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Saving Dogs and Making Movies: A New Chapter for a Top Washington Lawyer

Eric Bernthal retired after 40 years as a lawyer to focus on helping curb stray dog populations.

Eric Bernthal is focused on helping stray dogs and producing a movie about street gangs, race relations, and riverboat gambling in Shreveport, Louisiana. He’s not some idealistic college kid out to change the world—until last week, he was a top partner at mega law firm Latham & Watkins.

Bernthal, who served as the firm’s DC managing partner from 2000 to 2011, retired Friday after 40 years as a lawyer. He worked for 26 of them at Latham, where he built a thriving telecommunications practice. He could spend the rest of his days ambling around his four acres in Potomac, but there’s too much he wants to accomplish in the coming months and years.

Bernthal has been active in the Humane Society of the United States for the past five years, and became chairman of its board in March. He now plans to devote even more time to the organization, and the dog lover has a big goal for 2013—to launch an initiative that will curb the huge stray dog populations that roam the streets of the world’s poorest cities.

As Bernthal tells it, he was having lunch one day with the Humane Society officer in charge of the organization’s international efforts, when the officer explained to him that if he had $5 million a year for five years, he could eliminate the problem of stray dogs. The money would first be used to spay and neuter existing stray dogs and to educate communities about the importance of continuing to do so. Once stray dog populations are under control, says Bernthal, people stop seeing the animals as threatening and begin to naturally care for them and bring them into their homes. He says the Humane Society has seen this theory proven in parts of Mexico, Bolivia, India, and other countries, and he’s convinced that with an intense, sustained, five-year program, the Humane Society can achieve the same success around the world.

Why leave a law firm where the average partner takes home more than $2 million a year to focus on saving animals? “This is something I really want to do,” says Bernthal, who has a pit bull named Rocco. “You know, when you hit a certain age—I’m still in good shape, I play basketball twice a week, and I feel young, but the number of years I can devote to something is limited.”

When he’s not doing the Humane Society work, Bernthal is keeping busy with his second career as a movie and theater producer. With his son, actor and former star of the drama series The Walking Dead Jon Bernthal, he’s working on a number of projects, including a movie about the real-life conflict between what he calls “the white power structure” in Shreveport and poor black communities pushed out to make room for riverboat casinos.

Says Bernthal: “Is this more fun than practicing law? I think so.”

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