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Dorothy Varon

Making A Case for an Effective Career Change
Dorothy Varon

Dorothy Varon

Dorothy Varon says that when one makes a career change, that individual tends to feel older and younger at the same time.

“It’s a paradox; many of your new colleagues are on their first career, so they would be younger, and sometimes much younger, than you,” she told BusinessWest, in reference to the first part of that equation. “At the same time, though, you feel energized by the change, so you feel younger.”

Varon experienced both phenomena as she transitioned from work in the health insurance field and later as a consultant within that industry to a career in law that has seen her move from private practice to the attorney general’s office to the Springfield firm Robinson Donovan. She’s also transitioned from New York City to Springfield, and there are no regrets about that decision.

Since moving to Western Mass. and entering the legal community, Varon has encountered many colleagues younger than her — she didn’t graduate from WNEC Law until she was 43 and didn’t arrive at Robinson Donovan until she was 48 — but she’s also witnessed that burst of adrenaline she described.

“There is a learning curve to be a lawyer that only another lawyer would understand.”

“You are energized when you start something new,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like the same old thing, day in and day out. You’re doing something new — and you’re learning.”

At Robinson Donovan, Varon has developed a diverse practice in civil litigation and appellate cases, as well a growing volume of work for area non-profit agencies. Her efforts recently earned her designation as an ‘Up and Coming Lawyer’ from Mass. Lawyers Weekly, in the category of individuals who have been members of the Bar for 10 years or less.

‘Up and Coming’ is not a phrase usually applied to professionals 53 years of age, but, in this case, Varon believes it is appropriate.

The Dorothy Varon File

Education:Western New England College, J.D., 1995; City College of New York, B.S., Psychology and Pre-med, 1974
Current Position:Associate with the Springfield firm Robinson Donovan
Areas of Practice:Civil Litigation
Professional and Community Activities:Board member, Women’s Bar Assoc. and Women’s Bar Foundation; Board of Directors, Sunnyside Child Care Center at Smith College; former member of the Board of Directors of All Out Adventures

“I’ve had some good success in recent years, and I’m going to be practicing for many years to come,” she said, noting that she recently adopted a young boy from Cambodia. “I have to.”

Transitioning to a new career has its rewards, as well as its challenges, especially when that new career is in law, said Varon, who said her personal experience could serve as inspiration to those who have considered changing their professional course, but then thought that advancing years would or should prohibit them from doing so.

“I never thought I was too old to do this — that never entered my brain,” she said. “I don’t think you’re ever too old to do anything, with the possible exception of me being a ballet dancer.

“If you use the brains you were given, and work hard, you can do pretty much anything.”

Changing Course — and Courses

When asked if law school is any more challenging for someone in their 40s than for individuals much younger, Varon offered a telling laugh.

“Obviously, law school is difficult by its very nature,” she said, “but I remember that first day of classes; they described what our typical day would be, and I kept waiting to hear what would happen after our three classes. I thought, ‘that’s it?’

“When you’ve worked for 20 years, going to school, even if it’s law school, as grueling as it is, is not the same as putting in 9-, 10-, or 12-hour days,” she continued. “So I thought it was easier in that regard, but I wasn’t trying to raise a family at the same time, either. Some of the older students had many different responsibilities.”

Indeed, Varon stressed that neither her years at WNEC, nor her transition into the legal profession were a snap. She told BusinessWest that the route she took to that classroom was long and circuitous.

“There is a learning curve to be a lawyer that is one that only another lawyer would understand,” she said of her career shift. “You find out you have a lot to learn; it’s exhilarating, but, at the same time, scary.

“It’s shocking how much you need to learn after you get out of law school,” she continued. “You say to yourself, ‘I just passed the bar exam — or two bar exams — and I must know a lot.’ But when you get out, you realize you have a lot to learn.”

Varon actually majored in Psychology and Pre-Med at City College of New York, and then went to Paris to study medicine. She knew, however, that a medical career was not in the cards. “I grow faint at the sight of blood.”

She eventually went to work for Mercer Computer Systems in New York, where she consulted on- and off-site for major health insurance companies. She also opened new consulting markets within the health insurance industry and recruited consultants for those markets.

In 1989, she opened her firm, JAHM Consulting (the name was drawn from the first initials of family members), which provided consulting and management services to the health insurance industry in the areas of system design, project management, indemnity, and managed care product design and development.

Her seven-year stint as consultant and entrepreneur were marked by financial success and professional growth, she said, but changes to the health insurance and her private life prompted her to seek a new career path.

“When the health insurance programs became more managed care oriented, I became less interested in staying in that business,” she said. “I didn’t particularly like the direction; meanwhile, I had always liked the legal aspects of what I was doing, and my dad was an attorney for many years.

“At that point in my life, I was examining where I wanted to be 15 or 20 years down to the road,” she continued. “Do I want to be in this business or some other business? I always wanted to be a lawyer, so I thought this was the time to do it.”

Varon said her financial success from her years at the helm of JAHM put her in the enviable position of being able to essentially take three years off and focus exclusively on school. And she took full advantage of that opportunity.

“I was very fortunate to be able to do it the way I did it,” said Varon, who ranked third in a class of 230. “I would have stayed a student forever if the economics permitted it — which they didn’t, of course.”

Upon graduating from WNEC, Varon worked briefly, and on a part-time basis, for the Springfield firm Cohen Rosenthal, P.C., where she had clerked while attending law school. Part-time work was desired because her father had taken ill, and she needed flexibility in her schedule. She found it, and also a unique chance to blend her wide range of skills in a position with the Northampton publishing company Kitchen Sink Press. There, she served as director of Legal Affairs and Human Resources, a role that saw her take on everything from negotiating license agreements to handling compensation and benefits for employees.

After a short stint in private practice, Varon served as judicial law clerk for Mass. Appeals Court Judge Elizabeth Porada, and, later, became an assistant attorney general in the Springfield-based Western Mass. Division. She came to Robinson Donovan in 2001, and has specialized in plaintiffs’ and civil defense litigation.

Like her mostly younger colleagues, Varon has the twin challenges of growing a legal practice and balancing work and her life outside it. Her adopted son keeps her busy, as does her work with the Women’s Bar Association and other groups, as well as pro bono work for some of the region’s starving artists and other constituencies.
She recently helped stage a program organized by the Women’s Bar about the complex track to a judgeship.

“We wanted to help them understand the process, or de-mystify it, if you will,” she explained. “This means both the application process, and the process of deciding if this is what you want to do, and if you can do it.”

When asked if that was one of her ambitions, she hedged, and said, “I don’t know, I’m still pretty new in this career.”

Bronx Cheer

Summing up her career to date — as well as what may happen in the future — Varon told BusinessWest, “life has a way of running the show.”

It does, and it has taken her on an intriguing journey, from successful entrepreneur to the courtroom; from the Bronx to Northampton. Many things have changed, but some things haven’t — she’s still a die hard Yankees fan.

And she’s in a new career, where she feels older and younger at the same time.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]