Hannah Pennington, a Debevoise alumna now serving as Director of Policy with the New York City Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, spoke with me about her experience moving into public interest work after private practice and the key advice she would give to young women professionals.
As a summer associate at Debevoise, Hannah Pennington asked if she could spend a few weeks volunteering at Sanctuary for Families (“Sanctuary”), an organization that advocates for and provides services to survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking and related forms of gender violence. While in law school, Hannah co-founded the Rutgers Domestic Violence Advocacy Project and worked at a domestic violence clinic with the New York Legal Assistance Group, so her interest in women’s issues and advocacy was evident. Although volunteering at Sanctuary was not something that was offered through Debevoise’s summer program at the time, the firm’s emphasis on pro bono work prompted Hannah to create the opportunity for herself. The firm approved her proposal, and so began Hannah’s dedication to Sanctuary as an organization, and also to the domestic violence advocacy community more broadly.
Hannah joined Debevoise as a litigation associate in 2002. During her seven years at the firm, she immersed herself in matters that ranged from commercial litigation to government investigations, and her pro bono work was steadfast throughout her tenure. Her passion for working with families and assisting domestic violence survivors led her to become the firm’s liaison to Sanctuary for Families’ legal center and other nonprofits providing legal representation to domestic violence survivors. As she became more senior at Debevoise, Hannah established herself as the go-to firm contact for supervisory roles in family law matters, particularly those relating to domestic violence.
“It’s not hard for me to say which of my domestic violence cases at Debevoise was most impactful. It was the most complicated and most hard fought of the dozens I worked on or supervised. I will never forget anxiously calling one of my mentors, partner Mark Goodman, at a real low point in the case to say I was in over my head and needed more support, which I got quickly from him and Sean Hecker, a new partner at the time. After many additional hurdles our client finally won back custody of her young daughters. I’m so grateful that the firm allowed me to experience the gratification of that success and all the lessons that came with it.”
Beyond maintaining an active pro bono practice and presence in the pro bono service community, Hannah also co-founded and for several years chaired the Sanctuary Pro Bono Council, a group of young professionals dedicated to supporting Sanctuary’s legal center through pro bono and other volunteer work. In 2009, Sanctuary recognized Hannah’s commitment, awarding her the Abely Pro Bono Achievement Award. The prize, given annually, honors individuals who have made a difference in the lives of victims of domestic violence and who embody the compassion and energy of the late Maryellen Abely, a Davis Polk associate who was one of the first pro bono attorneys at Sanctuary.
Having cultivated a network of public interest contacts and having gained substantive pro bono experience, Hannah left private practice to become the Bronx Legal Project Director at Sanctuary in 2009. The position was a natural next step for her as she had long considered a full-time career in public interest work. In her new role, Hannah handled her own caseload for the Bronx Legal Project while supervising the Project’s attorneys and non-lawyer staff and directing volunteer work. She simultaneously served as staff liaison to the Sanctuary Pro Bono Council and co-chaired the Bronx Working Committee of the Lawyers Committee Against Domestic Violence.
“I already knew the work and my years at the firm provided me with strong litigation and professional skills that were transferrable to my new position – but what really made a difference was that I already had strong relationships with the lawyers in the domestic violence and civil legal advocacy communities in NYC.”
In 2012, Hannah left to work for the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence as the Executive Director of the NYC Family Justice Center in Manhattan, which opened in early 2014. The Center provides criminal justice, civil legal, and social services all in one location for victims of domestic violence, elder abuse, and human trafficking. In a one-stop shop, victims are able to meet with a prosecutor, speak with a counselor, apply for housing and financial assistance, and receive job training – a crucial combination of resources for the Center’s clients.
The statistics on domestic violence make Hannah’s role and the work of the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, even more critical. The most recent annual report (2014) from the New York City Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee reported 851 domestic violence homicides had occurred in New York City from 2002 through 2013. In 2013 alone, there were 62 “family-related homicides,” which accounted for almost 1 of every 5 homicides in New York City.
In her current role as Director of Policy at the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, Hannah is putting the experience she gained in direct service to good use as she helps the City further improve its response to these critical issues. An exciting new focus for her is preventative work, especially education of teachers and school communities about domestic violence and helping young people to engage in healthy relationships.
When asked about some of her most valued professional accomplishments, Hannah included “marrying [her] experiences in the private and public sectors in a meaningful way.”
When I asked Hannah what advice she would give to young women professionals, she underscored networking, asking questions and keeping perspective:
Network. Hannah attributes her networking skills to her mother, and they are two-fold. Networking should not just be about receiving support, but also about giving it to others when needed.
If you see an article in the New York Times that reminds you of a friend or colleague, send it to them. Answer your calls and emails. Stay in touch with people both inside and outside of the workplace. Don’t wait until you have a more senior role to start making connections.
Ask questions. Hannah encourages junior associates to ask questions – including advice.
If there is a project or opportunity that interests you, it is worth discussing. You won’t know if something might be a good fit unless you are willing to ask.
Take a step back. It can be overwhelming to work on new projects with new people, but don’t get stuck in a bubble – remember to keep perspective.
For junior associates, things will become easier over time as you are exposed to different types of work with different people, but early on the ability to take a step back and look at a situation with greater perspective can have a calming effect.