By Sheila Pursglove
As a child, attorney Amanda Van Dusen dreamed of a career as a symphony conductor.
Instead she practices law with Miller Canfield in Detroit, where she spearheads the Public Law and Schools practice groups.
After graduating from Williams College with a degree in American Studies, she found conventional career paths held little appeal.
"Careers for women up to that point had been limited to teaching, nursing and secretarial positions," she says. "I didn't want to go to grad school at all. I didn't want to go into a management training program at a large company the way a number of classmates were headed."
After a little time off and a lot of searching -- the country was struggling through a recession back then, too -- Van Dusen landed a position at the Federal Energy Administration in Washington, D.C., established to deal with the energy crisis in the 1970s and later merged into the Department of Energy.
"I worked in a funny little division tasked with working on both the regulatory and environmental issues facing domestic energy resources and utility development and the socioeconomic challenges associated with that development," she says. The U.S. was working hard at the time to reduce dependence on foreign oil.
She found the latter of particular interest: addressing public and private sector roles and responsibilities such as when a mine or a power plant was developed in a remote area with little population and even less infrastructure -- how to build roads and sewers and schools before a tax base is established, and building housing for large construction crews that would also work for permanent operating employees once construction was complete.
"Through this job I learned about the different professionals who work to solve those challenges," Van Dusen says. "I was particularly intrigued about the roles of bond lawyers and investment bankers. It was frustrating working in a federal bureaucracy, but I was excited about continuing to work in the field in a different capacity.
"I'm probably one of the few people who took the LSAT and loved it. From that moment I headed to law school and never looked back."
Van Dusen earned her law degree, cum laude, from the University of Michigan Law School.
"I enjoyed the intellectual challenge, the rigors of critical and analytical training, and, because I was a summer starter, the eclectic mix of section mates," she says. "Most of us were returning to school with a few years of work experience after college."
Her experience at the FEA drew her to public law.
"I love working for the public sector and being able to be part of helping my clients achieve their goals," she says. "I can usually point to something specific we accomplished through the democratic process, and almost always everyone is happy when we complete a transaction or other project.
"Working with educational institutions is an extension of that. I'm passionate about public education. Assuring that every child, regardless of circumstances, has access to strong schools is critical to our success as a society, and essential to a strong democracy."
Van Dusen, who has authored several articles and is a frequent presenter on school finance topics and governmental finance and powers, is a member of Miller Canfield's Sustainable Government Initiative, launched in June to help municipalities and school districts address fiscal challenges and fundamental changes, and maximize the level of state support received.
Named this year by DBusiness Magazine among Top Lawyers, Banking and Public Finance Law, Van Dusen enjoys the work environment at Miller Canfield.
"Every firm has its culture," she says. "We're extremely democratic, and respect individuals and their diverse views, without demanding conformity to a particular style. The Public Law Group at Miller Canfield is particularly collegial, creative, and solution-oriented.
"One of the most satisfying aspects to my practice is being able to convene two or three or more colleagues, as the situation demands, to work through challenging issues to a solution."
A member of the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, Van Dusen enjoys serving on the board of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
"Detroit used to be a difficult place to meet people other than those you worked with," she says. "Early in my career, through Leadership Detroit, I met someone who was already involved in the Founders Junior Council at the DIA.
"I had studied a lot of art in college and my husband was also interested in art, so we joined the Junior Council and then joined the board, which was - and still is - comprised of professionals under the age of 40 from throughout the area. That opportunity not only gave us great exposure to everything going on at the DIA but brought us in contact with a lot of great people, some of whom are still among our closest friends today."
When Van Dusen "aged out" of the FJC, she was invited to join the DIA Board of Trustees.
"During that time the museum has totally reinvented itself, and though it is still struggling to develop a stable revenue stream at the level necessary to assure that it can thrive over the long term, the museum is right at the heart of the revitalization of Detroit," she says. "Being there feeds my soul and playing a small part in helping the museum do the same thing for others is very rewarding. There's no place more fun to be on a Friday night."
Working with the State Arts Council is an extension of the same opportunity. Arts stir the imagination, fueling invention and entrepreneurship. They also have a way of engaging kids who otherwise struggle in school.
Van Dusen also serves on the Ferndale Board of Education Finance Committee and on the boards of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, and Hudson-Webber Foundation.
"I'm a public policy junkie and relish serving on the board of the Hudson-Webber Foundation, which is so at the heart of the excitement building in greater downtown Detroit, and on the board of the Upjohn Institute in Kalamazoo.
"The focus of Upjohn's economists is on understanding and finding solutions for unemployment, not just in Michigan but nationally and around the world."
The Detroit native touts the benefits of living and working in the Motor City.
"Compared to so many other metropolitan areas, it's easy to find affordable housing in interesting neighborhoods relatively close to downtown. It's also very easy at a relatively young age to put down roots, get involved and feel you're making a difference," she says.
"The political strife can be draining, and the economy has certainly taken its toll, but the energy and opportunity that are building today are absolutely thrilling. Whatever your interests, there are opportunities to become engaged. I'm jealous of those who are just starting their careers here today."
Van Dusen has been married for 31 years to attorney Curtis Blessing, who grew up in Indian Village.
"We have two children in college and graduate school, and we're hoping at least one will eventually land back in Detroit to live."
In her leisure time, she enjoys reading, travel, and gardening.
"And I'm an unimpressive but determined artist returning after a long hiatus," she says with a smile.
Published: Tue, Nov 1, 2011
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