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Kirsten Dunn ’16 isn’t your typical law-school student.
For starters, she has nine children — five girls, four boys. And they’re all home-schooled, one having graduated from Siena College last May.
Dunn, who left the traditional workforce over two decades ago, says going to law school has been a “family endeavor,” though she’s still the primary teacher at home. When she has to be on campus, an hour-plus drive from her home in Montgomery County, her parents and two adult children help with the schooling. It’s an arrangement she’s managed to maintain while studying at Albany Law.
“Everyone says, ‘How do you do it?’” said Dunn, whose kids are active in music, hockey and taekwondo. “Well, we all have the same 24 hours in our day. I choose to spend mine on my family. My family, in turn, is supporting me. I don’t feel like I’m doing this on my own. I have so many people helping me.
“Yes, I’m working hard. Yes, I’m really trying hard to do a good job. But I have this really great support system.”
She wasn’t always sure it would work out, especially in the early going.
“If I’m going to put my energy into working, I want it to be something I love. I want it to be something that still includes my family.”
As a 1L, Dunn was given a boost by President and Dean Alicia Ouellette, then the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Intellectual Life, who reassured the apprehensive student that a J.D. was within reach, pointing to her own experience as a mother in law school.
“She really encouraged me,” Dunn said of Dean Ouellette. “My first year, I was really worried. I didn’t think I could take it on. I have a lot on my plate, and teaching and being a parent is the most important thing to me. This had to be secondary, and I didn’t think I could handle the workload. And she really encouraged me. She said, ‘I had two babies while going through law school, and I made it through, so you can too.’ And I have. It’s been good.
“I found a lot of support in both her and (Associate Dean for Student Affairs) Rosemary Queenan.”
Dunn originally enrolled in
Albany Law's four-year program. She cut one year off that timeline by taking summer courses and will graduate in May 2016 with
a joint degree; in addition to a J.D., Dunn will earn a Master of Science in Bioethics from the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College.
At Albany Law, Dunn works with the
Government Law Center, where she helped edit a book
— Financial Exploitation of the Elderly
— for aging law consultant and Professor Rose Mary Bailly, Esq., and assisted in writing blog posts for the GLC’s Entrepreneurial Series. She’s been involved with the Elder Law Society and is a co-executive for the student chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA).
“I’m interested in the ethical side of elder care,” she said. “I’m looking into trusts and estates, and organizing elder affairs, particularly where they have older children who are maybe disabled or incapacitated in some way, and they need to care for them. I was hoping to use some of the bioethics skills to work on the ethics boards of nursing homes or smaller regional hospitals that maybe can’t afford to have an in-house ethics team. I don’t know where I’m going to go with that, but that’s my hope.”
“I think there’s a lot of room in law, in general, for people who have had other life experiences, people who have gone into other businesses or who have started families ... I feel like those people have a lot to offer.”
Dunn plans to work with her husband, Gregory T. Dunn, Esq., a solo practitioner
— for now
— who mostly handles real-estate and business transactions, frequently, for the Amish community in Canajoharie, N.Y. She’s hoping to “branch out” and use her degree to assist the local elderly population.
“I love to work with older people. I think they’re fascinating,” Dunn said. “If I’m going to put my energy into working, I want it to be something I love. I want it to be something that still includes my family.”
So what was the catalyst for such a life-changing decision? It began with the economic downturn. The family’s finances took a hit, the older children were preparing for college, and Dunn was concerned about her marketability and earning potential after 20 years as a stay-at-home mother.
If she was to
change course, she wanted her time away from the kids to have a significant payoff. Best of all, the legal profession would keep family at the forefront.
“That was the ah-ha moment,” said Dunn, whose oldest daughter, currently a student at Siena, has expressed an interest in law school and could become the third member of the family business. “It was actually forced upon us a little bit. At the same time, we’re really happy about the way it’s turning out, that we can all still work together.”
Operating as a team won't be new to the Dunn family. Nearly 11 years ago, they moved east from New Mexico and bought a 127-acre farm, a small-scale organic operation that they worked exclusively before Gregory prepared to re-take the bar exam in New York.
“We were both farmers. For years, that was all we did,” Dunn said.
And now they’re both going to be attorneys.
“I think there’s a lot of room in law, in general, for people who have had other life experiences, people who have gone into other businesses or who have started families, or who have experienced some things, and they just want to branch out a little bit,” Dunn said. “I feel like those people have a lot to offer.”