October 19, 2012
Justice for All, Page 5: Setting a Precedent
Passion, not a paycheck, drives the APL attorneys
"There is so much work to be done. There are a lot of places where laws protecting animals don't even exist." — Akisha Townsend, assistant legislative counsel
by Julie Falconer
All litigators have their war stories. For Ralph Henry, it’s the December 2009 weekend a snowstorm hit the D.C. region. Henry and four other attorneys were rushing to produce documents for a lawsuit against retailers for falsely advertising and labeling fur garments. The metro shut down. Staff slept in the office or camped out at a colleague’s apartment seven blocks away. They hiked up 21st Street through more than a foot of snow, toting file boxes and laptops wrapped in trash bags, because “the court’s deadlines don’t care if you have Snowmageddon happening,” Henry says.
These are the stories the attorneys laugh over when they get together for happy hour. But they’re also one reason for the team’s 75-percent success rate—much higher than the typical public interest practice. “We’re not doing this just for a paycheck,” says senior attorney Kimberly Ockene, “whereas people who work defending cruelty are largely just motivated because it’s their job.”
High achievers from the nation’s top law schools, HSUS attorneys have chosen a different path from the typical suits-and-torts crowd. Many entered law school for the sole purpose of using their degree to help animals. Others discovered animal protection issues while in school and quickly changed career direction.
In return, they get work that is meaningful and challenging but seldom glamorous. Lacking paralegals or research librarians, they work up most cases from scratch. This could mean two days spent in the USDA’s agricultural library—“the most boring place on earth,” Henry calls it—to prepare for a case on poultry slaughter. Or hours watching harrowing footage from an undercover investigation and documenting violations of the law. Or poring through old texts like the 1921 treatise The Fur Trade of America that sits on Henry’s desk.
Deadlines and stress are ubiquitous, and all-nighters are common. And the lawyers earn a fraction of the salary they could make elsewhere. “A lot of us have had to enter into forbearance programs for our student loans,” Henry says, “and some people are paying interest only.”
The hardships are real, Lovvorn acknowledges. But “everybody sleeps pretty well at night about the work that they do.”
“At the end of the day, it comes down to this,” he adds. “The people who have a vested interest in abusing animals are represented by the best and brightest of the legal bar, and what we’ve tried to do in developing this unit and partnering with major law firms pro bono is to make sure the animals have that same quality of representation.”