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Being an Animal Conflicts Mediator:

Debra Vey Voda-Hamilton is the principal at Hamilton Law and Mediation whose focus is applying mediation and collaborative practice to conflicts involving animals. After graduating from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Debra worked at the New York City Police Department Advocate’s Office, the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Office of Inspector General.

You had an interesting career path; how did you transition from a public sector legal career to mediating animal conflicts?

After my public sector legal career, I stayed home for a number of years and raised my two sons. I’d chosen to be a stay-at-home mom, yet it was far from ‘stay at home’. I was heavily involved in the PTA and my sons’ sports teams. You learn quickly the skills that helped move your cause forward in the legal world did not always endear you to your fellow parents. You had to be the great equalizer and motivator as a class or team parent, fundraiser or PTA representative.

Before returning to the practice of law, I completed Pace University Law School’s New Directions program for reentering attorneys. I thought it would be easy to just step back into those black litigation pumps I’d left in the closet 13 years before. I quickly realized after 6 months as a solo practitioner focusing on animal conflict litigation, it was unfulfilling. I won my cases, my clients were happy with the outcomes I achieved; I was thousands of dollars richer, they were thousands of dollars poorer. However, I did not believe it was the best use of my skills or my client’s money

My interest in mediation was sparked by a presentation at New Directions . When I went to law school in 1980, mediation was something others did, not attorneys. I may have been misinformed at the time yet that was my impression. Mediation is now widely accepted as a legitimate means by which parties can avoid or lessen the divisiveness of litigation. By having the parties participate in fruitful conversations, before trial, the litigation often ends in more equitable, negotiated settlements.

I looked into how to become certified as a mediator and took several mediation courses. Always the overachiever, I participated in two internship programs, one at Community Mediation Service in Jamaica and the other at Cluster in Westchester and Rockland .

After being certified by both these programs, I decided to stop practicing law, as I knew it, and create a practice whose focus is on helping people resolve conflicts involving animals. It was a leap of faith. I knew in my heart this niche existed and that I needed to pursue it. I have yet to regret my choice even for a moment.

What type of disputes do you mediate?

I assist my clients in divorce disputes, landlord/ tenant, condo/coop, vet disagreements, groomer/kennel, owner /breeder/handler, trust and estates, and neighbor disputes over barking or loose dogs.

Why mediate animal disputes?

Animal conflicts between people are very emotional affairs. In a court of law, it is like the old Dragnet television program- “Just the Facts Madame”. Yet in pet conflicts, emotions come to the table and are part and parcel of the dispute. This cannot be accessed or redressed by a court; they are limited by the black and white of the law. There is no gray.

Those wanting to work out a novel or unique resolution to their conflict will get nowhere in court. Mediation and collaborative practice allows parties in conflict speak to the ‘why’ of the conflict and to their interests in a way courts are not equipped to address. Resolutions coming out of mediation often stand the test of time because they are party driven, not dictated by someone outside the conflict.

How do you get referrals?

My clients come from my speaking at events, and word of mouth. My prior clients are my best unpaid sales force. My ability to speak to pet owner groups and attorneys steeped in animal law conflicts provide me with a steady source of clients. I speak at homeowners groups, and veterinarian and pet supply establishments to enable pet owners to know there is a way, short of litigation, to get some relief from their conflicts. My personal profile and business description have been featured in articles in The New York Times, US News and World Report and the Wall Street Journal to name a few.  

What advice would you have for an attorney who wants to establish a mediation practice?

Apply your mediation practice to your passion. If you know people are thirsty for the ability to have a conversation about their conflict in the area you practice, before litigation, then set up your practice to provide that venue. In the long run, litigation attorneys will appreciate your providing them the ability to refer their clients with less than stellar cases, to someone who may be able to help in a way they can’t. Their clients will appreciate possibly being able to find some relief from a mediated discussion. The attorney’s credibility and the mediator’s subject matter familiarity will enable the parties to have a discussion and reach a resolution on their own they can live with or negotiate a settlement with a better understanding of the legal obstacles they face. You can always litigate; mediation creates a space to decide if you should.

Interview conducted by Kathryn Gutowski, Assistant Director, New Directions Program, Pace Law School and Member of the Career Advancement and Management Committee, May 2012.