and served as a navigator on C-141s, AC-130 gunships, and DC-130 Strategic Reconnaissance aircrafts. I spent a year in Thailand during the Vietnam War and flew at the fall of Saigon. The Air Force sent me to law school, and I was assigned to eight different bases and the Pentagon during my twenty-one-year career.

My main focus in the Air Force was in environmental, natural resources, and property law. I retired from the Air Force and entered private practice with the San Francisco office of Keck, Mahin & Cate. In 1996, we formed our own law firm, McQuaid Bedford & Van Zandt. Twelve years later, I joined Hanson Bridgett LLP in 2008. I am now the Co-chair of the Environmental and Natural Resources Practice Group at Hanson Bridgett.


Is it what you had planned when you started law school?

When I started law school, my plan was to be a labor lawyer. I took all the labor law courses at my law school, but there was a retired colonel at my first assignment who did all the labor law. My boss at the time asked me to handle an environmental civil prosecution of the Mather Air Force Base. From there, my career led to me becoming one of the few environmental law practitioners in the Air Force as the implementation of the hazardous waste laws and Superfund began in 1980.


What has been the highlight of your career?

There have been many. I was asked to review the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act bill before Congress passed it and made some editing suggestions on federal facilities that were incorporated into the final act. I was involved with a surface coal mining initiative by the Department of Interior that would have strip-mined an area where the Air Force had its Minuteman III missiles.

I was also a part of a State Department task force that prepared environmental regulations for United States operations in the Marshall Islands. In private practice, I have been involved with a major water rights adjudication in the State of Nevada and represent the largest irrigation district in Nevada. When the irrigation district was indicted for allegedly filing false reports under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, I led a team of criminal defense lawyers and obtained dismissal of the indictment in federal court.


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

I had always intended to become a lawyer since I started college. My navigator career interrupted things for a time, but I fulfilled my dream and have been faced with many exciting and high profile legal challenges along the way.


What advice would you give to someone considering law school today?

You must think carefully about how hard you wish to work. Being a lawyer means constantly keeping up with the latest updates in the law and legal field. Try not to specialize too much at first because a lawyer who knows about many areas of the law is in a much better position to assist his or her clients.


What were the biggest changes you saw in the legal profession over the course of your career?

The use of technology has dramatically changed the legal profession. We now have outsourcing capabilities to review immense document productions, including e-documents that we never had before. I remember parsing through 50,000 documents containing millions of pages for an administrative hearing. Now, we can send this material to a foreign country and have common law trained lawyers review the material with computers to find the documents that will become evidence.


When did you first become a member of the ABA and why did you decide to join?

I first joined the ABA while I was in law school because I believed the ABA was making a great contribution to the practice of law in this country. After a few years and many moves, my membership lapsed. I met a member of the Senior Lawyers Division who rekindled my interest in the ABA, and I became actively involved with the Senior Lawyers Division. Today, I am firmly convinced that the ABA and SLD are making positive contributions to the profession and practice of law.


What has been the highlight of your work with the ABA?

My time on the Senior Lawyers Division Council has been very rewarding. I have been writing and editing in areas where I had little experience before joining the division. I have helped build a database of elder law statutes for SLD, which I hope will be helpful to the ABA and elder law practitioners. I have also been a part of the Senior Lawyers Division’s increasing membership, which has grown from some 3,000 members to over 62,000. I hope that expanded membership will sustain the division for as long as there is an ABA. Most importantly, I have met some of the finest people and lawyers in the United States who are a part of the ABA leadership.


If you had not become a lawyer, what do you think you would have done?

I would have become an actor. Over the last fifteen years, I have been associated with a social club dedicated to the arts and music, and I have performed in over seventy shows, including singing and dancing. I created a one-man portrayal of Sir Winston Churchill, which I have performed five separate times. I am now working on a portrayal of Alfred Hitchcock.