An Ounce of Prevention

Justin Herdman aims to 
solve problems before they 
make headlines

A portrait of a man wearing a blue suit and white shirt with a red tie

Credit: Courtesy of Jones Day Justin Herdman’s career has included working to prevent hate crimes and terrorism.

After Justin Herdman ’01 graduated from Harvard Law School, the Ohio native moved to New York to begin his career at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. One week after he started, he stood and watched as the World Trade Center towers burned and collapsed. As he looked upon crowds covered in dust and plaster, Herdman wondered how he could help. In the days that followed, he tried to volunteer to clear the rubble but was turned away because he lacked the necessary skills. “I felt very, very helpless and unable to contribute, and I never wanted to feel that way again,” he said.

Herdman had already spoken to recruiters about joining the military prior to Sept. 11, but the tragic event is why he has remained a military reservist for nearly 20 years, first as a Navy intelligence officer and currently as a lieutenant colonel and judge advocate in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. Now, he said, “I know how I would contribute if something like that happens again, and I know how I can contribute day to day in supporting our country.”

Herdman, the first person in his family to go to law school, was drawn to public service, and specifically prosecutorial work, after studying abroad in Russia as a college student in the mid-’90s. As part of his coursework, he observed criminal proceedings in Moscow and was struck by the lack of protections afforded to the accused. “I walked away thinking that our criminal justice system, as imperfect as it is, has a lot of merit compared to what is going on elsewhere in the world,” he said.

Early on, Herdman learned that in the U.S., prosecutors can exercise more discretion than any other individual in a case or courtroom. At Harvard, classes taught by Alan Dershowitz and Charles Ogletree ’78, followed by both prosecutorial internships and a semester-long clinic as a student defense attorney, cemented his commitment to practicing criminal law.

After four years at the D.A.’s office, Herdman moved back to Ohio, where he alternated between private practice and prosecuting threats to national security, including domestic terrorism, as an assistant U.S. attorney. As a federal prosecutor, he learned that obtaining convictions after terrorist acts occur is easy, given the gravity of the offenses, but they amount to too little, too late. “You’ve already lost at that point,” he said. The harder task, he says, is to identify and stave off threats before they manifest.

From 2017 to 2021, Herdman served as the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. In that role, he garnered national attention in August 2019 when he announced charges against a white nationalist who had made threats against a Jewish community center. Herdman addressed his comments directly to white supremacists, warning them that while the Constitution “protects your right to speak,” making threats or carrying out violence “in the name of a nonsense racial theory” would be met with a swift response from law enforcement. He spoke out, he says, because he was perturbed by the dangerous turn he had witnessed in public discourse, including numerous threats against public officials, and specifically wanted to inspire on-the-ground members of law enforcement to respond to inchoate threats.

As a U.S. attorney in an epicenter of the opioid crisis, Herdman championed efforts to reduce overdose deaths, particularly from drugs laced with fentanyl. His office partnered with established needle exchange programs to provide fentanyl test strips and erected billboards warning of the dangers of fentanyl in cocaine. Though acknowledging that a prosecutor’s office can do only so much to address a public health crisis, Herdman felt obligated to contribute whatever ideas or funding his office could in addition to traditional prosecution. “This is not a supply-driven problem,” he said, noting that he didn’t lose sleep at night because they were arresting drug dealers; he had trouble sleeping “because we couldn’t do anything to staunch the demand.”

Herdman is now a partner at Jones Day in Cleveland, where he focuses on government investigations and criminal litigation, including co-chairing a task force aimed at identifying areas where the firm can bring impact litigation that could meaningfully reduce hate crimes and violence.

In private practice just as in public service, Herdman said, clients and citizens expect the same thing: “Lawyers are supposed to be problem solvers, and that means identifying problems before they are at your doorstep.”