Rescue dog Lennie was on hand to help launch the new clinic at South Texas College of Law Houston.

 

As part of an emerging trend in legal education, South Texas College of Law Houston is the latest among a handful of law schools nationwide offering animal law clinics for would-be attorneys.

South Texas, the first law school in the Lone Star State to create an animal law clinic, joins Lewis & Clark Law School, University at Buffalo School of Law and Michigan State University College of Law in providing students the chance to learn animal law by representing real (human) clients.

“It’s largely driven by students—the millennials—and the things that concern them, the issues they feel passionately about,” said Catherine Greene Burnett, vice president, associate dean and professor at South Texas.

The clinics are the latest development in a move among law schools offering more animal law education. From 2000 to today, the number of schools with animal law courses grew from only nine worldwide to 166 in the U.S. and Canada alone, according to Kelly Levenda, student programs attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a California-based nonprofit law firm that advocates for greater legal protections for animals.

Clinics offer a new level of training for law students to become creative, professional animal advocates through hands-on experience with real-world clients and working with expert animal law attorneys and influential organizations, Levenda said. They might even accept important cases that no one else would take because of the cost or political concerns.

“Having more attorneys with this experience will lead to better legal protections for animals. When schools offer animal law courses and clinics, students graduate knowing that animal law is a serious social justice issue,” said Levenda.

Kathy Hessler, director of Louis & Clark’s animal law clinic, noted that other law schools have opened and closed animal law clinics over the years. But Lewis & Clark’s clinic, launched in 2008, is so far the longest-running clinic and it was the first to hire a full-time faculty member to be director.

“It’s wonderful to have new colleagues. I’m delighted there’s finally new clinics coming on line,” she said.

Each of the four new animal law clinics are similar in that small groups of students—six to 10—take a weekly seminar course and also represent clients. However, each clinic has focused its work on different clients and legal areas.

Lewis & Clark’s clinic’s primary focus is on administrative law, involving commenting on regulatory changes or writing white papers, Hessler said. Students also dabble in litigation support, and they represent animal sanctuaries in corporate law areas such as human resources or insurance.

Buffalo’s animal law clinic, launched in 2014, gives the current crop of six students exposure to a wide variety of legal matters, said Kim Connolly, director of clinical legal education and vice dean for advocacy and experiential education. This month, students will argue motions in court in a case about an allegedly unconstitutional animal law, work with a local government on a trap-neuter-vaccinate-return policy, represent a local animal shelter on different issues, and analyze a federal law dealing with migratory birds.

“I’m teaching a lot of skills that will translate through many areas of practice, but what we are doing is serving organizations and people who care about animals,” said Connolly.

Michigan State and South Texas are the newcomers, both launching their clinics just this year.

The Michigan State clinic has a heavy regulatory focus, since it’s not big enough to take on individual clients. David Favre, a professor who helped launch the clinic, explained that the students’ first project is writing responses to a federal agency regarding regulations for the granting of licenses for zoos,  circuses and others who wish to breed and exhibit animals. The clinic hopes the agency creates a more rigorous licensing process.

“This is expanding the nature of what we do with our students,” Favre said. “It gives our students a leg up on the issues of getting hired and getting jobs in the areas, when they can say they were part of a clinic that did practice in the real world on animal issues.”

At South Texas, clinic students currently are drafting a manual of legal issues that can arise for emergency shelter operators who wish to take in both people and their pets during natural disasters.

Brent Stool, a second-year law student at South Texas who is in the clinic, has some personal experience. His home flooded during Hurricane Harvey in late August and he had to carry his dog out when he evacuated. If the clinic’s manual makes it easier for shelters to accept pets, it could save lives, since people will not evacuate to a shelter without their pets, he said.

“This is so important for this city, if it’s going to happen again, to be able to get people out faster—for people not to worry about staying in their homes in a dangerous situation,” Stool said.

It’s uncertain whether animal law clinics will grow beyond the four schools to spread more widely to U.S. legal institutions. Burnett said she won’t be surprised to see more popping up, but Favre and Connolly doubt the clinics can spread very far very fast.

Launching a clinic takes a lot of labor and financial resources, Favre said.

“It’s hard for a dean to come up with that kind of money that only services 10 students at a time,” Favre said.

For now, the four existing clinics might band together on collaborative projects, trying to boost their effectiveness to make a national impact on animal law. The clinics at Buffalo and at Lewis & Clark are working together on a model law based upon Desmond’s Law in Connecticut, which allows courts the discretion to appoint a pro bono lawyer or law student for cats or dogs in animal abuse cases, to research the facts, share information with the parties and make recommendations to the court.

Hessler said Lewis & Clark’s clinic is also working with Michigan State to try to find a topic for a project that would fit both of their clinics’ legal focuses. She will also reach out to South Texas’s clinic soon—and she’ll likely find that South Texas is open to collaborating.

“I’d like to work with them to look at national trends and develop a priority list,” said Burnett, the South Texas professor.  “In terms of strategies and approaches and prioritizing, it helps to have advice and counsel of folks who have been there before.”

 

Angela Morris is a freelance reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @AMorrisReports