Charlie's Angel

Appellate lawyer Ryan Clinton helped make Austin one of the country’s most animal-friendly cities

Published in 2013 Texas Rising Stars magazine

By Amy White on March 8, 2013


About seven years ago, a battered soul found his way to Ryan Clinton’s doorstep. “He was completely beaten up,” Clinton says. “Some kids had been throwing rocks at him. He was so dirty, just nasty … and I had no idea what to do with him.” The soul in question was a cat named Charlie, who, for reasons Clinton will never know, sniffed him out.

Smart kitty. “I’ve always been an advocate,” says the lawyer with the Austin office of appellate boutique firm Hankinson LLP. “I’m not particularly good at advocating for myself, but advocating for others is who I am.”

Charlie’s appearance at Clinton’s door nudged Clinton along on his own journey. He wasn’t sure how to find Charlie a home. “Should I take him to a shelter?” he recalls wondering. “I realized that people like me—generally smart, caring people—had no idea what to do in this situation.”

Clinton got Charlie healthy and neutered, and found a home for him with a colleague at the Texas Office of Solicitor General, but he wasn’t done. “I needed to make this process easier for people: to rescue animals like I did,” he says. “So I started doing a lot of research—this was in 2005—and I discovered that in New York there was an open-admission animal shelter where no healthy, treatable animals were killed. Some were euthanized because they were suffering or were truly vicious, but that’s it.” Open-admission shelters—where unlimited animals are accepted—were scarce. “It was the only one in the country,” Clinton says. “I thought, ‘Well, Austin can do this. We’re progressive. We love animals.’”

Clinton, with the help of other advocates, mounted a campaign. “Almost all of the animal-welfare stakeholders in Austin, all of the shelters, the spray/neuter clinics, were against us,” he says. “They thought it was an impossible, terrible idea. They saw us as a naïve bunch of lawyers, doctors and nurses with no animal welfare cred.”

As the campaign for “Fix Austin” continued, two other cities—Charlottesville, Va., and Reno, Nev.—came on as the second and third cities to transform shelters into no-kill, open-admission facilities. “I couldn’t stop thinking, ‘Reno? If Reno, Nevada, can do this, there is no way we can’t.’”

In 2010, Fix Austin triumphed. “Against all odds,” Clinton says. “Against all the animal welfare groups, against the ASPCA telling the city we didn’t know anything.”

The City Council voted unanimously to implement Fix Austin policies, which included a 90 percent save rate: “saving every treatable, adoptable animal possible, but understanding we aren’t able to save all,” he says. Within nine months, the shelter hit its goal. “We are the largest city in America with that status,” Clinton says. “To date, there are about 80 communities in the country that are saving 90 percent or more of the shelter animals in open-admission shelters.”

Clinton’s wife, Sarah, shares his passion for animals. “We both have difficult, intense work; and when we’re outside of work, this is what we’ve dedicated our lives to.”

Their pets keep them on their toes, too. “We have three dogs and two cats,” he says. “We foster kittens ages four weeks to 10 weeks, when they are so stinkin’, ridiculously cute.”

Clinton is able to rattle off animal-welfare statutes for any given state without having to consult a single document. But there is also that other job—at the law firm, which is helmed by former Texas Supreme Court Justice Deborah Hankinson.

“Deborah is the best boss I’ve ever had,” Clinton says. Though nervous that his advocating might hurt his chances of being hired, Clinton told Hankinson how large a part animal rights played in his life. “She said, ‘I’m not interested in hiring just anyone. I’m interested in hiring you.’ Justice Hankinson is hugely devoted to improving the lives of others. She has played a huge role in obtaining legal counsel for the poor in Texas and I don’t think she’d have it any other way than to have employees who are just as dedicated.”

Clinton’s practice leans energy-based. “It’s a big issue that has dramatic implications for the client and often for the law for the state of Texas,” he says. Clinton, who has argued four cases before the Texas Supreme Court, has to master some pretty esoteric concepts. Consider a case he and Hankinson won on appeal, reversing a multimillion-dollar verdict against their oil-producer client: At question was whether the producer had underpaid royalties for gas produced during carbon dioxide-injection tertiary recovery operations. “It’s always intellectually challenging,” notes Clinton, who enjoys the learning curve.

“I get to work with really bright, really nice people on matters that are of great interest and importance to jurisprudence in the state.” He laughs. “It’s nice work if you can get it.”

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