Hannah Best (`77): Always Working on Behalf of People
Even before she entered law school, Hannah Best was working on behalf of people, especially women, less fortunate than herself. Married to a physician, she was a social worker, a consultant for Zuni Pueblo and was involved in a number of civil rights organizations.
Although she had first imagined earning a law degree while she was working on her undergraduate degree at the State University of New York at Albany, it wasn't until her children were teenagers and she had spent a number of years as a social worker in New Mexico that she felt the time was right.
Best had traveled across the state through her civil rights work. She was a founding member, along with a group of prominent women's rights activists, including Gloria Steinem, Lisa Murkowski and Bella Abzug, of the national Women's Political Caucus. In the 1970s, she, along with 300 other New Mexico women, founded the New Mexico chapter of the National Organization for Women. She also served as the president of the state NAACP.
The more she traveled around New Mexico, the more frustrated she became when she couldn't find lawyers in the small towns to represent civil rights organizations. As a result, she enrolled in the University of New Mexico School of Law.
Following graduation in 1977, she joined the American Indian Law Center, where, under the guidance of Toby Grossman (`68), she helped prepare materials for tribal leaders prior to White House meetings and helped bring top government officials and tribal leaders together to discuss issues. She conducted field work for a paralegal program that trained Native Americans.
In 1981, Best wanted to open her own practice, but she recognized that she needed some supervision. With Harry Relkin (`74), she shared office space and found the support she wanted. For the next 24 years, she focused her practice on employment law, civil rights and work-related discrimination cases.
"When I went into practice, I thought I'd be a family lawyer, but then I moved into employment law," she said.
After selling their office in 2005, she shared space with Tom Jones (`78) and continued her practice. Two years later, it was time for a break. She took a sabbatical and traveled around the world for three months aboard a cruise ship.
When she returned to Albuquerque, a place she knew would be home the first time she saw it through a car windshield in July 1961, she set up another downtown office and renewed her law practice.
One day, a CEO of a small company came to Best with a dilemma: he wanted to fire a 24-year employee, but didn't want to be sued for doing so. After advising him, she became a consultant to his human resources department, and after years of representing employees, she suddenly saw a way she could help employers.
"Most small companies don't have a human resources department, so I partnered with Dena Lucas, a human resources specialist," she said. "We help businesses develop proactive human resources policies and procedures so they can stay in compliance with federal and state laws."
Best is one of the founders of the New Mexico Black Lawyers Association, along with Ray Hamilton and Tommy Jewell (`79). For her contributions to her community, she has received the United Nations Human Rights Award, a Women on the Move Award from the YMCA, a Diva Award from the Rape Crisis Center and an award of distinction from the New Mexico State Bar.
In 2007, she received the Charlie Driscoll Award from Dismas House, a transitional living program in Albuquerque for newly freed prison inmates. The annual award is presented to a member of the legal community whose work ethics symbolize advocacy and compassion.
Reflecting on her career, Best said, "Being a lawyer gave me an identity and financial independence. I liked the idea of combining my experience as a social worker and the law."
Although she now considers herself a New Mexican, Best was born at West Point Military Academy, where her father was a member of the 10th Cavalry, a black-only unit of the U.S. Army known as the Buffalo soldier regiment. As such, he was a member of the cavalry's polo team, which was the only all-black polo team in the country. The youngest of six children, she babysat for Gen. George Patton's daughter and Dwight D. Eisenhower's grandson.
After earning a master's degree in social work at UCLA, she arrived in Albuquerque with her husband, a physician who was invited to complete his residency at the Veteran's Administration hospital. They remained in Albuquerque and while no longer married, Best still remembers how the state grabbed her.
"From the moment we drove in from Gallup, I knew this was it. The 5 a.m. sunrise, with the twin boys in back, I thought, `this is my place.'"