Maria Leonard Olsen is an accomplished attorney, but she makes time to explore other passions. Ms. Olsen graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1988 and began working for one of the largest law firms in Washington, D.C. as a commercial litigator. Maria crossed into the public sector in 1992 when she was appointed by President Clinton as Special Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs at the U.S. Department of Justice. The following is an interview conducted with Ms. Olsen – the answers are paraphrased and written from her perspective, but not direct quotes.
What was your experience working in “big law” at Dow Lohnes?
While working at Dow Lohnes, I gained important and helpful experience in the legal field. I had great litigation experience in this role, and the vast resources available to me at the firm enhanced my practice. The UVA network at this firm was very strong, and I worked with many great attorneys who became mentors and friends.
You also worked as Special Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs. What were some of the big differences between the public and private sectors?
One major difference I experienced between the public and private sector was that I could see some of the results of my work in the public sector much faster. At the Attorney General’s office, I worked on front-page legislative issues that became law, and the results of this work came faster than the results of the often-lengthy litigation work I did with Dow Lohnes.
Which skills did you find to be most transferable between the public and private sectors?
Despite the differences in work, I found that many of the skills I developed in the private sector transferred over to the public sector. However, I applied them differently in each sector. In both the public and private sectors, using analytical skills to develop strategies and communicate effectively is extremely important. It is also valuable to have good people skills and the abilities to debate, be resourceful, and network.
You were the highest-ranking Asian American political appointee at the DOJ during your time there. Can you talk about representation and its importance in this field (or any field). What do you see as the best way to encourage diversity?
During my tenure at Justice, I was invited to speak at the Great Hall during AAPI Heritage Month, which was a great experience. While working at Dow Lohnes, I served on the diversity committee as well. It is important for young people to see people like them succeed and to have a diverse workforce to mentor and retain diverse employees. After taking 15 years off to raise my children, I enjoy working at the Pels Law Firm where the unique and effective model allows women and mothers like myself to work part time in the legal field. It is still a rare opportunity in litigation practices.
Can you talk about your experience with pro bono work throughout your career?
I did pro bono work during my time in both the public and private sectors. My pro bono work included landlord-tenant disputes, domestic violence, representing migrant farm workers, and representing elderly indigent clients. At Dow Lohnes, I was the Pro Bono Program Manager and helped track down pro bono cases for attorneys at the firm to take on, beyond the public service that they already were doing. At the Department of Justice, I worked on a task force that made it possible for government attorneys to do pro bono work.
As a journalist, what do you gravitate towards writing about?
I write a lot about women in mid-life and overcoming the stereotypes associated with that phase of life; my goal is to help other women figure out what’s next for them and to live their best lives.
Talk about your side gigs. How do you find the time to balance everything?
I am an author, attorney, radio host, podcaster, and mentor to women who survived sexual assault or are dealing with alcoholism or other addictions. Now that my children are older, I have much more free time. I love my work in the legal field and know that I have made a positive impact, but I feel the biggest impact I can make is as an author and public speaker.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I will likely be retired and travelling. My goal is to have seen all 50 states and at least 65 countries by the time I’m 65 years old; I have already visited 46 countries and almost every state, but my travel plans are just getting started.
Some more info on Maria’s work as an author: The most popular of her four books is 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life where she shares her life lessons and story of she tried 50 new things in her 50th year to determine how she wanted to live the next chapter of her life. Maria also has a blog on her website, MariaLeonardOlsen.com, a podcast called Becoming Your Best Version, where she interviews inspirational women, and she writes for an international women’s magazine and an AARP publication. She is working on a book on navigating surprising DNA test kit discoveries.
Author and intern, Tyler Schieda, attended Jon Pels’s alma mater, Villanova University (’21), earning an economics degree with minors in political science and Spanish. Tyler will start as a paralegal at Wiley Rein law firm this fall, and plans to attend law school in the future.