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By Michael Kleiner
Steve Masters could have opened a “traditional” law firm in 2012. He spent 12 years as a senior staff attorney at Philadelphia’s City Council, researching and writing legislation and litigating zoning and liquor license issues for the Council President. He needed a new challenge. Then, serendipity called. Actually, it was the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.
“I had worked closely with them when I was in Council,” he said. “They were confronted with a bad piece of legislation and, for the first time in their 40 year history, wanted to design and lobby for their own piece of legislation. They asked me to help them. I realized there could be a market for this. I could do what I did in City Council for outside groups as an outside legislative lawyer. I decided to use my political experience and legal talents to give access to groups who didn’t normally have inside access to the power.”
Research showed that few in the country were doing exactly what he envisioned. He expanded his law practice to include representing businesses around the hurdles of doing business with the city like licenses, permits, and zoning.
Steve learned Pennsylvania was one of the states that had relaxed the requirement that law firms include the last name of the partners in the firm’s title.
“I came across the book Letter From A Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, where he talked about just laws and unjust laws,” he said. “I feel my mission is to help my clients achieve justice and to transform our city and communities into a much more just society. I liked that name and its double meaning. We just work with laws and also help make our laws more just.
“I created a law practice that is value-based, a social enterprise based law firm that works to promote and leverage relationships and strategies to help businesses and non-profits achieve their legislative and legal goals. Some of my clients hire me for my legal skills and deep knowledge of local government law. Others value my insider political knowledge and relationships so they ask my help with political strategy. At times, I’m very involved creating strategy and leading advocacy campaigns. Other times, I’m more behind the scenes. It might be preparing a legal case or drafting legislation or amendments. I also represent developers and community groups before the Philadelphia Zoning Board and help political groups create and run political action committees in compliance with the campaign finance laws on the city and state level.”
His clients have included non-profit advocacy groups, neighborhood civic groups and CDCs, labor unions, real estate developers, community development corporations, a minority contractors’ association, Pennsylvania Working Families, Media Mobilizing Project and PhillyCAM, our local public access cable TV station.
Steve leverages his background as a legislative drafter to give his advocacy clients an edge over the competition. “When I draft legislation, my clients are better able to control the momentum of their advocacy campaigns,” explained Steve. “They also find it easier to locate champions in City Council, because they can say to a legislator ‘here’s the actual piece of legislation we want you to champion.’ There’s less the legislator has to do to research and prepare the bill and they can understand exactly what the outside group wants because they are looking at a properly drafted version of the legislation.”
Right before starting JustLaws, Steve rode for 1,200 miles on a sustainability bike ride from Helena, MT to St. Paul, MN. He raised money for Hazon, which means “vision”, a leading Jewish organization promoting sustainability, community supported agriculture and food justice.
“We met with organic farmers, the Interior Department, talking about the Keystone pipeline--right where it was going to pass--went to a co-op grain silo and a bio diesel plant,” Steve said. “We talked with a lot of stakeholders in sustainable energy and food sectors of the economy. Plus, I rode for days by nothing but GMO corn and soybean fields. I got amazing introductions to the realities we have in the US around agriculture and energy.”
In November 2015, Steve joined another Hazon ride, this time biking 250 miles from Jerusalem to Eilat, ending at the border between Israel, Jordan and Egypt, with Saudi Arabia in view. He raised money for the Arava Institute, based in Israel’s Negev desert. The institute educates students from Israel, Jordan and Palestine on regional issues around sustainability and green practices. After completing their studies, they return to their home communities to create sustainable businesses and work in government promoting sustainable policies.
Steve grew up in the Chicago suburb of Lincolnwood and was the state high school debate champion. He received a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Yale and his law degree from Boston University. During his first summer in law school, he represented African-American parents who were suing Boston over segregated public schools. During his second summer, he helped bring civil rights suits against members of the KKK for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama.
After selecting his firm’s name, Steve joined SBN, who he had worked with when he drafted sustainability legislation for then Councilman Jim Kenney. In 2014 he was elected to SBN’s Board and founded SBN’s policy committee. In 2015 Steve was chosen to be SBN’s Vice Chair and he will become chair of SBN’s board in January 2016.
This past year Steve also designed and led SBN’s Good Economy Challenge, a five-point platform for the Mayor and City Council of Philadelphia. Steve helped organize a Mayoral candidates’ forum that successfully placed SBN’s agenda front and center with the Mayoral candidates. The success of the Good Economy Challenge campaign helped propel increased funding for SBN, the hiring of a full-time policy and advocacy staff person and an invitation to SBN’s Executive Director, Jamie Gauthier, to join Mayor Jim Kenney’s transition team.