Domestic violence situations, divorce cases, estate planning and emergency shelters are just a handful of cases that can involve an animal element, yet until recently there’s been a dearth of focus on animal law. 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.
She explained that the Animal Law Society is the school’s most active student organization, and its students care passionately about animal issues from the regulations of animal shelters, to animal use in scientific testing.
“We had a lot of requests from students to do more in the areas of animal law,” Burnett said. “We are fortunate to have faculty with state, local and national connections in the animal law community.”
There’s also a great need in the wider community for the clinic’s services, since no other clinic exists in Texas or surrounding states, yet animal issues can come up in a vast array of legal matters.
Burnett said she’s been “blown away” to learn that so many cases can have an animal element. For example, in domestic violence situations, an abuser often threatens to harm a victim’s dog or cat, and it can prevent the victim from leaving if she can’t bring the animal along to a domestic violence shelter. Divorce cases also involve animals when a couple can’t agree on who will take the family pet. When people are drafting their estate plans, they often want to make provisions for the care of their pets after their deaths. Issues surrounding service animals can also arise in cases where the client is a special needs child or a military veteran, Burnett said.
Because the potential cases come from such a wide variety of areas of law, the students in the animal law clinic will begin to work with South Texas’s other legal clinics, coming in to help whenever a case has an animal component.
“They have become sort of a co-counsel resource,” explained Burnett.
She said the animal clinic includes eight students who meet together once a week for a seminar component in which they discuss the past week’s cases, and strategies for pending cases.
The students spend most of their time representing their clients. For their first project, they’ve focused on 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 and car flooded during Hurricane Harvey in late August and he took his dog when he evacuated.
“I carried her out and there was no way we were going anywhere without her,” Stool said. “Some people will not leave without what they see as their whole family unit—and it means the pet.”
If the clinic’s manual makes it easier for shelters to accept pets, it could save lives—both human and animal, 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.
He noted that he’s a big animal lover, and working for animal causes really speaks to him. It’s doubly meaningful to be tackling a major issues that arose from Hurricane Harvey.
“I’m a lifelong Houstonian, and I need some place to get involved after this,” Stool explained.
On the national stage, the four existing animal law 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 United States 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.
Buffalo launched its animal law clinic in 2014, while South Texas and Michigan State are both the newcomers that opened their clinics just this year.
It’s uncertain whether animal law clinics will grow beyond the four schools to spread more widely to U.S. legal institutions. 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.
Burnett, from South Texas, said she’s already planned to reach out to the other law schools’ clinics to plan a “brainstorming session.”
“I’d like to work with them to look at national trends and develop a priority list,” she said. “In terms of strategies and approaches and prioritizing, it helps to have advice and counsel of folks who have been there before.”