The Drive to Effect Change Through Law

Nicholas Obolensky

Knauss Fellow reflects on path from seafood trader to policy aide to lawyer

Nicholas Obolensky, part of the Knauss Fellows class of 2013, had always wanted to fight for the greater good. “I have always been interested in fighting for social and environmental justice issues … I wanted to play a part in advocacy and working to change things for the better,” he says.

Although he began his career in the seafood industry – even owning his own international seafood trading company – he had always considered studying law. “I’d contemplated law school ever since I was younger, because the law is a powerful tool for effecting change. It seemed to me like a natural fit for pursuing my advocacy interests.”

Eventually, he decided to make the jump and apply to law school. Drawing on experiences from his prior work, he decided that he wanted to focus on marine environmental issues. He had seen both the good and bad sides of the fishing industry, and was motivated to see what he could do to protect the oceans that he cared so much about. He applied and was accepted to the dual-degree program in law and Marine Affairs offered by Roger Williams University and the University of Rhode Island.

While in school, he was encouraged to apply for the NOAA Sea Grant John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship. He was a little hesitant at first. “The thought of moving my family – two small children and a wife – to Washington, D.C., for just a year was a hurdle,” he admits. But when he found out that he had been awarded the fellowship, he decided to give it a shot. “I knew it was an amazing opportunity.”

He accepted a position working under Craig McLean, the then deputy assistant administrator of the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and currently the assistant administrator of OAR. “I was the right-hand man of one of the top leaders at NOAA. It was great because, as a fellow, you have the ability to jump right to the top and get a bird’s eye view of the organization.” Obolensky had hoped for a diverse experience, and he found it working with McLean. “Working for him allowed me to interact with many different federal agencies and congressional offices in both chambers. I did everything from checking his emails to accompanying him to high-level meetings.”

Obolensky had other duties as well. One of his projects involved leading an interagency writing team for the National Ocean Council’s Ocean Science and Technology Interagency Policy Committee to develop coordination options for Gulf of Mexico scientific research after the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. “I was just a lowly Knauss Fellow, but I was able to work with high-level scientists and lead the team because I was the young guy who had energy and time to spare.”

He remembers his Fellowship year as a great learning experience. “I loved NOAA – the culture at NOAA is fantastic, the people are amazing. I loved being in D.C. Being where the action is, having your ear to the ground, and being a part of things is really fun. And learning firsthand how the government works was pretty wild.”

Now, Obolensky is working on his own project: a law firm that he founded with his friend and fellow Roger Williams Law School alumni, Jesse Duarte. “[The skills I gained during my Knauss Fellowship] would have naturally led me to a policy position. But I’d put a lot of effort into going to law school and passing two bars – I wanted to put that knowledge to use and see what it was like to be a lawyer,” he laughs. He and Duarte joined forces to start Duarte and Obolensky Law, LLC, a general practice law firm located in Providence, in 2014.

Obolensky still gets to work on some fisheries and maritime law cases, and hopes to expand into that area as the firm grows. But for now, he is enjoying working on all sorts of cases. “I enjoy that every case is different. Different facts, different issues, and I am always learning new areas of law. It keeps things interesting.”

“I find that my work now is essentially helping people deal with their problems. I get a lot of satisfaction out of resolving peoples’ problems and helping them navigate our complex legal system,” he explains. “I’ve sort of gone from being focused on working to protect the environment to working to help people, and it works for me because I like people – they smile back.”

By Keegan Glennon | Rhode Island Sea Grant Communications Intern