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NEW HAVEN – This city is home. From her office, she can take in the New Haven Green and Yale, where she earned her undergraduate degree. Her work is far reaching.
“It feels like a dream job,” said McCarter alum Vanessa Roberts Avery, who was sworn in as US Attorney for the District of Connecticut on May 9. “It’s a perfect way for me to use the education and resources that were poured into me over the course of my life to benefit everyone. It’s the culmination of all of the parts of my life coming together.”
Nominated by President Joe Biden, Vanessa was moved forward by the Senate Judiciary Committee on the same day they wrangled over moving along now Supreme Court Justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson. Vanessa was confirmed by the full floor of the Senate in a voice vote on April 27.
“I feel in a lot of ways, I grew up at the firm,” said the litigation alum, who didn’t go to law school with the intention of practicing. With an undergrad degree in history and education, Vanessa thought she might teach on the secondary or college level, maybe even at a law school.
“I thought, I’m going to get this degree, come back to my community, and I’m going to have a great impact in the community somehow, some way,” Vanessa said.
But when she started law school, she fell in love with litigation. “The rest is history,” she said.
Despite what she had heard from others about the potential horrors of working at a law firm, Vanessa said, “I had a wonderful summer associate experience and accepted the offer to join the firm.” At the time, she was part of Cummings & Lockwood in Hartford, where she remained from 1999 to 2003, before accepting a Department of Justice job in Washington, DC. (In October 2003, the C&L Hartford office joined McCarter.)
But shuttling back and forth to see family and friends, the northeast and home were calling. With that, Vanessa returned to McCarter in 2006 and stayed until 2014. She left to serve as an Assistant United States Attorney in Connecticut, a position she held until 2019 when the Connecticut Attorney General appointed her as one of four statutory Associate Attorneys General on his team. As Chief of the Division of Enforcement and Public Protection, she led the state’s affirmative litigation.
“No way could I have predicted that this would be next,” she said.
Vanessa credits the firm with encouraging lawyers, including young lawyers, to assume leadership roles in bar associations and on non-profit boards, as well as serving on the hiring committee and in other firm leadership roles. She also credits McCarter with providing the foundational legal skills and experience that have served her well in the public sector.
Many people, she said, have guided, assisted and mentored her in her legal career. First in line was her mother, who encouraged her to go to law school and in every subsequent professional pursuit. During her tenure, Vanessa worked with nearly every partner in the Hartford office and several in other cities, gaining opportunities to sharpen and broaden her legal experience.
“I was fortunate,” she said, explaining that some McCarter colleagues remain her trusted legal advisors.
If she could offer advice to anyone considering a lateral move to the government, it would be this: Get comfortable operating outside of your comfort zone. Be open to new ideas and opportunities. “This is knowledge that I was fortunate to gain in my earliest years of practice and it has served me well in my transition to government practice,” Vanessa said.
What often starts out as a heartbreaking account of animal cruelty or neglect can transform into a story of hope when animal lovers intervene. Enter Joann Lytle, a Philadelphia partner in the Insurance Recovery, Litigation and Counseling practice.
Joann, a self-described crazy cat lady, is also a fierce advocate for all kinds of animals that wind up in the care of the Bucks County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BCSPCA).
While she has a personal connection to the organization, beginning more than 25 years ago when she adopted two kittens from the Lahaska shelter – and since 2013 when she began fostering cats and newborn kittens – Joann has also been able to harness her legal skills and talents to bring even more animals to safe homes.
Joann filed the first Costs of Care of Seized Animals Act in Bucks County for the BCSPCA – the result of an animal cruelty case involving 34 cats and five parrots.
In 2016, BCSPCA, after investigating a report of animal cruelty, rescued these animals and brought them to the shelter for protective custody. Criminal charges were filed against the owners. About two months later, one of the cats gave birth to four kittens, which meant the BCSPCA now had 38 cats in protective custody. And six months later, a preliminary hearing still had not been scheduled because of continuances and the need for the owners to have mental health evaluations.
Sadly, Joann said, many owners who are charged with animal hoarding or neglect are mentally ill. During all that time, the animals were ineligible for adoption.
That’s when Nikki Thompson, BCSPCA’s Chief Humane Law Enforcement Officer, asked Joann for help. Gathering her team, Joann sprang into action, filing a civil action under the Costs of Care statute. The petition sought an order requiring the owners to reimburse BCSPCA for the costs of feeding, housing and providing medical care to the animals while the criminal case was ongoing.
While Joann’s legal practice involves complicated litigations for policyholders that sometimes can take years to play out, these Costs of Care cases move very quickly, since the court is required to hold a hearing between 14 and 21 days after the petition is served. Since this was the first case of its kind filed in Bucks County, it also was necessary to educate the various court offices to ensure statutory deadlines were met.
After an evidentiary hearing, the court ordered the owners to reimburse BCSPCA for the costs of caring for the animals. When the owners failed to make payment, ownership of the animals automatically forfeited to BCSPCA and the animals were ready for the big show: adoption.
Since that first win, Joann and her team have filed eight more Costs of Care petitions, prevailing in every single one of these pro bono cases. To date, the cases have involved 237 cats, 13 dogs, 8 cows, 2 ferrets, 2 turtles, 3 rabbits, 2 pigs, 5 parrots, 5 hedgehogs, and 11 sugar gliders, all of which BCSPCA rescued from horrible conditions.
And in her spare time (ha ha), Joann has fostered many cats and kittens for BCSPCA, including the mother cat and her four kittens from that first Costs of Care case. Of course, there are always the “foster failures.”
“That’s when the foster parent falls in love and doesn’t take them back to the shelter,” said Joann.
In Joann’s case, two cats became two more and then another: Colby, Slate, Samantha, Jasper and Stanley. And then last year, “When I lost my mind,” Joann said, “Scarlett, a Labrador retriever, joined the family.”