There’s nothing ordinary about Culpeper, Virginia. The 253-year-old town at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains is steeped in Civil War history. The centuries-old buildings look like a movie set, and the region boasts attractions such as the Graffiti House—nicknamed for the hundreds of drawings and messages left on its walls by Union and Confederate soldiers.
So it’s not surprising to find a business owner there who’s unlike any other. Monica Chernin has a family-law practice on West Edmondson Street and a pet boutique a few blocks away on East Davis. She’s likely the only attorney who sells cat treats and dog sweaters when not seeing clients.
Until recently, the two halves of Chernin’s livelihood were under one roof. A front entrance led to the shop, Reigning Cats & Dogs; a door in back led to the law office; and another inside connected the two. Earlier this year, a fire forced Chernin to separate the operations, though she still funnels business from one to the other. Patrons of the pet boutique can find a card for Chernin’s law practice on the counter and maybe even ask a legal question if Chernin is in the store. (Her 87-year-old mother manages the shop full-time.) Chernin’s legal clients receive a discount at Reigning Cats & Dogs.
The Washington and Lee law-school grad opened the boutique in 2005 after researching the pet industry and realizing it was booming. She says her businesses complement each other: “Everybody comes into the store happy. It’s fun; it’s lighthearted. Practicing domestic-relations and criminal law is pretty stressful.”
It was Chernin’s 12-year-old black Lab, Lady Justice, who taught her that pets and the law weren’t such an odd pairing. The sweet-tempered dog, known as Justi, has been accompanying Chernin to work since she was a puppy. And it was a particularly tough case at the Rappahannock County courthouse that brought them together.
“The court clerk had Justi’s sibling Buck,” says Chernin. “Every time we had a break, I went down to the clerk’s office and played with the puppy just to calm myself down.”
The clerk mentioned that Buck’s sister was looking for a home. Chernin’s birthday was coming up, so she decided to take the dog.
Chernin started bringing Justi to work, and the Lab proved she could pull her weight around the office. One evening, Chernin met with a client who had gotten a restraining order against her abusive husband. When they were done, she offered to walk the woman to her car and take Justi along. Before they could turn the corner, Justi refused to go any farther—Chernin says her fur stood up “at a 90-degree angle.” Sure enough, the client’s husband was waiting by her car. When he spotted the large dog, he left.
“Animals are so wonderful at sensing what people are really like,” says Chernin.
Justi doesn’t come to the office as often as she did when she was younger. She got cancer three years ago and had her front left leg amputated. For a while, Chernin—who usually walks to work—rolled Justi to the office in a special dog carriage. Chernin says her younger dog, a six-year-old rescue named Snappy, is too much of a “wild child” for the legal profession.
Even though Justi isn’t around as much, dogs still play a part in Chernin’s practice.
“When clients are going through a divorce and feel like they have to have somebody, I say, ‘Go adopt a dog,’ ” says Chernin. “Dogs are going to be there for you.”
And she knows just the place to stock up on pet supplies.
This article appears in the July 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.