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YWCA names professor woman of the year

A crucial career moment for University of Richmond law professor Adrienne Volenik came not from a triumphant trial, but from an early loss.

As a student at the University of Maryland, working in a law clinic similar to the one she now directs at Richmond -- UR Downtown's Family Law Clinic -- Volenik and a teammate represented a young man who had been charged with a serious delinquency. Although she and her teammate were successful in keeping him in the juvenile justice system rather than seeing him tried as an adult, he still lost his case, Volenik said.

"I remember very clearly," she said, "that at his dispositional hearing -- which is sentencing -- the judge went on and on about how lucky he was to have my partner and I as his representatives and what a good job we had done on his behalf."

But because they had lost, neither she nor her partner felt as if they had done a good job, Volenik said.

At the end of his monologue, the judge asked their client if he had understood everything the judge just said. The client, Volenik said, had responded that he hadn't understood any of the big words.

"I was struck, one, with how honest he'd been," Volenik said. "And, two, with how terrible a system is that can place a child who -- no doubt, there is every possibility he committed this crime -- but to run him through a system and at the end of it his comment would be [that he didn't understand.]"

A few years later, Volenik's partner ran into the same young man, and he remembered both of his attorneys, asking how they were.

"Not only [was he] harboring no ill will," Volenik said, "but [he] really felt that we had worked hard for him. I was very touched by the fact that he would remember and see as positive what in our minds was letting him down."

For Volenik, the director of the Mental Disability Law Clinic, a clinical professor of law and acting director of the National Center for Family Law, there are many more similar stories that have shaped and impacted her career, which has been primarily focused on children's legal and educational rights.

As a sign of the impact her work has had, the YWCA of Richmond named Volenik its Outstanding Woman of the Year in Education on Feb. 12. Each year, the YWCA names one woman in each of its 10 categories -- arts, business, communications, education, government/politics, health/science, human relations, law, religion and volunteerism -- to receive the honor.

Fellow Richmond colleagues nominated Volenik for the award, and Volenik was told about her win about a month before the official announcement, unaware that she had been nominated.

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"Tara Casey, director of pro bono services program at Richmond, was the person who was delegated to share the news with me," Volenik said. "And of course it was wonderful coming from her because she is a colleague that I really admire."

Having Casey tell her the news was also particularly meaningful because she had been very active in the nominating process, Volenik said.

"I'm very honored," Volenik said. "I'm particularly honored because my colleagues had a role. But in truth, there are so many people who make terrific contributions that it is hard not to feel a little bit humbled that people would think about you in conjunction with such an award."

Edward D. Barnes, chairman of the National Center for Family Law board, said that in working with Volenik, her active and energetic attitude always showed.

"She is an effective member of our team," Barnes said, adding that she was always well-suited to handle projects, thorough, inexhaustible in her work ethic and especially aware of the diversity issues.

Michele Burke, one of Volenik's former students and an attorney at LeClairRyan, said Volenik had done a lot to educate law students and instill a passion in them.

"In class, she created such a great atmosphere for learning," Burke said, adding that Volenik's influence extended beyond the classroom because of the way she trained her students.

Meg Sander, another former student of Volenik and a school-board attorney, said everything she had become as a professional was largely thanks to Volenik.

"She has truly been a teacher, mentor and friend," Sander said, explaining that Volenik supported her through her Ph.D. in education and was a valuable source of help for her dissertation.

Sander said Volenik was authentic, passionate and dynamic in her advocacy for students with disabilities, and a vital asset to the law field.

"When she goes into a room," Sander said, "she has a calm and wise presence. When she speaks, everyone listens."

Volenik began her career as a public school teacher, where she witnessed first-hand many of the inequalities within the school system -- an understanding that led to her later focus on children's rights within her legal career.

During her third year of teaching, Volenik said many law schools had begun seeking to engage more women and contacted universities looking for teachers to recruit. Her father, a dean at a local college, thought of her and suggested she look into law.

Because her teaching career came at a time when many of the schools were relatively recently integrated, Volenik said she had been very conscious of how voiceless students were in the decisions that were being made about them and their social interactions.

"I was always struck by how little input they had in the decision-making that affected their lives, and at the same time I began thinking about law," Volenik said.

In her last year at law school, she said she had become involved with a clinical program that worked with children. Although it focused more on delinquency than education, Volenik said she still saw many of the same issues.

"[There were] kids whose lives were affected by many things beyond their control," she said, "who got involved in legal systems that, in my mind, often overreacted to the problems that they were presenting, and overreacted far more harshly depending upon the background that kids came from.

"My experience was that children who came from low-income, minority groups received far harsher treatment for breaking rules or laws, as those rules were, than kids who came from more wealthy or prestigious backgrounds."

All of her first few jobs out of law school dealt with the rights of children, Volenik said, and she had also been involved in the early efforts to implement the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act in the state she was working. She moved and switched jobs a number of times, and took time off to raise her children.

When her children were in kindergarten, Volenik began looking for ways to get back into the workforce. At that time, she and her family were living in Florida, and she took on a position directing a small part-time project on disability law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale-Davie, Fla.

"It was really there that I began to meld those two interests -- longtime interest in children, longtime interest in education -- but really starting to look almost exclusively in the way the role disabilities play in the process," Volenik said about her time at Nova.

That position led her to Richmond, where she has seen her opportunities widen even more.

At Richmond, Volenik said she was not only given the opportunity to work with children involved in the school system and courts, but also the ability to teach law students how to advocate on their behalf.

"Instead of doing as much of it directly, [I] really got to do it through mentoring and supervising law students and allowing them to learn the nuts and bolts of real practice in a fairly strictly supervised fashion," Volenik said. "It was really, in my mind, the culmination of many things that I love coming together."

Her time as a teacher has helped her to be more sympathetic in the way she approaches cases, Volenik said, and she believed that the systems were operated by people with goodwill.

"Sometimes what I see is a situation where it is really just a 'bad fit,'" she said. "And these kids [with disabilities] need more services."

She said she often heard from students that it was a lot better to be perceived by your peers as being a bad kid than it was to be perceived as being someone who was not intellectually up to what is going on.

"There is a strong correlation between school failure and delinquency," she said. "So keeping kids engaged with the right services is critically important for their futures, in so many ways."

Recipients of the YWCA award will be honored at a luncheon at the Greater Richmond Convention Center 11:30 a.m. on April 24. Corporate sponsors, honorees and their invited guests, and members of the public who pay $50 for a ticket can attend the event.

Ashley Johnson, director of communications for the YWCA, said that the luncheon was the main fundraising event for the YWCA; approximately 900 people attended last year.

"We really want to highlight and celebrate the women in our community," Johnson said.

Contact reporter Jill Cavaliere at jill.cavaliere@richmond.edu

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