Young attorney fulfills dream of career in law

 When she was growing up in Belarus, which was part of the Soviet Union until its independence in 1991, Volha Yermalenka wanted to study law, become a lawyer. And then become the next president of Belarus.

“You’re young,” her mother would say. “You’ll change your mind.”
“No,” she said. “Why would I?”
But when she was a senior in high school, her father moved the family to Ann Arbor after he got a job as a researcher at the University of Michigan.
And while the least of her problems at that time was thinking ahead to a career — she first had to learn to get over her insecurity about being the tiny Belarussian who couldn’t speak much English at Huron High School — that dream seemed dashed. Including the part about law school.
“My dad basically said, ‘You’re probably not going to make it in the legal community because it’s a job for Americans.’”
He suggested she go into science and work in a lab or do research.
Now that it’s been eight months since she opened her own practice in the same building where she spent nearly nine years as a legal assistant for others, she can say she’s glad she didn’t follow her father’s advice.
“I like it a lot,” said Yermalenka. “It’s a lot of fun. My favorite part is when you have a good outcome, and your client is grateful. You did something good for someone, and that’s a great feeling.” 
Soon after she moved to this country, Yermalenka gave herself a nickname — Olga — which was easier for Americans to pronounce and remember. She majored in criminology and legal studies at Washtenaw Community College before transferring to Eastern Michigan University and earning her degree in criminology and legal studies.
She was considering going on for her master’s and PhD in forensic psychology.
By then, she was working as a legal assistant for several Ypsilanti attorneys, including Greg Graessley and Michael Vincent. And after working for the lawyers for a while, she decided maybe her father was wrong.
“I decided I didn’t want to be the legal assistant anymore,” she said. “I wanted to be doing what they were doing because it looked fun and exciting. Michael said, ‘Go to law school.’ So I listened. And he’s the reason I went to law school.”
Conveniently enough, Cooley opened its Ann Arbor campus right about that time and offered a night program.
She couldn’t afford to quit her day job, so it came together perfectly.
“I’m pretty regimented,” she said. “I like my schedule to be set and structured. Once I have a schedule, I stick to it and go with it.”
But she did very well, and pushed on.
In fact, it was Michael Vincent who inspired her to keep going when it got rough.
“Michael is a force of nature; he has the energy of an 18-year-old. It’s amazing, the amount of work he does. He goes nonstop all the time … At some point in law school, I was sort of lawed out. There were moments I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this. This is not for me.’ Then I looked at Michael, and thought, ‘After all those years, he still has all that love for what he does. Maybe I should ride this out, and plow through, and see how it goes.’ And I was right. I got the inspiration from him to move along and pursue my passion.”
Yermalenka rents a small office in the Carriage House building at 302 N. Huron, in the same building she’s worked for years as an assistant.
She and the other attorneys in the building call themselves “The 302 Family.”
“We’ve all been in this office so long, and we’re all friends outside of work,” she said. “We go to co-workers’ kids’ birthday parties and things like that. It’s a family.”
Although she also does immigration, domestic relations and landlord/tenant work, Yermalenka is primarily a criminal defense attorney. She’s on a felony court appointment list in Wayne County, which keeps her very busy.
Because she’s required to either live or work in Wayne County, she chose to move to Plymouth, which is a 30-minute drive to both her office, and to downtown Detroit.
Yermalenka has mixed feelings about moving to America. Though her parents still live in Ann Arbor, most relatives are in Belarus.
“I’m happy to be here,” she said. “I’ve made some really great friends whom I consider family now. But I miss my family.”
Though she loves to keep to a daily schedule, she has no five-year plan.
“In my experience, life takes me places I don’t expect, and I just go with it,” she said. “When I was a teenager, I didn’t expect to be living on the other side of the planet. So I go with the flow.”
Michael Vincent has nothing but praise for Yermalenka, whom he calls “an outstandingly brilliant, intuitive legal mind.”
“I recognized right off the bat that she has the innate ability to understand the law, a love to pursue it, and a work ethic that’s phenomenal,” he said.
Although she knew no English when she arrived here as a teenager, it’s hard to detect any accent at all now, Vincent noted.
“She put herself through college and graduated with high honors from law school,” he said. “And she’s already been very successful in circuit courts, particularly in Wayne County.”

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