Karen Gunnison '82 is chief of staff to Pennsylvania First Lady Susan Corbett
May 2, 2011
Through the power of relationship building and networking, Karen Gunnison '82 was asked personally by Pennsylvania's new First Lady, Susan Corbett, to become her chief of staff.
"It is a privilege to be serving Pennsylvania in this capacity," said Gunnison, who enjoys her new office in the Governor's Mansion. "The Corbetts are very down-to-earth and have great senses of humor," she said. "I'm looking forward to working with the first lady on her initiatives, especially her projects involving cultural and heritage tourism." Although there is no such thing as a "normal day" for Gunnison, the majority of her time is spent assisting the governor and first lady with various events and initiatives, attending the governor's senior staff meetings, and working closely with the residence staff.
Gunnison's alternative law career has been the result of being true to herself. It started during law school when she met Bradley Gunnison '82. They married shortly after graduation and began their careers and started a family. Gunnison soon faced the balancing act of being a partner at the Harrisburg law firm of Wix, Wenger & Weidner while being a parent to two small children.
"There weren't that many partners with families in the Harrisburg community at that time," said Gunnison. "So they made the rules up for me as we went along, and I ended up a part-time partner. Although it was an ideal situation, it was still not a good fit for me. I made the personal decision to back off my career for the time being. I never regretted it."
Although Gunnison chose to focus on raising her children rather than a career, she continued to be involved in her community. She participated and volunteered with various organizations and committees including the United Way of Carlisle & Cumberland County, Modern Transit Partnership, Cumberland County Commission for Women, Carlisle Rotary, the Junior League of Harrisburg, Inc., Harrisburg Social Media Club, Hospice of Central Pennsylvania, the Harrisburg Symphony Society, and even a women's movie group where she met and befriended Susan Corbett.
Community service has always been important to Gunnison. "When you are privileged to have had an education and to have a secure home, there is a need to give back," said Gunnison. "It's an innate thing I've always felt."
Her community connections spurred opportunities. "I began to get contract work," said Gunnison. "Somebody always came to me for work; I never had to go looking for it. My hard decisions have worked out for me. If I didn't leave the law firm, I wouldn't have ended up in my current position."
Although Gunnison is not a traditional lawyer, she uses her law degree every day. "I think in every position I've ever had, whether it's been a volunteer position or a paid position, I've used my law degree," said Gunnison. "I value my critical thinking skills and the way I see the world. Also, understanding the legalities of corporations and nonprofits, knowing how to ask good questions, as well as research and problem solving skills are valuable tools to have."
Gunnison advises young attorneys, especially those with families, to not expect too much from themselves. "That was one of my errors," said Gunnison. "I had very high expectations in both my professional and personal life, and sometimes you need to allow yourself to be a little less than perfect. Take risks, stay networked, and continue to learn, not just the law, but learn about your community and technology. Be a well-rounded person."