Maria Leonard Olsen: “Maintaining physical health is crucial”

Maintaining physical health is crucial. The need for exercise should be stressed for all attorneys. It helps to alleviate stress and affects all areas of one’s life. An early mentor could have prodded me more in the direction of caring for my physical health. We did not have a gym in my office building, but […]

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Maintaining physical health is crucial. The need for exercise should be stressed for all attorneys. It helps to alleviate stress and affects all areas of one’s life. An early mentor could have prodded me more in the direction of caring for my physical health. We did not have a gym in my office building, but it would be helpful if law firms prioritized physical health by providing such things (and maybe even meditation rooms!).

As a part of my series about “5 things I wish someone told me when I first became an attorney” I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Leonard Olsen.

Maria Leonard Olsen is an attorney and author who practices law in the Washington, D.C. area at The Pels Law Firm. She graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law and worked at one of the D.C.’s largest law firms prior to her appointment as Special Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Justice Department. She took time off from practicing law while raising her children, during which she became a journalist, authored several books and did pro bono work. See for more information.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law?

I went straight to law school from undergrad because I did not know what I wanted to do with my life. I figured a law degree could help me in whatever path I chose in life. Plus, it made my immigrant mother proud. I started at a large law firm that demanded very long hours. I could do it, and it was quite lucrative, but it was tough on my health. I received a political appointment during the Clinton administration and worked in the government for several years, which I enjoyed, and then took some time off from practicing law when my children were young. I now practice at a small litigation firm that has hired several former and current at-home mothers and recognizes the brain trust found in these women. We are paid hourly, have flexible schedules and have greater control over our caseloads than at typical firms. I think the firm’s business model is terrific, and I am grateful to have found this practice.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your law career?

I had an arbitration in a construction litigation case, in which I represented a small, immigrant, family-owned drywall subcontractor against a behemoth general contractor who refused to pay my client. It involved a huge amount of money for my client, but was relatively insignificant to our opponent. The attorneys who represented the defendant smugly presented their case. Their attitude was terribly off-putting. I won the arbitration. It was a case for me of the good guys coming out on top and boosted my confidence in the system. And in karma!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I have a couple of colorful clients who are ultra-passionate about their cases. Their fiery personalities definitely keep things interesting! The clients are both in industries with which I did not have a great deal of familiarity. One benefit of litigation is that we get to learn about so many different businesses and areas with each case, unlike in, say a tax or trusts & estates practice. It keeps things exciting and fresh.

What are some of the most interesting cases you have been involved in? Without sharing anything confidential can you share any stories?

I represented a victim of domestic violence in a pro bono case. By choice, she returned to her abuser after the case, which hurt my heart. I realized that I cannot control or even understand the actions of others. We are all an amalgam of our own life experiences and have our own realities. It is hard for me not to become emotionally involved in family law cases, so I do not often take such cases. I now have an even greater admiration for those who practice family law.

I also worked on a case for a well-known cosmetics company founder. She was absolutely enchanting. I was captivated by her spirit and confidence, and the empire she built, largely because of her faith in herself and the quality of her products. Entrepreneurs fascinate me, maybe because I lack that particular kind of drive, at least in this chapter of my life.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

Mother Theresa, because of her unfailing generosity to others. She truly made this world a better place because she was here. She inspires me and so many others all over the world to give to the disadvantaged. And Martin Luther King, Jr., because of his belief in a cause bigger than himself, even when his life was at risk, and his ability to continue to inspire legions of people to stand up for justice.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in law?

Try to work in a law firm, public interest firm, government institution, corporation or nonprofit before you go to law school, so you can learn what it really may be like to practice in those settings. Go into your career with open eyes and a clear idea of what you are signing up for before you take the leap and make the investment in law school. While a law degree can be beneficial in many different endeavors, I wish I had known more about the practice of law before taking the leap.

If you had the ability to make three reforms in our judicial/legal system, which three would you start with? Why?

Equal access to justice. While we have a public defender system, the quality of representation can vary tremendously, especially since public defenders typically have a much bigger caseload than the average practitioner. It is not fair and it leads to a disparate number of disadvantaged people populating our country’s prisons. Of course, bigger systemic changes are needed to alleviate this particular problem.

