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Hannah Pennington ’01: Making a Difference for Domestic Violence Victims

One of Hannah Pennington’s favorite things to do is to talk to law students who are considering a public interest career. Her standard message: “Appreciate the necessity of public and private partnerships to move things forward.” The advice is wise, practical and indicative of a problem-solver with a clear goal.

For Pennington, a 2001 graduate of Rutgers School of Law–Newark who is director of Sanctuary for Families’ Bronx Legal Project, that goal is to advance the lives of women. “I have always had a desire to be involved in the effort to improve the lives of women overall,” she explained, “by creating better domestic violence laws, getting more women elected to Congress, supporting women lawyers at top firms. I also want to impress on others that society can’t progress unless women do so.”

Hannah Pennington award ceremony
Hannah Pennington ’01 (left) received the NYLAG 2012 Fight for Justice Award at a June 18 special event celebrating freedom from domestic violence and marriage equality. Shown with Pennington are (l-r): Monte Albers de Leon, NYLAG associate board member; Kim Susser, director of the NYLAG Matrimonial & Family Unit; and NYLAG attorney Lisa Rivera.

Providing legal services for domestic violence survivors is the endeavor with which she is most closely identified. Sanctuary for Families is the leading non-profit in New York State dedicated exclusively to serving domestic violence victims, sex trafficking victims and their children. In June, the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) honored Pennington with its Fight for Justice Award for her public service work and commitment to domestic violence victims. Kim Susser, director of the NYLAG Matrimonial & Family Law Unit, in presenting the award described Pennington as “caring and responsive in her interactions with clients, both idealist and visionary, a wonderful supervisor and mentor who recognizes potential and leverages it to obtain optimal performances from those fortunate enough to work with her.”

Women’s issues have long been a focus for Pennington. After receiving a B.S. from Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, she moved to Washington, DC for a job as a legislative aide in the office of U.S. Senator, and Rutgers–Newark Law School alum, Robert Torricelli. Among the issues she worked on were domestic violence and pay equity. Torn between getting a graduate degree in public administration or social work and going to law school, she decided that a J.D. was less limiting and a better match with her interest in social justice issues. 

“I am originally from New Jersey and knew right away I would apply to Rutgers–Newark,” Pennington said. She was drawn to the law school by its reputation for public interest law and its affordability. “I did not want to go into more debt than necessary for law school, since I was still paying some of my undergraduate loans.” Colleagues in Senator Torricelli’s office also encouraged her to attend Rutgers. “The attorneys I worked closely with in Washington thought it was a good fit for me. They were definitely right.”

Unlike many lawyers Pennington met before law school, she really enjoyed the law school experience. “I loved that I was able to throw myself into so many things in addition to the core curriculum, including student groups, journal and other activities.” Pennington, who graduated with honors and was elected to the Order of the Coif, was notes & comments editor of the Rutgers Law Review and co-chair of the Rutgers Public Interest Law Foundation.

Her most satisfying experience, and the one with a continuing impact at the law school, was as a third-year student starting the Domestic Violence Advocacy Project with Jessica Kitson, a member of the Class of 2002 and now Director of the law school’s Eric Neisser Public Interest Program, and securing a Violence Against Women Act grant to fund the program. “Stuart Deutsch, who was the Dean at that time, our clinical advisor Cynthia Dennis, and others quickly embraced our concept and supported us throughout the process. I loved also having the opportunity to go out and discuss our idea with the local legal community, including judges and court personnel. It was a very practical legal education!”

Before co-founding DVAP, Pennington did her homework by working her 1L summer as a legal intern in the NYLAG Domestic Violence Clinical Center — “and the rest, as they say, is history,” she added. “NYLAG introduced me to Sanctuary for Families and the Courtroom Advocates Project that we modeled DVAP after and I was introduced to the amazing domestic violence advocacy community in New York City.” She has now been involved in that community in different capacities for more than 13 years.

After receiving her J.D. from Rutgers–Newark, Pennington clerked for New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein. She then joined Debevoise & Plimpton LLP in New York, where she worked on various commercial litigations and government investigations. While at Debevoise, she was the firm liaison to Sanctuary for Families’ legal center and other non-profit legal agencies that represent domestic violence victims and worked on dozens of family law pro bono cases. She also co-founded and for several years chaired the Sanctuary Pro Bono Council (formerly the Sanctuary Associates Committee), a group of young professionals dedicated to supporting Sanctuary’s legal center through pro bono and other volunteer work. Sanctuary for Families recognized her commitment by selecting Pennington to receive its 2009 Abely Pro Bono Achievement Award.

I always tell students to appreciate the necessity of public and private partnerships to move things forward – that can mean spending time at a firm and being a leader in their pro bono service or being a non-profit staff attorney building relationships with corporations and law firms that can provide incredible support for your work.

In 2009, Pennington left private practice for the job of Bronx Legal Director at Sanctuary. “Leaving my firm after more than seven years was difficult,” she said, “because it was a place I came to love. I had many wonderful friends and did fascinating work, including pro bono work for domestic violence victims. But I always knew I would go and do public interest work full time. It just took me 10 years to get there.”

Housed at the New York City Family Justice Center, Sanctuary’s Bronx Legal Project served approximately 1,500 individuals in 2011. Pennington supervises the project’s attorneys and non-lawyer staff, handles a personal caseload, and directs the work of volunteers, including pro bono attorneys.

“Our work at the Bronx Family Justice Center is incredibly rewarding but incredibly chaotic,” she said. “Days fly by and there is never enough time to get to everything. One of the hardest things about our jobs is having to turn away so many clients who desperately need legal representation in a variety of cases, especially now that we work in a walk-in center and meet more clients.”

Speaking of recent efforts to help the growing number of those who cannot afford legal services, Pennington stated: “We are very supportive of New York’s Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and his efforts to address the enormous gap in legal services for poor New Yorkers. Dealing with the lack of available resources and recent cuts in government funding has been very challenging for everyone in our advocacy community.”

In addition to her work with the Bronx Legal Project, Pennington serves as staff liaison to the Sanctuary Pro Bono Council and co-chairs the Bronx Working Committee of the Lawyers Committee Against Domestic Violence.

As for that advice she regularly offers those in law school, the full version is revealing: “I always tell students to appreciate the necessity of public and private partnerships to move things forward – that can mean spending time at a firm and being a leader in their pro bono service or being a non-profit staff attorney building relationships with corporations and law firms that can provide incredible support for your work.”

Coupled with her suggestion to job and internship candidates to try and learn another language if they haven’t already, especially Spanish, it’s an approach that clearly has made Pennington an effective advocate for justice for domestic violence victims.