Wildcats@Work with Alison VanDerVolgen

By:
By Aviva Doery,
Alison VanDerVolgen
Alison VanDerVolgen spends her time in New York working at a small consulting firm, being a mother to two and studying her family's genealogy. We caught up with her to hear more about her journey through law school to her current role as legal counsel.

Tell us about your journey from a student at the UA to your current position?

I graduated in 2006, which feels like a forever ago! I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer even before I went to the UA so I took the LSAT and applied to a bunch of different law schools. Actually, one of my best friends at the time applied to Seattle University which wasn’t even on my radar but we flew up to visit the law school during spring break of senior year and I fell in love with it. I was accepted and started law school right after graduation. I loved Seattle, loved law school… as much as you can love something like that! I enjoyed my time there.

 

Unfortunately, the market had kind of collapsed while I was in law school so when I graduated in 2009 I partnered with a friend from law school and we launched our own firm while looking for work. I eventually got a job with a family law attorney and worked for him while running my own business on the side. During that time, I met my husband in Seattle who was in the Navy. We got married and when he got out of the Navy we decided to move to Albany, New York, where his family is from.

I then actually ended up at my current job through dumb luck! I started in a temp position there while I worked towards passing the New York bar. I didn’t pass the first time but they kept me on as an administrative assistant until I passed the bar on the second attempt. I was very lucky because the legal counsel at my company left, so I ended up going out on maternity leave as an executive administrative assistant and returning from leave as the company’s legal counsel.

My official job title is project manager and legal counsel, but as many job titles, it does not fully describe what I do. I work at a boutique consulting firm, which equips organizations with the skills and capabilities to lead, engage and inspire an inclusive culture that leverages the diversity of the workforce to drive higher organizational performance in upstate New York.

We are a small business so our team mebers need to do many different roles. My day-to-day job includes handling all the legal matters of the firm (contracts with clients, licensing requests for materials, contracting with independent contractors, etc.); working closely with the finance function of the firm; partnering with our consultants to deliver our services the clients; human resources; and just about anything you can think of. Working for small business means that I'm part of a team and I pitch in to make sure that our work gets done, even if that means cleaning up a coffee spill in the kitchen or running to the office supply store.

 

What are the greatest challenges and rewards of your jobs?

One of the greatest challenges of my job role in my company is that it’s a little bit isolating. I don’t have any other in-house counsel to bounce ideas off of so there’s no cohort within my company. On the other hand, because working in a small company means you don’t get to practice law all the time, a lot of my counterparts at other companies can’t relate to my job. They don’t understand the balance between having a contract deadline and also needing to update the website.

 

One of the greatest rewards of working at a small company is that I see the direct impact of my work within and outside of the company. I went to law school because I like a challenge and wanted to make a difference! I think if I worked in a job where I filed the same paper work every day I would lose my mind! So for me, it’s very rewarding to have a challenge and have to think creatively to solve problems.

 

What is it like to start your own company right after law school?

I started my own firm out of necessity, not particularly because I wanted to. It was a struggle because I was starting a law firm from scratch and I was just out of school. I had done an internship or two during school but I had learned how to be a lawyer, not how to run a business. You might have something you are passionate about and want to do but there’s a whole lot more to running a business behind the scenes that you might not be thinking about. For example, how are you going to send a client a bill? When they pay you? Do you have a bank account set up? You can be so passionate but you can’t forget those little things.

I also learned to value yourself. When we started off we were desperate for work and desperate to get the business started so we were willing to take business at low cost just because we wanted people in the door. That ended up hurting us because it was a lot harder to raise prices and made it much easier for people to take advantage of our work.

 

How has the UA prepared you to be successful in your career?

UA set up me up for success in many ways, which I'm still realizing over 11 years after graduation. I remember some of what I learned in classroom settings, but not all of it I've needed to use in my life so it's been lost. However, the class styles have prepared me well — doing teamwork, speaking in front of the class, writing papers and interacting with classmates prepared me for a workforce where collaboration is increasingly important. I also participated in the UA Blue Chip program, which set me up to be a leader in every organization I've participated in since graduation. My experience at UA allowed me to learn to make connections with a wide variety of people and taught me how to maintain those connections.