Becky Olson pursued the law the way she pursues life: with gusto!

Rebecca Olsonby Julia Lynam

Writing Her Own Book

Rebecca Olson, the principal of Rebecca G. Olson & Associates in Stowe, was a journalist with a longtime yen for practicing law, but no budget to attend law school. Her creativity helped her find a way to her dream.

The life of an attorney in a small Vermont town can be full of variety; you need to be able to turn your hand to conveyances, litigation, estate planning, probate, business law, family law and collections — even the occasional canine client! Successful — and lucky — attorneys get to balance those various fields of law according to their own preferences. Rebecca Olson is one of those.

“In the process of finding my way, I’ve realized that I love estate planning and probate,” says Olson, who jokes that she’s “the head of the largest female-owned law practice in Lamoille County. We do a lot of work with older people; we help manage their affairs, pay their bills.”

With the assistance of a new associate, Maryellen Sullivan, who has extensive experience in estate planning in New York City, Olson is finding herself able to pursue that love by taking on more complex estates. “I found a need and a niche, so we’re doing less litigation now and more estate planning. Other local law firms are referring the more advanced estate planning to us. I really like where we are now.”

It’s taken some years of dedication to get to this point. Working toward her journalism degree at Penn State, Olson cites a conversation with the lawyer-sister of her best friend, “whose whole family are lawyers and judges. I was always interested in law,” she says, “but I wasn’t serious about law school until she mentioned that writing is the best background for law. It just planted the seed.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t financially feasible for her to enter law school at the time. After graduation, she did advertising copywriting and worked for local newspapers for a few years. In 1983, she moved to Vermont when her then-husband accepted a job in Stowe.

That desire to become a lawyer was strong, and, she says, in 1986, “I had the good fortune of taking advantage of a Vermont Supreme Court–sponsored clerkship and spent four years as a clerk with Harold Stevens of Stevens Law Office in Stowe.

“I was fortunate to work for a topnotch law firm that took the clerkship seriously, and I was able to learn both the theoretical and the practical aspects of law,” she says. “I found the clerkship a good preparation for becoming a lawyer, as long as I also studied all the required reading for law school.

“In a clerkship it can be difficult, because during the day you’re still working. At night and weekends is when I would study — the same materials I would have studied in law school. The only thing you don’t get is the classroom interaction and taking the exams, so when you get to the bar exam it’s very nerve-racking, because you don’t know how you’ll do compared to the others. Luckily I passed.”

Denise Clark and Patty MurphyDenise Clark, a recently hired paralegal, deals with real estate transactions. Paralegal Patty Murphy, who works on litigation, estate planning and probate, is Olson’s longest-serving employee.

Olson became a member of the Vermont Bar in 1990 and continued at Stevens’ law office until she set up her own practice on Jan. 1, 1995. “I had a long-range plan,” she recalls. “I was going to go one year before hiring someone and see how things went, then I would hire another person after five years. After eight months the plan went to hell; I needed help and hired a temporary admin person. Then, once I realized I wasn’t going to fall flat on my face, I started interviewing people with legal experience and hired my first paralegal.”

At the end of that first year, she hired an associate, followed by another. Both eventually left — “for good reasons,” she’s quick to add. Responding to an ad in the Vermont Bar Association Journal, Brice Simon was hired as an associate to do litigation. After two years, Olson made him a partner, and they practiced as Olson & Simon until March of this year, when, wishing to do more litigation, he found a position with Hal Stevens, “so going full circle,” Olson says.

Despite the office’s prominent location in an elegant suite of offices on South Main Street, most business comes in by personal referral, and much of the firm’s early growth came through recommendations from local Realtors. Susan O’Rourke of Lang McLaughry Spera Real Estate has known Olson since soon after she started her practice: “Becky’s my attorney of choice,” she says, “My clients are always delighted with her, although as Realtors we always recommend more than one attorney.

“I recommend Becky because she’s very conscientious; because of the level of care she takes in all her transactions. She’s also especially good at putting people at ease. At the closing table, awkward situations sometimes come up, but she has the ability to add humor and keep things light and in perspective without being frivolous. She’s very responsible and personable; she’s right there being very professional.”

Other local lawyers welcomed Olson into their network. “When Becky established her own firm in 1995, the community was expanding and the legal market was expanding, so it was quite natural for her to start up,” says attorney Ed French of Stackpole & French in Stowe. “I offered assistance to help her set up filing and to give her general advice. Recently she’s begun to give me advice, too!

“It takes many skills to be a good lawyer,” he continues. “She has a good combination of personality to attract clients, competence to retain clients, and perseverance to advocate for clients.

“Becky really stands above most in her ability to get along with people and to look at problems objectively without getting personally involved. And to bring people together, because most of our work is not in court, but behind the scenes, talking, arguing and resolving.”

Olson’s staff includes Patty Murphy, a litigation, estate-planning and probate paralegal, who, having joined in 2003, is the longest-serving employee of the firm; Denise Clark, a recently recruited paralegal who deals with real estate transactions; Karen Fenwick, the office manager; and Sullivan, the new associate, who works exclusively on estate planning and probate.

Maryellen SullivanMaryellen Sullivan, who recently joined the firm as an associate, has extensive expertise in estate planning and probate.

“The trusts are really where it gets complicated,” Olson explains. “They are usually set up for two main reasons: one, to avoid probate and, two, to avoid taxes. But then some people have other reasons. For instance, a trust can provide a way of differentiating among heirs — if you have three children and one really isn’t responsible enough to receive an inheritance, there are ways to form a trust so that the trustee would use his or her discretion in disbursing an inheritance.”

Olson & Associates has also found a niche in working with older people, sometimes in a power of attorney situation, more often when family or friends don’t know what to do and may be seeking a guardianship.

“We work a lot with the Vermont Council on Aging,” she says. “There are many elderly people who really don’t have anyone to be the executor of their wills because they have no family, perhaps because family have moved away or because they moved here alone from somewhere else when they were younger. We do a lot of pro bono probate work representing people under guardianships.”

An active participant in community life, Olson is a member of the board and past president of the Lamoille Valley Chamber of Commerce. She’s a member of the Rotary Club in Waterbury, where she lives with her husband, Vini Sassone, and their two cats, Evie and Jonesy.

Sassone works for SUI International, a promotional products company in Williston. Divorced in 1988, Olson met him while she was clerking with Stevens, and they married in 1990. “So he was stuck with me during the bar exam!” she exclaims, with typical self-deprecating humor. “He got the brunt of it! He was out golfing in the rain — literally — just to get out of the house away from the she-devil.”

Her love of animals has led her to be a passionate supporter of the work of the North Country Animal League, where she contributes pro bono legal work to help. That included work on what she describes as “the infamous Billy the Dog case,” which went all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court and set the legal precedent that dogs are not simply property, but have a higher value than their monetary cost.

Her work for North Country ties in with estate planning, Olson says. “A lot of people leave inheritances to humane societies, so we handle the estate planning for them. We do also have some people who want at least to leave their animals to a specified person with a certain amount of money for the animal’s upkeep.”

Asked what was the best thing she ever did, Olson doesn’t hesitate: “Marrying Vini. Oh, that’s boring, isn’t it? How about Climbing Mount Everest? I didn’t, but I’d like to say that.”

Aside from marrying Vini, more serious now, she says, “When I left Hal’s office, I had the choice of going with another, very prestigious law firm or going on my own. That was the other best choice I ever made. I really love this!” •