Paralegals Helping Animals
by Ambuja Rosen
Editor's note: The second half of this article will appear in the December 2001/January 2002 issue.
Does it bother you that an estimated six million dogs and cats are killed in the U.S. each year because no one wants to adopt them?
Do you feel sad that many chimpanzees, who share about 98% of our genes, spend their lives in cramped, barren cages in research laboratories?
Would you like to help stop companies from tearing down the rainforests that are home to many types of animals?
If things like these matter to you, then you might want to use your paralegal skills to help animals. Lisa Everdyke, an NFPA member in Newark, NY, is organizing an animal law section in her local paralegal group. "By going pro bono for animals, I'm giving animals a voice," she says. "I'm helping to make a statement that animal abuse won't be tolerated and that it should be taken seriously."
Animal protection law is so new that no one's agreed on any one definition for it. For the sake of this article, I'll define it as any legal work that promotes the protection, welfare, or rights of animals. Here are some jobs that you as a paralegal can help do:
"The abuse of nonhuman animals is so widespread that animal law cuts across just about every practice area," says Steven Wise, a full-time animal rights attorney who teaches the subject at law schools. Securities regulations, environmental, criminal, zoning, personal injury, wills, landlord-tenant, corporate - you name it. "For that reason, paralegals can probably broaden their experience more by working in this field than by working in any other," Wise adds.
If I were thinking of working as a paralegal in animal protection law, here are some questions I'd ask:
Right now, the law says your dog or cat has no more rights than your refrigerator has. "Science has proven that animals are thinking, feeling beings, but the law doesn't reflect this," says attorney Steve Ann Chambers, president of the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF). "The key to ending animal suffering is to get the law to recognize that animals are more than property. People should be able to go to court on behalf of animals, for instance."
Paralegals can help advance this notion in the legal community, Chambers says. "They can talk to their employers and other lawyers, to judges, prosecutors, and other paralegals. They can also hold seminars."
There's virtually an infinite amount of pro bono work for paralegals in animal protection law. Deborah Sweet, an NFPA member and litigation paralegal in Dallas, TX, says, "I help out because animals are helpless and someone has to stand up for them." She's done legal research - for example, when animals are beaten, starved. or otherwise abused, she's looked for similar cases. She's helped set up meetings for the animal law section of her paralegal association. "I've also tracked down people who were on the news so legal groups could offer them help," she says.
So far, there are very few paying positions. But paralegals who are enterprising enough might be able to create paying work for themselves. There probably aren't more than 25 full-time animal rights attorneys in the U.S., and yet animal protection cases are steadily increasing.
It's a small piece of the legal pie, but it's growing bigger. For example, it used to be rare that you'd get $10,000 or more from someone who injured or killed your dog. Now it's not rare. Judges occasionally award money to these bereaved people to compensate for their emotional distress - an award unheard of years ago. Marc Bluestone recently told Newsweek he hopes to get millions from his vet for allegedly causing his beloved dog, Shane, to die.
At least nine law schools offer courses in animal law. And animal groups are working to get more laws passed to protect animals.
Call the ALDF at (707) 769-7771 and ask to be put on its on-call list for lawyers who need help. This national nonprofit group has about 700 attorney members. It tries to get animal protection laws enforced and to expand the law so that it protects animals more. For example, the ALDF sued the California Fish and Game Department and halted the hunting of black bears in California. The ALDF takes calls about animal cruelty on its hotline, then offers pro bono legal help to prosecutors.
Major humane groups such as the Doris Day Animal League at email@example.com generally have legal departments or hire outside lawyers. Ask them who these attorneys are; then ask the attorneys if they know of other attorneys.
Ask each group if it will give your name out to attorneys who need paralegal help. Also, read animal cases - they'll generally tell you where the litigators can be reached.
Check with your state bar's animal law section, if it has one. You can also ask your local bar association for names of animal attorneys. "Most of these attorneys may only have one case going at a time, if that," says Michael Rotsten, an animal protection attorney in Encino, CA. "Paralegals can offer to help when a case comes up, starting out inexpensively or pro bono." If paralegals know many people who are involved with animals, they'll be more likely to be hired. "Attorneys like paralegals who can bring in business," Rotsten says. Check in with state legislators, too; they may hire paralegals temporarily to research a proposed animal bill.
You can meet attorneys by volunteering for the ALDF or other animal legal groups. You might help a local prosecutor, for example, by interviewing witnesses to animal cruelty. "The ALDF needs paralegals to help train cruelty investigators," Chambers says. "Often animal cruelty isn't prosecuted, and it's partly because there aren't enough investigators or they're poorly trained." Ask the ALDF to contact you when animal cases come up in your area.
Christy Lawrence, an NFPA member in Mesquite, TX, has done it. She convinced her managing partner that taking a pro bono animal case would boost the firm's image. Lawrence also talked to an "animal-loving" attorney at her firm about starting an animal law section there. "Tell the attorneys how intellectually interesting this cutting-edge field is," says Bee Friedlander, president of Attorneys for Animals. "Tell them that it's taught in some prestigious law schools and that there is a recent casebook." Tell the attorneys about heartbreaking situations they could help remedy: a kennel that starved dogs, or a senior threatened with eviction if she won't give up her cat.
Mary Tufts of Kew Gardens, NY, met a veterinarian who wanted to start a nonprofit organization to provide vet care to animals in developing countries. She introduced him to her firm as a paying client, and she's now helping him incorporate.
The good news is that it's easier to find a paying job in environmental law than in animal protection law. You might be working to ban predator hunts that are contests. You might be helping sue the U.S. Forest Service under the Endangered Species Act for letting cows damage public land. The bad news for animal lovers is that some environmental law causes pain to animals. For example, some environmentalists have pushed for pesticides to be forcefed to animals. You could try to freelance so that you can pick your projects, but "freelancers are not common in this field," says Ted Garrett, chair of the ABA Environmental Law Section.
To get started, he suggests you go on the ABA website at www.abanet.org/environ and click on various committees. The committees can identify the cutting-edge issues in their subject areas. Professors who teach environmental law may know of organizations and law firms that hire paralegals. Schools with clinical programs in environmental law may hire paralegals. You can contact your state bar association's environmental section for the names of law firms, public interest groups, and government agencies (such as your State Department of Natural Resources) that may hire paralegals, Garrett notes.
Environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club may also hire paralegals. Check the usual job sources, too, such as classified ads.
Ambuja Rosen is an award-winning journalist in Ashland, OR. Her article on animal protection attorneys appeared in Student Lawyer in December 1998. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.