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Law Practice Today

October 2023

Niching to the Animals

Debra A VeyVoda-Hamilton


  • Learn how this author developed her practice grounded in collaborative law, integrative law, conflict coaching, and dispute resolution related to conflicts over animal. 
  • When we think about the animals in our lives, we recognize how much joy and equilibrium they provide. 
  • Blend passion and purpose with your profession to find new ways to serve others.
Niching to the Animals

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In this column, I briefly discuss how I developed my practice grounded in collaborative law, integrative law, conflict coaching, and dispute resolution related to conflicts over animal. I encourage you to take some quiet time to identify your own personal experiences, then explore whether your passion can be built into a practice holistically and emotionally that will serve you and your clients. 


Dogs and horses have always been a part of my life.  During the late 1980s, as I began my career as a litigator, I would bring my dogs to work on Friday mornings, parking my car in the cool garage under the courthouse, leaving at the end of my day to travel to and then participate in a dog show. I grappled with my intense law practice as a new prosecutor by showing my Irish Setters in AKC confirmation shows.

After several years of practice, I decided to stay home to raise my children.  My husband enjoyed a complex career as an investment banker. During my sabbatical from law practice, I volunteered at the PTA. My work with the PTA shifted my perspective on how to address conflicts when they arose. I learned the skill of active listening and participating in discussions that lead to collaborative resolutions.

In 2008, the economic “crash” significantly affected our family. I restarted my law practice in response to this crisis.  I had no way of knowing then just how significant my time with the PTA would be in informing my future approach to the law.

A New Holistic Approach

At one point when I re-started my litigation practice, I represented wonderful people who had adopted a dog from a rescue organization.  They were now embroiled in huge litigation over what I believed was a minor misunderstanding. In representing my client in the legal conflict with the rescue, I noticed destructive posturing and incivility from opposing counsel. I consequently reflected upon how I wanted to practice law.

I explored these following questions.

  • How had I participated in the practice of law (e.g. posturing and being assertive) in my time as a neophyte litigator?
  • How can it be that we (the other side and I) were unable to sit down and have a conversation about the dog?

While I won my case, I realized at once that both sides – my client and the rescue organization – suffered a collective loss beyond the legal issues involved. My client spent a great deal of money because no one would talk to each other. The rescue lost a long-time adopter.

This is when I recognized dispute resolution professionals uniquely understand how conflict works and use resolution tools to help the parties find a result that can be holistic and person-centered. (In this case, I also say animal-centered solutions.) Animals live uniquely in the present.  They do not harbor resentment or need to get even.  In practicing alternative dispute resolution I help clients remain present while being hopeful for the future and with less of a need to get even.

When we think about the animals in our lives, we recognize how much joy and equilibrium they provide. After my experience in representing the dog adopters, I realized a personal need to coalesce my practice with my passion for animals. Finding a collaborative solution that could work for both the human custodians and the animals spoke to my need to get it right over being right.

Recognizing the disparity between the application of law to conflicts related to animals and the parties need to have their position heard, resulted in my creating this niche. From 2010 to 2015, I proceeded to enroll in mediation training, learning the skills of becoming a collaborative attorney, mediator, and conflict coach.

To show the importance of helping parties find equilibrium when it comes to their pet, I will share with you one of the first cases I handled dealing with a conflict over a beloved pet. In this case, the parties kept stealing the dog out of each other’s yard.  Now this might seem crazy in and of itself, yet the craziest part was they would then remove the dog over international boundaries (USA to Canada). This stealing over international borders happened several times a year for three years before I was asked to help resolve the custody of the dog.

It took a year of mediation off and on, due to the suffering each party felt at the sight of the other moving on before we were able to begin to focus on the best interests of the dog and find a solution they could abide.  It has been seven years since the agreement was entered into and the parties are still abiding by the agreement ‘THEY’ worked out.

Looking for your niche

I want you to explore this fundamental question:

How can I find my niche and foster the same success?

I urge you to blend your passion with your purpose, then create the need in your profession. What this means is, if you have a passion, be it music, sports, DEI, car racing, or golf, look at disagreements that may arise, write better contracts or help the participants enter into more integrative relationships by helping those as passionate as you are find a better way to resolve disagreements.  Apply your knowledge of the law to your passion and its foibles.  Help those like you enjoy their passion with less conflict and stress.

I created something that had never been done before yet was desperately needed.   Providing dedicated mediation services related to conflicts over animals equips parties to actively listen, ask curious questions, and have a generous heart like their animals.

As I enter my 13th year of practice focusing on the resolution of animal related disputes through collaborative & integrative law, plus mediation and conflict coaching, I awaken daily grateful for the niche that I have created. Along the way, a range of early adopters supported my innovative approach to law and to dispute resolution. Wonderful attorneys and mediators would inevitably ask if I separated fighting dogs. I said, “In a way yes, because that was the easy part;  it’s their owners who provide the drama!” At bar meetings I would be referred to as the pet conflict mediator.

In conclusion, follow me and please look for your niche.  Blend passion and purpose with your profession to find new ways to serve others – of all species.