- Law Job Star
An Inspiration: Allison O Van Laningham
“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” - E.E. Cummings
Allison O Van Laningham is a trial attorney working with Smith Moore Leatherwood LLP, a North Carolina-based firm, where she works with her team on a number of different complex legal cases. Due to Allison's intelligence and dedication to the law, she has worked on a number of complex trials, including her work as trial counsel on the recent John Edwards Trial. Alison was honored to work on John's behalf, and she felt strongly that he had committed no crimes. She is grateful for the opportunity she had to assure John and his family of his freedom. In addition, Allison worked for Rielle Hunter in her privacy lawsuit against Andrew Young. Allison may be defined by five main characteristics: loyal, diligent, intelligent, humble, and generous.
Allison's family moved several times when she was young. Allison was born in Martinsville, Virginia but her family soon moved to Kingsport, Tennessee. By the eighth grade, the family moved to North Carolina. Allison credits her resilience and ability to adjust to the new and ever changing challenges she faced in these early moves. Allison attended high school in Waynesville, NC, close to Asheville, where her parents settled. Allison grew up with both her parents, an older brother, (who is a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force currently stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska) and a younger brother, who is currently running an insurance agency with their mother in Waynesville. Allison is happily married to her husband of 11 years.
Allison has always been a hard-worker. During high school, Allison worked in an ice cream store on Main Street in Waynesville. One of the major perks of working in an ice cream store was that Allison had unlimited ice cream privileges. After a few summers, Allison learned that everything is good in moderation, even when it comes to ice cream. Outside the ice cream store, Allison had early ambitions of being an astronaut, a whale trainer, or a journalist; however, by college, Allison knew she wanted to be an attorney. After making the decision to become a lawyer, Allison received her BA from Wake Forest University and her JD from Wake Forest University School of Law in 1996. As a student, Allison had a great social life with a sensational group of friends. Allison would invite her friends over for dinner, and they would have great conversations on a range of topics when they were not studying.
The ability to think like a lawyer was instilled in Allison at a very young age by her father. Although Allison's father was never trained as an attorney, he was an incredibly logical person, who worked as an insurance agent. Allison's father would always engage Allison in discussions, finding all the holes in any argument, which trained her to think strategically about how to craft her arguments and her ultimate objective. In 2010, Allison's father succumbed to his long standing battle with cancer. Allison admires her mother and how she took care of her father while running their business. Additionally, Allison is incredibly grateful to her partners because they encouraged her to spend time with her father when he was sick. The firm worked together to take up the slack, and she has a number of cherished memories because she was able to spend time with her father.
While Allison was working in her Circuit clerkship after law school, she remembers struggling with “pedigree” issues. Her co-clerks had graduated from Yale and Harvard and, although they were amazing people who would never make such a suggestion, Allison imposed on herself a concern that she would not measure up. Through her work, Allison came to terms that she was blessed with amazing gifts, and it was ridiculous to create self-imposed limitations based on what she thought others would think or should think. If you find yourself afraid you won't measure up for one reason or another, Allison suggests accepting that you have what it takes. Life is short; move forward with the full force of everything you have been given and see where it takes you.
During Allison's first job after law school, she clerked for Judge N. Carlton Tilley, Jr., of the U.S. District Court, Middle District of North Carolina. Judge Tilley was a wonderful mentor, and to this day, Allison still considers Judge Tilley a great mentor and a wonderful friend as well. After working with Judge Tilley, Allison worked with another mentor, Judge Susan H Black of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Additionally, Allison considers herself to be blessed to be working with the lawyers at her firm. This is especially true of Alan Duncan, whose input and advice Allison will always value.
While Allison has learned from many great mentors, she also makes it a point to draw inspiration from people around her each day. Often Allison will witness a quiet act of kindness, when a selfless person does something for others without expecting recognition. Two of Allison's greatest mentors remain her mother and her father, who provided a loving home, giving Allison a sense of gratitude, a strong foundation, and a humble confidence.
Insights in the Office and in Life
As Allison moves through life, she keeps in mind several life lessons. First, as a child of God, Allison seeks to follows His plan for her life and has found this commitment to be the surest (and only) route to true personal fulfillment. Second, Allison always seeks to recognize that all people deserve respect and to treat people accordingly. Professionally, Allison remembers to be kind and courteous to other attorneys. In addition to just being the right thing to do, one never knows how an adversary today could resurface as a judge tomorrow. Finally, Allison remembers to be compassionate and recognize that we never know what a person is going through that could impact how they act, although it is not reflective of who they really are.
