News & Politics

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.”

Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 and was a senior editor until 2022.