A Legal Career With Animals

Akisha Townsend Eaton

Akisha Townsend Eaton is a legislative attorney for Best Friends Animal Society, where she focuses on advancing lifesaving laws and policies, at both the local and state levels, for cats and dogs and the families and community members who care for them. Akisha s international policy experience includes serving as Senior Policy Advisor for World Animal Net, where she advocated for important policy changes in animal welfare in a variety of forums, including at the United Nations.

I became interested in human-animal interaction (HAI) in my senior year of college, after seeing a flyer for an international animal law conference. Having long been passionate about animal welfare, I was intrigued and decided to attend. By the end of the conference, I was set on paving a career in animal law. At that time, however, few full-time legal careers in animal law existed. A few years later, I became one of the first law students to pursue a law degree in hopes of practicing animal law full time. During and after law school, I had an opportunity to pursue two animal welfare fellowships before accepting my first permanent position in the field as a legislative attorney.

One of the most exciting things about my current role as a legislative attorney is that there is no “average day.” One day I might be drafting a local or state law to help animals in shelters. The next day, I might be preparing to testify on a bill in the legislature or giving an advocacy presentation to average citizens wishing to get more involved with helping to advance laws to protect animals in their own communities. My current role largely focuses on reducing legal barriers to keeping animals out of shelters. Often, this means amending outdated ordinances that put dogs and cats at high risk of impoundment, and often death, if not able to be returned to an owner in time. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is knowing that each new law passed has the potential to save thousands of dogs and cats, and offer immediate benefits to the families and community members who care for them. 1 also get to work alongside amazing community leaders and shelter employees eager to see positive change.

148 Akisha Townsend Eaton

People are often surprised about how much my career intersects with human-animal interactions. However, in my current role, I also enjoy helping people with pets who might find themselves in challenging situations. Efforts to this end might include advocating for new laws to create funding or greater access to low-cost spay/neuter and veterinary care, or for laws and policies to ensure that renters with pets are not unfairly discriminated against in the housing market.

With only a small team with which to interface with the majority of US states and numerous local communities, managing competing deadlines can be challenging, especially when multiple states are in legislative session at the same time of year. My team often needs to focus our efforts on the highest need areas. However, part of our role is to create accessible resources for non-lawyers to be able to effectively engage in the legislative process. We’ve even had some advocates go on to run for office and win!

My Career Advice

At the time I first began my career, there were only a handful of full-time animal related legal jobs. Since that time, I’m glad to say the landscape has changed dramatically. There are a growing number of students pursuing law school solely to practice animal law, as reflected by a plethora of animal law courses, clinics, fellowships, internships, and full-time opportunities. It is important to remember that there are many subspecialties that fall under the umbrella of animal law that intersect with other areas of law including environmental, consumer protection, and insurance, just to name a few. Similar to every other area of law, it’s important to remember that not all animal protection lawyers will find themselves arguing in a courtroom. Though achieving important legal precedents is a critical piece of strengthening the animal law movement, important achievements may also happen through drafting sound contracts and operating standards for and between parties, facilitating important negotiations, and advocating for important policy changes with lawmakers and other officials.

What’s more, there are many animal related legal and policy careers for which a law degree may not be required, but may serve as an asset. These include policy specialists and experts, executive director positions, human resource positions, grassroots related positions, and legal support positions. It is important to note that some of these positions offer direct involvement with animal protection issues, while others help support organizations advance their animal protection missions.

For those considering going to law school, I would suggest pursuing a broad-based curriculum, including any animal law courses that may be available, as well as seeking out relevant internships, fellowships, and clerkships. The Animal Legal Defense Fund has a student chapter designed to provide support, advice, and resources to students interested in the field of animal law. They even offer scholarships. For those not immediately going

A Legal Career With Animals 149 into animal law after graduation, there are countless other ways in which experience in other legal or law-related careers can help prepare a person for an eventual career in animal law. Because law degrees can be expensive and many animal law jobs are at nonprofit organizations, carefully consider programs that offer repayment or forgiveness options for those who pursue public service based careers. Lastly, there are several professional organizations to consider joining, including the American Bar Association’s Animal Law Committee, housed within the Tort, Trial, and Insurance Practice Section, as well as the animal law sections of state bar associations. Whichever career path one chooses, a legal career with animals can be a rewarding and life changing experience that makes a lasting impact.

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