Second, making it easier for law students to practice public interest law is a needed reform, in my opinion. Many law students are drawn to law firm practice to pay off their student loans. If there were more loan forgiveness, perhaps more lawyers would practice public interest law, which would have a positive effect throughout our legal system.

Third, making it easier for the general public to resolve their legal problems without attorneys. Our system need not be as complicated as it is. Self-help kiosks and free legal clinics have paved the way for this reform, but more is needed.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As attorneys, we have the ability to help so many people navigate often-confusing systems. A simple letter has brought resolution to many of my clients’ difficulties. It is gratifying when I can help another person with a problem and thereby alleviate their stress or pain. I believe that my clients can sense my genuine care for their well-being.

I also use my writing and public speaking to help others practice self-care and overcome trauma and other curveballs life has thrown their way. I have been speaking and writing a great deal about self-care during this Covid era and feel that I am making a positive difference in a significant number of people’s lives.

I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?

My life goal is to make this world a better place because I was here. I have found ways to do this, ways to share my gifts. I have found my “why” in this chapter of my life.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.

I graduated from a top ten law school and went straight to one of the largest law firms in Washington, D.C. The stress was sometimes overwhelming. I wish someone had told me about the need for balance and self-care, especially while in a demanding job. It was my first full-time, “real” job, and I was not well-equipped to deal with the stress and long hours. There is always more work that could be done on a given case, and hard sometimes to know when to draw a boundary. But if we do not protect our emotional, physical, spiritual and mental health, we cannot perform at our best. We must “put on our own oxygen masks” before we can be of optimal productivity and efficacy as a team member or to a client, not to mention to our families.

To better handle stress, I wish it had been suggested to me to develop a meditation practice. Even taking a few deep, cleansing breaths periodically during the day would have lowered my blood pressure and re-centered me. There are many deadlines in litigation. I could have used meditation to help keep me calm and clear-headed. I had thought that meditation had to be lengthy to be effective, but it does not have to be. I am glad that meditation has gone mainstream with subsequent generations.

My emotional health could have been improved early in my legal career by, for instance, being told that what others think of me is not fully within my control and, therefore, not to take things personally. Each person has their own reality, which affects their behavior, and I cannot know everything going on in another person’s life.

Another improvement in my emotional health came later in my career when I learned how to focus on one thing at a time, rather than continually multitasking. I was fantastic at doing several things at once and thought I was being efficient, but multitasking led to me not doing my best at each of the tasks, and not being able to be fully present. It diminished my efficacy and my joy.

Maintaining physical health is crucial. The need for exercise should be stressed for all attorneys. It helps to alleviate stress and affects all areas of one’s life. An early mentor could have prodded me more in the direction of caring for my physical health. We did not have a gym in my office building, but it would be helpful if law firms prioritized physical health by providing such things (and maybe even meditation rooms!).

Spirituality, for me, is an ongoing search for meaning in life and connecting to a larger purpose. Working only for large corporate clients, at some point, felt less meaningful to me. I wish someone had told me to take pro bono cases earlier in my career. I joined a team representing a mentally retarded man who was on death row and it changed the way I viewed my work. I also wish I had been encouraged to cultivate spirituality outside of work. The value of finding time to be outside in nature became more apparent to me later in my career, because legal work can be sedentary and involve long hours indoors. Nature’s gifts and beauty nourish me, help me slow down and cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Doing yoga outdoors is particularly healing for me.

Mentally, more effective ways of dealing with worry would have benefitted me. I tended to catastrophize, which was not helpful. Going from “what if” to “what is” would have been a more productive reframing of my thoughts. I often would worry about the outcome of a case, and various issues would keep me up at night. I learned later in my career that there are so many variables that I cannot control. I need to focus on what I can control and let go of the rest. Most of what I worried about never came to pass.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Oprah Winfrey. She is an extremely busy woman, who suffered adversity in her youth, yet she appears to maintain balance and bring such goodness and light to the world. It is a dream of mine to be on one of her shows or other productions!

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