Personally and professionally, Allison is competitive. Allison continually competes with herself setting goals in and out of the office. These goals drive Allison to be the best she can be without expressing her competitive streak in a way that could be a detriment to others. Even though Allison is unsure where she will be in five years because nobody can predict the future, she would still be delighted to be working with her firm.
Allison loves to work with a team, and Allison's role on the team depends on a variety of factors including the client's needs, the makeup of the team and the time in her career. Currently, Allison often serves in a leadership position with her team. In the past, Allison had differing roles as she gained experience. The cases will often define the roles of each attorney and staff member because each case and each client has a different set of needs.
One of Allison's challenges that she had to overcome was a desire to always be in control. Allison, like a lot of people, believed she could do everything at once, so she made a life plan and put her efforts towards making life fit her expected image. Eventually, Allison learned that you don't control life, and once she stopped trying, she found she was happier. This experience helped carve Allison's personal philosophy; she can do all things through connecting and listening to God and Christ because her faith gives her strength.
Allison is attracted to certain personality types more than others. Instantly, Allison is drawn to sincere people who are authentic. She enjoys spending her time with people who are intelligent and engaging, and this does not always equate to education and “book smarts.” In fact, Allison's paternal grandmother is a perfect example. Allison's grandmother turned down the opportunity to go to college for home economics (which her father insisted would have to be her major even though it did not interest her) so that she could learn about the land, animals, and how to grow plants. Her grandmother was a self-directed learner, who learned by doing. Her grandmother's passion for nature set the foundation for Allison's appreciation for nature.
When faced with a complex trial, Allison prepares voraciously. Generally, Allison's trials continue for weeks or months, and she makes it a point to immerse herself in the case from every angle. She will dive head first into every piece of paper, every nuance, and not emerge until she knows all that is possible to know about a case. There is no passing a finish line or pats on the back in the midst of the trial until the trial comes to completion. Allison's dedication has made major changes in the lives of her clients. For instance, in one case, medical experts were at a loss as to what caused her young client to end up in a persistent vegetative state. Allison read every medical record multiple times until she discovered a major piece of the puzzle which ultimately provided the smoking gun her case needed and led to a substantial settlement for her client. As a trial attorney Allison believes it is important to be drawn to investigating legal issues and facts, as well as being able to focus intensely for long periods of time.
Stress and the law often go hand in hand, but Allison likes to take life one step at a time. To reduce stress, Allison keeps the end point in mind, but she focuses on the next item on her “to do list.” A trial is a big responsibility with lots of steps, and Allison equips herself with adrenaline and tackles one thing at a time. By focusing on the trial this way with her long term vision in mind, she is able to transmute the stress into adrenaline, work with her team, and maintain focus for weeks at a time.
Are you a student just starting out in the law? Allison has a bit of advice. Students need to find people they admire and actively seek their advice and counsel on a consistent basis. In fact, it is never too early to foster meaningful professional relationships and build your network. Although one may have skills that make one more or less adept to practice the law, at the end of the day, lawyers are created. Few attorneys will be great lawyers without great teachers.
Are you an attorney struggling to find balance? Allison has a quick tip, “don't take it home unless it really needs to be done.” In the past, Allison would bring her briefcase home every night and then feel guilty if she did not actually do any work. So if the project does not need to be done that night, she now leaves the briefcase (and the work) at the office. She only brings work home when the work absolutely can't wait until the next day. Every day before Allison leaves the office she asks herself one question, “Does it need to be done tonight?” Allison acknowledges that it is important to spend time with your family. Just because you are an attorney (and the work can be endless) is not a good reason to neglect yourself or personal relationships.
Allison believes that the law often leads to justice; however, it doesn't equate to justice because justice transcends the law. Although there is justice within the law, justice is found in a variety of different contexts, so that justice is not always bound to the law. According to Allison, justice may be boiled down to when the right thing happens under the right circumstances. We, as people, know justice in our hearts and in our eyes. Allison is drawn to practice law because she wants to be a service to her clients. Further, Allison enjoys helping each client through the legal process while operating with integrity, an awareness of her responsibility, and compassion for her clients.
Over and above quality legal work, Allison does a substantial amount of pro bono work, and she gives a lot of time to the North Carolina Bar Association and other legal organizations, especially those that promote camaraderie with the Bar. Over and above her legal contributions, Allison believes in responding to children living in need around the world. She currently sponsors a child through Compassion International and also provides support to an orphanage in Haiti.
Outside the office, Allison enjoys nature photography and absorbing the beauty of the outdoors. She enjoys watching the Olympics, golf, and NASCAR. As a favorite team, Allison remains a loyal Wake Forest fan!