Alumni of Distinction: Vanessa Norman

by Matt Jardin  |   

2019 Alumni Emerging Leader award recipient Vanessa Norman, attorney with law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

2019 Alumni Emerging Leader award recipient Vanessa Norman, attorney with law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Vanessa Norman, B.B.A. Management and Marketing '04, will receive the 2019 Alumni Emerging Leader award at the Homecoming Breakfast on Oct. 4.

Growing up in Port Graham, a village only reachable by small plane or boat from Homer, Vanessa Norman always knew she would wind up working for the betterment of Alaska Native people.

Of course, Norman's path might be traceable to her father, who constantly predicted all her life what she would become when she got older. But it might also have to do with the fact that Norman comes from a long line of people who have dedicated their lives to benefit the Alutiiq people from the Chugach region of Alaska. Her aforementioned father is not only the chief of their tribe, the Native Village of Port Graham, but growing up he was also the president of their Alaska Native village corporation. Her maternal grandfather was also the chief for many years, and he was also a founder of Chugach Alaska Corporation. Her mother also serves as the tribal administrator and is the chairman of an Alaska regional nonprofit serving the Chugach people.

"It's what my whole family has done: serve, volunteer and give back to the community. I've got great role models, and they've instilled those values in me," says Norman.

Not surprisingly, Norman has lived up to both her family's legacy and her father's predictions.

Norman works as an attorney at the Anchorage office of national law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. As an associate of the firm's mergers and acquisitions group, her practice includes advising businesses both in Alaska and the Lower 48.

Here at home, special emphasis is placed on Alaska Native corporations. Norman's firm relies on her thorough understanding of those corporations and their unique relationship to the Alaska business landscape to help guide leadership on general corporate matters, including governance, transactions and contract disputes.

Those Alaska-specific responsibilities also take Norman to some pretty far-out places that are beyond the scope of her colleagues' understanding outside the state.

"I travel to villages across the state, so I often send photos of me on some six-seater plane to our Lower 48 attorneys and their minds are blown that that's what I have to do to get to shareholder meetings," jokes Norman.

While she always knew that working in tandem with Alaska Native corporations was in her future, the legal route wasn't always certain for Norman. After enrolling at UAA in 1998, she decided that the most sensible start toward that goal was to major in management and marketing.

It wasn't until the end of her time at UAA that the legal field started becoming an option for Norman. After she graduated, she enrolled in an internship program with Chugach Alaska Corporation. The program placed interns in departments based on their interests, providing them with exposure and room to experiment with a variety of career fields. Merely curious about working as an attorney, Norman got placed in the corporation's legal department and later as a legal intern for the Alaska Federation of Natives where she learned just how versatile a law career could be.

"The experience of working at my corporation helped me see that continuing my education was an important next step," says Norman. "l saw that having a law degree would set you up to do many different things from being a practicing attorney to being in management for a corporation. It really sets you up to decide what you really want to do."

Norman finished at UAA with a bachelor's degree in management and marketing in 2004, and then proceeded to UAF where she earned her master's degree in rural development in 2008 - a pertinent skill set to have for anyone passionate about working with Alaska Native communities and Alaska Native corporations.

For law school, Norman wanted to stay close to home, so she enrolled at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland. Similar to her time at UAA, Norman didn't wait until she graduated to begin working in the field. During her second year of law school, she began interning at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in their Alaska office and was eventually offered a job after graduating.

As if her attorney day job didn't keep her busy enough, Norman continues to uphold the family legacy by serving on the board of directors of the Alaska Native Heritage Center and co-chairs the planning committee for the annual pro bono legal clinic held at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. In addition, she serves on the board for Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska and the Anchorage Rowing Association, as well as volunteers for Alaska Legal Services, an organization that offers low income Alaskans free legal services. For the last three years she has volunteered to speak with youth in villages around the state about attending college and her career as an attorney.

And yet, Norman still stresses the idea of paying it forward. She helped Davis Wright Tremaine launch an Attorneys of Color Affinity Group in order to provide support for the firm's attorneys of color and be a resource for the firm's diversity initiatives nationally. She continues to serve as co-chair.

"I find it really rewarding to get together as a group to support each other and talk about the issues we face," says Norman. "There are so few minority attorneys, and what we see nationally is that it's hard to keep them at private law firms. So I think it's important to come together as a group to find solutions to reduce attrition and to help each other build rewarding careers."

Written by Matt Jardin, UAA Office of University Advancement

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