A Catalyst for Connection

WNE University School of Law Alumna Dorothy Varon

After a midlife crisis drew her to law school, Dorothy Varon L’95 uses knowledge and passion to make community connections.

As Dorothy Varon walks through the cavernous hallways of MassMutual in Springfield, Mass., she greets nearly everyone by name. They all know her name, too. Given the sheer number of people who work at MassMutual, this phenomenon is amazing — but not surprising. After all, Varon is all about making connections.

A self-proclaimed extrovert, Varon, who is lead counsel for the Corporate Law division at MassMutual, prides herself on being a facilitator — someone who brings people and organizations together to make the world a better place. She credits her father, who was also a lawyer, for showing her the importance of helping others.

“What I noticed about my dad was how he helped everybody,” Varon said. “He would get calls in the middle of the night from people who were in trouble. He always helped them, even if they weren’t his clients. These weren’t people coming to him from the law firm; they were friends of the family — they were my friends, they were my brothers’ friends, they were people who found themselves in trouble.

“So, from a very early age I watched him serving other people,” she added. “He always shared what he knew to help people, and I think that influenced me a lot even though I didn’t know it, because at the time, the last thing I wanted to do was be a lawyer like him.”

Education was important to Varon’s parents, and because of that, there was never any question that she would attend college. She majored in psychology with a minor in pre-med, but it didn’t take long for her to realize medical school was not in the cards for her.

“I was not cut out to be a doctor,” she said. “I can’t think about blood, let alone experience it.”

Instead, after graduating from City College in New York, Varon began working in the corporate sector, specifically in healthcare and life insurance. She found that corporate America suited her desire to give back.

“If you work for a company that has a good soul, then it’s a very different thing from what people typically associate with corporate culture,” she said. “I feel like I can do well and do good at the same time. I try to tell that to all the law students I talk to who think they must choose between doing good and having a comfortable life. They can’t necessarily see that there’s an intersection where you can do both.”

In her work within the health insurance industry, Varon often interacted with lawyers. The more she worked with them, the more she realized law might just be her calling — like it was for her father. At the time she made the decision to go to law school, she was a consultant helping Metropolitan Life design a payment system for claims.

“I was reading a lot of statutes,” she said. “I had to understand and read the laws, as well as work with lawyers. While I was designing systems to comply with legislation, I realized I can do this. I started to really feel like I had missed my calling, so I decided to look at what it would take to go back to school — it was like a midlife crisis. It’s very different going back to school in your 40s.”

Varon made the move from New York City, where she was born and raised, to Columbia County, just over the border between New York and Massachusetts, to attend law school at Western New England University.

“I loved law school,” Varon began. “If I could have stayed in law school my whole life, I would have. I was fascinated by everything in the curriculum … other than income tax.”

Her time at WNE was so transformative that Varon still finds herself regularly on campus — long after graduation. “I’ve been involved with the law school for a long time,” she said. “They are my alma mater — I owe my career to them. I’m very loyal to the school. I’m very fond of it. So, I’ve stayed connected.”

Since she graduated and began working at MassMutual 18 years ago, Varon has used these connections to help facilitate partnerships that make a difference in the lives of countless people. One example is her work within WNE’s Center for Social Justice, which includes a program called the Consumer Debt Initiative (CDI). The CDI defends consumers facing wrongful credit card collection actions. They help interview and counsel clients, negotiate with opposing counsel, and fight for justice against the debt collection industry, while connecting clients to financial literacy and other holistic resources.

For MassMutual and its charitable foundation, the work within the CDI was a perfect fit with their company’s mission.

“The Consumer Debt Initiative was really interesting to the MassMutual Foundation,” Varon, who also sits on the Foundation’s Board of Directors, stated. “Our mission is to help individuals and families achieve a more stable financial resiliency. Many families could not withstand a $300 upset to their annual income. It’s like, ‘If my car breaks down, I have to decide whether to feed my kids, fix my car, or pay the rent.’ MassMutual is a financial services company, so we look to help people achieve financial resiliency.”

“I loved law school. If I could have stayed in law school my whole life, I would have. I was fascinated by everything in the curriculum…other than income tax.” - Dorothy Varon L’95

Through Varon’s connections to both MassMutual and WNE, she also led efforts to get MassMutual’s Pro Bono Committee involved in the Center for Social Justice.

“When I arrived at MassMutual, we didn’t really do any pro bono work in Springfield,” she said. “I went to our General Counsel here at MassMutual, and he agreed that we should have a program where people who wanted to do free legal work could. Our pro bono work has grown substantially over the past 15 years. We have a committee that looks at opportunities for our group, and we work with lots of partners, including The Center for Social Justice at the School of Law.”

The connections Varon makes between those partners helped launch the Center for Social Justice’s “Justice Bus” — a custom, retrofitted sprinter van with a complete mobile office that includes multiple workstations, computers, a printer, and other technology necessary to serve clients in the community.

“When Ariel Clemmer was executive director at the Center, she heard about other places in the country that had these mobile law offices,” said Varon. “She had this vision of finding funding for a justice bus. She was writing grants and trying to get legislators to fund it in the state budget, but she wasn’t having much luck. So, I mentioned it to our General Counsel (at MassMutual), and he said, ‘We have a sprinter van, but because of COVID it’s not being used much.’ He investigated whether MassMutual might consider donating it to the Center for Social Justice, and they did.”

As Varon lists all the work being done at MassMutual — within its Law Department, its Foundation, and through its large corps of volunteers — she is hesitant to take any credit, admitting that she’s always a little self-conscious when being interviewed about her life and accomplishments.

“I don’t want to take too much credit,” she said. “It’s a function of people being open to the connections being made. No one does it alone. There are people who are facilitators — catalysts — who make connections. I think that’s a very fair way of thinking about the work I do.

“It’s really MassMutual — I’ve had a career here for the past 18 years, and I feel like I’ve been able to do a lot of good with the support of the company,” Varon added. “Ido love to make connections. To see and understand that there really is a lot going on out there in the world where we can make a difference as part of our mission. It’s all part of what we are trying to do as a company. This goes back to my dad, right? You see the difference you can make in the world just by doing your little bit.”

This reminds Varon of a magnet she once had stuck to her refrigerator. It was a butterfly flying over an enormous forest fire. The butterfly was dropping two little water droplets onto the flames. On the bottom it said, “I’m doing what I can.”

“That’s it,” said Varon. “That’s the wisdom I live by. If everybody does what they can, it could be a very different world.”

Web Extra: Dorothy Varon Interview