Growing a career


New GLELC?staff attorney has a passion for urban agriculture

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

When Nick Leonard interned for the nonprofit Greening of Detroit in 2008 as part of his Kalamazoo College undergrad studies, he not only fell in love with the potential of urban agriculture in Detroit but also was inspired to study law.

“There were a lot of people starting farms and gardens, but I noticed a lack of affordable professional services to support them,” he says. “I thought I could be of greater service by assisting residents already engaging in urban agriculture and filling an unmet need rather than starting my own organization – plus, I was never that great at farming.”

A graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, Leonard recently became staff attorney at the nonprofit Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, which has a partnership with the Wayne State University Law School’s Transnational Environmental Law Clinic.

He previously was an Equal Justice Works Fellow, assisting the Law Center in providing legal counsel and transactional services to nonprofit entities, community organizations and low-income persons working in urban agriculture in Detroit. He also worked to create a pro bono legal network for urban farmers in Detroit and served as a policy advocate for the urban agriculture community.

“What I enjoyed the most was the unique opportunity to design my own job and then go out and do the work,” he says. “I got to design my own project and the center gave me the freedom to pursue that project as I saw fit. For a young attorney, that was an amazing experience.”

In his new role, where he will continue his work on urban agriculture and also support the Center’s litigation and policy programs, Leonard is looking forward to becoming engaged in more traditional environmental law work. 

“My work with urban agriculture clients has environmental principles, but rarely involves environmental law,” he says.

According to Leonard, urban agriculture is a multi-faceted solution regarding how Detroit can transform vacant lots into urban farms or garden, helping to reduce crime, and improve property values, public health, environmental quality, and access to healthy food.

“Given Detroit’s overwhelming abundance of vacant land, urban agriculture makes so much sense,” he says.

His work has mostly focused on providing pro bono transactional legal services for individuals, nonprofit corporations, and for-profit businesses engaged in urban agriculture in Detroit.

“This has involved everything from helping a start-up nonprofit or for-profit entity to representing an urban grower when they receive a ticket from the City of Detroit,” he says.

His enthusiasm for environmental law stems from a passion for environmental justice.

“Many communities in Detroit suffer from being disproportionately burdened with environmental pollution and also lack access to environmental benefits such as green spaces and quality, fresh, and affordable food,” he explains. “This field combines my passion for Detroit residents, the environment, and social justice.”

During his law school studies, Leonard was a student-attorney with the Community and Economic Development Clinic, where he has worked with numerous nonprofit clients in Detroit; and his article “Utilizing Michigan Brownfield Policies to Incentivize Community-Based Urban Agriculture in Detroit” was published in the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law.

He spent the summer of 2013 clerking for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement, Compliance, and Environmental Justice in Denver, where he had the opportunity to see things from the organization’s perspective and observe how the EPA approaches environmental enforcement.

“Ultimately, it showed me there was a great need for local, nonprofit environmental legal service providers to assist in the protection of our environment,” he says.