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October 19, 2012

Justice for All, Page 4: Legal Aid

APL team gets creative when humane laws are weak

All Animals magazine, November/December 2012

  • Staff attorney Gina Tomaselli and her dog Bruno. Click here to read a profile of her off-hours pit bull rescue work. Meredith Lee/For The HSUS.

As an HSUS law clerk, staff attorney Gina Tomaselli spent 48 hours straight drafting a 70-page petition on veal calf slaugher. "Up until that point. It was maybe the most important thing I'd done in my life."

by Julie Falconer

Today the Animal Protection Litigation staff consists of 18 full-time lawyers and one assistant. It’s still a lean operation by any standard. Most of the attorneys work in a narrow building in downtown Washington, D.C., occupying a handful of tiny offices and a jumble of gray cubicles. There are no paralegals, no secretarial pool, no research library, and no sabbaticals. What there is is a lot of work.
 
“We’re talking about animal issues in all 50 states 24 hours a day,” says Peter Petersan, director of the litigation section. “When things stop on the East Coast, they keep going on the West. And in some ways, we’re still just scratching the surface.”

On any given day, the team, helped by pro bono attorneys and law student clerks, is juggling more than 30 cases around the nation. (They recently added international law experts to address animal protection issues globally.) They’re also identifying potential new court actions; petitioning agencies to enforce laws; helping prosecutors win cruelty convictions; and drafting, reviewing, and defending state and federal animal protection legislation.

Where humane laws are weak—as they often are—the team delves into other areas of the law, including tax evasion, antitrust, consumer protection, and government fraud. Their creativity has broken new ground: the first class action lawsuit against a puppy mill retailer, the first cruelty convictions of slaughterhouse workers in the U.S., the first government fraud suit based on inhumane treatment of animals.

Animal law specialist Bruce Wagman of the Schiff Hardin law firm has worked in the field since the early 1990s and hasn’t seen anything like it: “I’m convinced they’re doing the best and most important work in a big way and nobody else could manage it without having that department,” he says.  “[They’re] using a lot of new concepts … and really pushing things forward.”

If the team has a secret weapon, it’s people like Wagman, David Wolfson, and Eric Bernthal, three of the 3,000 attorneys who last year provided more than $4.5 million in free legal services to The HSUS.

“You introduce the right people to [Lovvorn] and his team, and they see the type of work they can do on a pro bono basis and they want to do it,” says Wolfson, a partner with Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy. Bernthal, a partner with Latham & Watkins, was so impressed with HSUS staff and their goals that a year after starting pro bono work for the organization, he joined its board of directors.

With some of the nation’s most respected law firms by their side, the HSUS legal team is rarely underestimated, Bernthal says. “The goal is not to be confrontational or litigious if we can work it out. But the threat of being able to come with some of the best legal resources in the country—and for our adversaries to know that even if it involves an expensive, sustained effort, we will fight it—is of immense value.”

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