Attorneys Across America: Featuring Jill Haley Penwarden

From a tiny office in rural Alaska to a skyscraper in Manhattan, from The Sunshine State to The Prairie State, Ms. JD's Attorneys Across America series seeks to capture snapshots of successful women attorneys practicing law from sea to shining sea. Ms. JD had a few questions for Jill Haley Penwarden who works in the Sierra Nevada mountains: 

Where do you practice law?

I practice law in Truckee, California, which is near Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  Duane Morris is an international law firm, but our office is a small one, with three attorneys.  In Truckee we get an average of about 17 feet of snow every year, which is great for skiing, but sometimes makes it a challenge to get to court appearances on powder days.  I have had to wade through three feet of fresh snow to the courthouse in my suit, heels, and carrying a litigation bag.

Before working at Duane Morris, I worked at an international firm in San Francisco.  My husband and I decided to buy a house in Truckee, which we thought might be a second home for skiing weekends.  Fourteen years ago, we moved in to our “second home” and never left.   

What are the industries that produce work for lawyers in your area? Describe your practice area.

Most of my work is representing sports and recreation providers in premises liability suits.  Our office represents most of the ski areas in Northern California; we have also represented golf courses, mountain bike parks, climbing gyms, and other recreation providers.  An example of a typical case I would handle is where a skier sustains an injury while skiing, then brings a negligence claim against the ski area.  In many of these cases, we can obtain summary judgment for our client.  We often prevail based on the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, the legal concept that when a person engages in recreational activities he or she accepts the risks associated with that activity.  In skiing, these inherent risks include loss of control, encounters with varying snow conditions, and collisions with trees, rocks, other skiers, and snowmaking equipment.  We also often prevail based on the doctrine of express assumption of risk, where the skier has agreed to a liability release (for example, when purchasing a season pass).  As a result, I spend a lot of my time drafting summary judgment motions, as well as handling plaintiffs’ appeals of cases where we have prevailed on summary judgment.  I also try to help my clients proactively protect themselves from liability by providing risk management advice.

Describe your legal market. What is the size of the market? How would you describe the culture?

The culture of the sports and recreation field tends to be very male-dominated, although I have seen that change somewhat over the years.  Whether you are a man or a woman, however, I have found that my clients will respect anyone who can hold his or her own in the out-of-doors.  We typically handle catastrophic injury and wrongful death claims, so we litigate against some of the top attorneys from San Francisco and Los Angeles.  Again, litigation is a male-dominated field, so my litigation adversaries are usually men.  Some of the biggest challenges I have faced in my career have been dealing with aggressive male attorneys who make it a practice and a strategy to bully younger female attorneys.  I have found, however, that the bullies will usually back down if I am willing to stand toe-to-toe with them and face them down.  But dealing with bullies is always unpleasant.  Happily, there are some plaintiff’s attorneys I like and respect, and enjoy working with despite the fact that we are on opposing sides.

What has been your best day on the job?

My best days on the job are those when we prevail on behalf of our clients.  I was proud that one of our defense verdicts, after a tough five-week trial, was named one of the “Top Defense Verdicts of 2006” by the Daily Journal.  I also truly enjoy spending time with my clients, who are wonderful people committed to an active lifestyle, and who are people I would want to be friends with even if they were not my clients. 

What advice do you have for women attorneys following in your footsteps?

For any attorney thinking of getting into a similar line of work, I would advise you to make a commitment to the sport or activity that speaks to you.  Many attorneys have expressed to me that they would love to live in the mountains and do what I do; however, very few can back it up with any concrete steps in that direction.  People with a true passion for the outdoors or a given activity will stand out from the crowd.

Jill Haley Penwarden is a partner with the Lake Tahoe office of Duane Morris, LLP, a full-service international law firm. She represents a wide variety of sports and recreation providers, including ski resorts, mountain bike parks, golf courses, outdoor outfitters, climbing gyms, resort communities, and hotel properties, in the California state and federal courts. In addition to defending recreation providers in litigation, she provides proactive risk management advice to her clients. To contact Jill Penwarden, you can reach her at (530) 550-2050 or jhpenwarden@duanemorris.com.

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