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Photo: Jennifer Swize Headshot

Pro Bono Week 2020 Profile: Jennifer Swize – Making A Significant Impact In Survivors’ Lives

By Sasha Drobnick

DV LEAP is fortunate to work with so many pro bono attorneys who make our work on behalf of family violence survivors possible. Each brings unique skills and commitment to our cases; each makes a critical difference in survivors’ lives. Jennifer Swize, however, stands out for the breadth of the impact she has made—on both our clients and DV LEAP as a whole.

Indeed, Jennifer has stood out from the first time DV LEAP crossed paths with her six years ago. After meeting DV LEAP founder Joan Meier at a DV LEAP presentation at Jennifer’s firm, Jones Day, she offered, unprompted, to spread the word about DV LEAP’s work within her practice group at Jones Day and to line up summer interns for any needed projects we might have. DV LEAP didn’t know at the time that this was just the beginning of an ongoing relationship marked by Jennifer’s generous support. Despite an overflowing caseload as an experienced federal appellate attorney and partner at Jones Day, Jennifer has given more of herself to DV LEAP and its work than any volunteer to date. She has handled several DV LEAP matters herself, including prevailing on a disputed child custody order at the DC Court of Appeals and supporting a similar appeal in the Maryland Court of Appeals on behalf of several amici.  She is also a passionate ambassador for DV LEAP, engaging and supporting others at her firm to also take on DV LEAP cases.

Jennifer’s first DV LEAP appeal was a heart-breaking custody case involving a child who had been sexually abused by his father, and demonstrates her tireless commitment to DV LEAP and the causes it fights for.  As the supervising partner of a team of Jones Day attorneys and paralegals, Jennifer dedicated over 500 hours during the four years of appellate, and then trial, litigation. DV LEAP and Jones Day served as co-counsel for this Texas appeal, as is our model. Our client, the child’s mother, had been physically and emotionally abused by the father and was desperately trying to protect her child from further harm. The trial court recognized how dangerous the father was and ordered that he stay away from the child. However, the court further ordered our client to share custody with the abuser’s mother, who was blind to the father’s abuse and refused to keep the child safe from his father.

Custody cases involving family abuse are inherently difficult to appeal; they are overwhelmingly fact-driven and typically involve challenging evidentiary issues rather than clear violations of law. This case was different: there were strong, statutory grounds for appeal. As the U.S. Supreme Court mandates, Texas law protects a biological parent’s fundamental custody rights. Under Jennifer’s leadership, the Jones Day team spent hours analyzing Texas law, working with DV LEAP staff to craft the most compelling arguments, filing numerous briefs and supporting a rising senior associate in ultimately arguing the case before the 5th District Court of Appeals. However, after an initial opinion in our client’s favor, the appeals court took an unheard-of step: it withdrew and vacated its own opinion, then issued another fully denying the client’s appeal.

Many law firms, after having dedicated so many hours to one case, would decline to push on. However, due to the depth of Jennifer and her team’s commitment, DV LEAP and Jones Day filed a petition seeking review in Texas’s highest court, joined by two amicus organizations representing state and national survivors. After the stunning outcome in the lower appeals court, it was a bitter disappointment when the Texas Supreme Court denied our petition.

That, again, should have been the end of this case; once again, it wasn’t. The client would not give up on her efforts to protect her son but did not have the financial means to hire an attorney to continue the fight at the trial level. As a direct result of Jennifer’s internal advocacy, Jones Day agreed to continue their pro bono representation. Jennifer and DV LEAP staff worked with attorneys from the Jones Day Dallas office, who represented the client in several hearings and subsequent negotiations with the paternal grandmother. While the client still had to share custody, she ultimately obtained an agreement that provided significant safeguards for her son. DV LEAP still continues to receive messages of gratitude from the client and updates on her son’s well-being.

Jennifer’s unflagging commitment to that Texas survivor is only one of the many ways she champions DV LEAP’s work and mission. Alone, it changed that survivor’s (and her child’s) life; in combination with the varied additional contributions to our work at both the micro and macro levels, Jennifer is a true force. She continues to be a tireless advocate for DV LEAP within Jones Day, from organizing informational brown bag lunches to pulling together teams of Jones Day attorneys for survivor appeals all over the country—whether as lead counsel or just ensuring superior pro bono representation is in place—including in DC, Maryland, Florida, and Illinois. When help is needed to moot an appeal going to oral argument, Jennifer is there, fully prepared with thoughtful questions. And, as a DV LEAP board member and executive officer since 2017 and 2019 respectively, Jennifer also plays an integral role in ensuring that DV LEAP continues to carry out its mission.

Jennifer epitomizes the “power of pro bono.” DV LEAP is beyond grateful for her time, talent and dedication to our work on behalf of survivors.

Sasha Drobnick is Legal Director for DV Leap.