Be open to possibilities that can be a springboard to a better job.”
Staff Director, U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging for the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
Ashley Carson Cottingham may seem to have lucked into her dream job soon after graduating, but in a reflection of today's tough legal job market, the newly minted barrister has also done her time as a barista.
Before enrolling at Vermont Law School, she worked at a continuing care retirement community, an experience that cemented her interest in elder law and policy. At VLS, where she was drawn by the emphasis on public interest law and policy, she focused on elder law and led the Women's Law Group. She also was an intern for the Vermont Long Term Care Ombudsman, where she acted as an advocate for senior citizens, visited long-term care facilities, met with residents, and advocated for reform to guardianship laws. "It was spot-on experience for what I wanted to do in Washington, D.C.," she said, adding that Vermont's state ombudsman has been a career mentor for her ever since.
After graduating, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked as an unpaid intern for a U.S. Congressman from her home state of Oregon. She also started working part time as a coffee shop barista to chip away at her law school debt, a job she kept for over four years.
The Congressional internship soon led to a paid job as a field services and public policy coordinator at OWL-The Voice of Midlife and Older Women, founded as the Older Women's League, which represents issues that impact women 40 and older in America. Ten months later, she became OWL's interim executive director when the agency's head took a leave of absence. She raised money, represented OWL on Capitol Hill, and a couple of months later was appointed full-time executive director of the small but nationally known nonprofit. She traveled the country to meet with OWL members, spoke on women and aging policy issues and appeared on Fox News and MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann to address Social Security reform. She worked with the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations as the cochair of the Income Security Committee and also as cochair of the Older Women's Economic Security Taskforce for the National Council of Women's Organizations. Additionally, she sat on the executive committee of both the Elder Justice Coalition and the National Coalition on Mental Health and Aging in D.C.
Her next job was as senior policy counsel for the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, where she worked primarily on Social Security, elder abuse prevention, and advance care planning. The new job came with the needed perk of U.S. Senate federal student loan repayment assistance. She recently became staff director for the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging for the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, chaired by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Cottingham advises new and recent VLS graduates who are interested in nonprofit and government law and policy jobs to take positions-even if they're unpaid-that put them in touch with people who can eventually hire them as staff attorneys.
"Be open to possibilities that can be a springboard to a better job," she said. "Have flexibility in what you're willing and able to do. For example, in my first nonprofit job, we were in coalitions with other women's groups and aging organizations that needed work done on the Hill with bills-I'd volunteer for everything. It was within my job description but also was a way to meet people and grow my contact lists and build my skills, so I could be marketable to other groups and on the Hill."