For better or worse, an inherent part of the aspiring public interest lawyer’s path is to go against the grain of the typical law school experience and be at least a bit off-kilter from the vast majority of your peers. But as “public interest” is certainly not a one-size-fits-all career path, I have found myself even off-kilter from that as well. As an aspiring animal rights attorney, I am certainly on a different path from others. When I was encouraged to write a blog on a nontraditional public interest path, I figured I would write about how a nontraditional cause corresponds to a nontraditional day-to-day law school experience. And, indeed, foregoing “traditional” law school experiences (i.e., journal tryouts and any form of OGI) has not in any way sabotaged my academic or professional course. But carving out a personalized law school story has been the easiest part for me. The challenge of being “nontraditional” (which I’m sure everyone relates to in one way or another) has instead been fostering and maintaining my specific passion in an environment that, at times, feels like it doesn’t have space for it.
Animal rights isn’t quite synonymous with public interest, and it doesn’t help that most people would reasonably struggle to find the “public” in animal rights. I could write pages and pages about how animal welfare and treatment affect humans—think public health, pollution, deforestation, the collapse of ecosystems, global food shortage, climate change—and I could argue that how we handle the future of our animal agriculture system is one of the most important issues humans face today, but in all honestly that is not what drives me. The beauty of being in a community of public interest-oriented peers is that everyone is incredibly passionate about their chosen paths. I wouldn’t be honest if I said that that hasn’t, at times, come at the expense of feeling removed from that community.
Unfortunately, some make it clear that they believe that animal rights and welfare are less-than-worthy causes— “Why help animals when there are people dying?”—or think that pursuing the protection of animals unjustifiably ignores “real issues”. It’s disheartening and frustrating, particularly when that same argument can be used, very unsuccessfully, against any cause of choice but yet some still feel it holds weight when used against what I am passionate about. But animal causes are fairly new, and they are certainly different. I get it.
I want to practice animal law because billions of conscious, sentient beings (scientifically and practically speaking extremely similar to ourselves) unnecessarily suffer profusely and extensively in our country alone each year. The fact that it is a small field with relatively small support, is to me reason more why I should be pursuing this path rather than another. While philosophical discussions debating the value of animal life and suffering certainly raise a lot of heated arguments—and I would highly encourage the Animal Law course to those that are interested in such discussions—philosophy is not needed to justify that protecting and helping animals is a worthy life mission.
I know that our criminal justice system is incredibly lucky to have such passionate aspiring public defenders and prosecutors that I have met through LPS program and the public interest community at UVA Law. Likewise, I know that our country’s future is in the great hands of those pursuing their passion in civil rights, environmental law, juvenile justice, government, human rights, national security, immigration, and more. The “and more” is particularly incredible—I doubt anyone’s work will fall neatly under any one category and the pure breadth of areas of justice being pursued should fill anyone with hope.
Passion and drive are what make life worth living, and are certainly dominant characteristics of the past, present, and future legal innovators and public interest leaders. No one can teach passion, and I am certain you cannot learn it. No matter what you’re passionate about, you should know that it is worthy and it is valuable. Perhaps for some people, this is simple and this is easy. But for others, it is not. If you are passionate about corporate transactional work, more power to you—you make the world better by doing what you love. You shouldn’t feel guilty or question your truth simply because there are other truths out there.
For anyone else who finds themselves pursuing a path that feels off-kilter than the path your peers are on, the path that seems easier, or the path that you are told is “better”—just know that you are doing the right thing. While there may not be much space for you now, you are creating that space every day by refusing to give up.
Mary Maerz is a second-year law student from Springfield, Missouri. Maerz graduated from Drury University in 2017 with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and minors in Philosophy and Animal Studies. Before law school, she interned with Springfield’s City Attorney Department as well as the Legal Services of Southern Missouri. Maerz plans on pursuing a career in animal rights law, and currently serves as the president of Virginia Animal Law Society and the vice-president and co-founder of Food Law at Virginia Association. During her 1L summer, Maerz worked as a clerk for the Legislative Affairs Program of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Interests: Animal Rights