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Lawyer for the Earth

Alexa Carreno ’13 is dedicated to making justice accessible — for people and animals.

Alexa Carreno sits in a camping chair with a laptop on her lap and a furry white dog by her side, in front of large mountains.
Alexa Carreno with Meeko, “the assistant to the office manager,” who was rescued from a puppy mill and brought to Colorado.Image: Jo and Joe Portnoy, The Jo(e)s Photos

By Madaleine Rubin
Fall 2023

No workweek is predictable for Alexa Carreno ’13 and her fiancé, Jeremy McKay. On a typical Tuesday, the Denver, Colo.–based legal partners might find themselves in the state’s rural municipal courts, defending clients prosecuted for feeding stray animals. By Thursday, they might be flying to Philadelphia to litigate Clean Air Act cases in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, or handling animal custody cases in Colorado’s civil courts.  

​​Carreno and McKay are the co-founders of Environmental and Animal Defense (eaDefense), a nonprofit law firm providing accessible legal services focused on environmental justice and animal rights.  

“When people ask us what we do, we’re just like, ‘Everything!’” Carreno says. “If it has something to do with protecting animals or the environment, we’ll work on it.” 

Carreno and McKay have represented nonprofits in a variety of federal cases where environmental harm has been done. These cases span from protecting air quality in urban centers to preserving wildlife habitats. They’ve also defended companion animals in “dangerous dog” cases, where animals that have been accused of injuring people, or other animals, face potential euthanasia. They frequently represent animal rescues, as well, to ensure that fostered and adopted dogs are placed in loving, responsible homes.  

Inspired to pursue legal studies by an undergraduate environmental justice course with Northwestern adjunct professor Keith Harley, Carreno earned her law degree from the Chicago Kent College of Law in 2016 and a master’s degree in law the following year from the University of Denver, where she met McKay. They founded eaDefense in 2017. 

Carreno and McKay use a sliding scale pricing model based on a client’s income, household size and the federal poverty level. According to Carreno, eaDefense is one of the only environmental and animal rights–focused law firms in the country to use this business model. 

“With the wealth gap growing, it’s important for law firms to think about how they can better provide access to justice for that growing percentage of Americans who really need it,” Carreno says.  

A vegan and dog rescuer, Carreno is devoted to using her law practice to promote what she calls “animal socio-equality theory,” or the idea that all animals deserve equitable treatment — in comparison to people and one another. Through eaDefense, she also advocates for marginalized communities disproportionately impacted by climate change.  

“While working in both areas of law is rewarding, the environmental protection cases are particularly rewarding because, even though I may not see the immediate impact, we know that the results are going to affect millions of people and animals and their quality of life,” she says. “For example, we recently argued before the Third Circuit in Philadelphia demanding that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforce air quality standards to ensure that people do not suffer the harmful health effects of poor air quality, such as asthma and cancer.” The decision in that case is forthcoming.  

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