Why Bruce Wagman Refuses to Argue the Law with His Clients

Published in 2008 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine

By Paul Nolan on June 15, 2008


Bruce Wagman attended a seminar on animal rights law in 1992 at the annual ABA conference and emerged a changed man.

“It sounded interesting and it was a reason to leave work early, but I walked out converted. I changed my life personally and professionally,” he recalls of the seminar, which included presentations by former Jefferson Airplane vocalist Grace Slick and the late William Kunstler, the civil rights attorney who turned his attention to animal rights activism late in life.

After the seminar, Wagman became a vegan and focused much of his pro bono efforts on animal protection cases. As a partner in Schiff Hardin’s San Francisco office, he now spends most of his 12-hour workdays working on animal law cases.

This emerging field is often compared to the environmental law movement of 30 years ago. Wagman says he is the only full-time animal protection attorney employed by a major U.S. law firm. He teaches animal law at four Bay Area law schools, and he co-wrote the comprehensive animal law casebook that’s used at most of the law schools that offer these courses. Wagman also serves as the chief outside litigation counsel of the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF).

“People ask me what a typical day is like and I tell them that there is no such thing,” he says. The work ranges from veterinary malpractice cases, to instances of wrongful death or injury to animals. Animal law encompasses companion pets, wildlife animals used in entertainment and animals raised for food and research.

In a 2006 ALDF lawsuit that gained national media attention, Wagman helped rescue three chimpanzees from a Hollywood trainer who, according to the complaint, subjected the animals to violent beatings while performing for movie and TV appearances.

Wagman also has helped rescue thousands of companion animals from inhumane conditions created by breeders and “animal hoarders,” including 350 dogs from one breeder, 106 poodles from another, and 700 dogs and cats housed in a “despicable environment that called itself an animal shelter.”

He sees some pretty tough stuff.

“I’ve got the best job in the world and the worst job in the world,” he says. “I cry a lot. I’m faced with horrible situations that most people don’t want to know about, and there are a lot of frustrating things that I can’t change. For every 10 calls I get, five of them I have to tell someone, ‘What they’re doing is legal.’ We treat animals as property and forget that they are sentient.”

Wagman says animal rights attorneys rely on benevolent altruists to help them accomplish their work. “It’s jokingly said that animals don’t have money,” he says. “The profits on these cases are small, so there are few people who see any reason to fight them legally.”

Sadly, he says, there is more work in this field to be done than can be accomplished because of limited funds and practitioners. “It’s a triage situation. We often turn down cases based on how many animals we can save and the chances that we’ll be successful in saving them.”

It comes as no surprise that Wagman has brought his work home with him. His own companion animals were adopted from animal shelters. “I have three dogs and five cats and one wife—that’s the legal limit on dogs and wives,” he says, adding after a pause, “at least in Marin County.”

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