Environmental attorney Mitchell Tsai on how developers game the system
Published in 2022 Southern California Rising Stars Magazine on June 3, 2022
In 2005, when Mitchell Tsai went to Taiwan to study Mandarin, he wound up developing a passion for environmental activism, which has since become his area of practice. For good measure, he took one of his hobbies to another level. A longtime hockey enthusiast, he played in a semipro league at one of the few ice rinks in the subtropical island nation.
“It was a lot of Canadian expats, some American-born Taiwanese folks like me, and a few locals who got into playing the game,” Tsai says. The annual fundraising tournaments were a hit with the community, too. “We brought in a crowd, sold beers. It was fun.”
Tsai’s Taiwanese-born parents moved to Los Angeles when they were grad students at USC. At home, the family spoke Mandarin, but when Tsai started day care he began learning another language: Spanish. It wasn’t until kindergarten that he started with English. “It was a very Angelino experience,” he says.
After getting a degree in international relations at USC, he moved to Taiwan. Along with his Mandarin studies and ice rink escapades, Tsai worked as a translator for an environmental organization that consulted with local governments on climate-change reduction policies. Accompanying Taiwanese officials to international climate conferences, he began to see how important lawyers were to the whole process.
“I was struck by how much more effective they could be,” he says.
By then, the thick pollution in Taipei and other cities had improved significantly, thanks in part to strong environmental regulations inspired by U.S. laws. “On the books in Taiwan you literally have the original version of the Clean Water Act. They copied and pasted it and had lawyers translate,” he says.
An assignment challenging a freeway expansion taught Tsai a valuable lesson that he carried into his career. An environmental-impact report commissioned by the expansion project estimated that each car on the new road would be carrying four people. The true number was less than half that, but the inflated number helped downplay the project’s impact. “That taught me how they can really game the process,” Tsai says.
Upon his return, Tsai attended law school at Lewis and Clark in Portland, served as managing editor of the environmental law review, and earned his J.D. in 2010. At LA’s Gideon Kracov, he learned the intricacies of land use and environmental law. Occasionally, too, he took on environmental matters in the Chinese-American community, including a case in which he challenged a Walmart expanding into LA’s Chinatown. “It showed me a lot about how attorneys with secondary language skills can expand access to justice in areas where communities of color are traditionally under-represented,” he says.
His own law firm began in 2014 almost by happenstance. “I was in between jobs and volunteering for environmental organizations,” he says. “And this group called the Arroyo Seco Foundation said, ‘Would you bring a lawsuit for us?’”
That lawsuit, and two others he helmed, challenged a proposed plan to remove 2.4 million cubic yards of sediment from the reservoir behind Devil’s Gate dam, located near NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The proposed dam maintenance was set to remove a lot of riparian habitat, which is extremely valuable and rare in Southern California,” Tsai says. The final settlements, reached with LA County, significantly reduced the size of the project, the amount of habitat removed and the overall pollution impacts.
Tsai’s practice focuses almost entirely on litigating environmental cases for plaintiffs on contingency. “We get paid when our clients are successful,” he says.
A recent case involved a proposed $8 billion, 63-mile freeway expansion in the Antelope Valley north of the San Gabriel Mountains. Again, Tsai says, the environmental-impact report was deeply flawed—making assumptions that the desert landscape would remain undeveloped. Tsai countered that the project would have huge biological and pollution impacts, and the project was scrapped in 2019 pursuant to a settlement.
When he can, Tsai gets out for hikes and runs on the land he helps protect. He also plays hockey in an amateur league and continues studying Chinese. Tsai admits that his 9-year-old son, who now lives in Taiwan with his ex-wife, has eclipsed him in the latter.
“His Chinese is much better than mine,” Tsai says with a laugh. “It’s a little awkward.”