|By John HocterAs the newly minted executive director of the Ohio State Bar Association, Mary Amos Augsburger is fearless. Well, almost. “Are there heights involved?” she asks with a nervous laugh, referring to a proposed excursion at a recent planning meeting for guests at the Great Rivers Bar Leaders Conference, which Ohio is hosting later this year. The three OSBA staff members seated with her at the conference table—assistant executive director for administration Rick Bannister, meeting planner Jeanelle Harden and executive secretary Jennifer Moreland—have a combined 43 years of experience with the Association. Mary has been with the organization for just 18 months, but she runs a seemingly endless string of important meetings and performs her executive duties with the ease of someone on the job much longer.
Since being hired in July as only the fourth executive director in the 133-year history of the OSBA, Mary has been leading the daily operations of an organization that serves a membership of more than 28,000 Ohio lawyers, judges and legal professionals. Whether discussing meetings for conference attendees, working to expand and improve the scope of OSBA membership and its benefits, or negotiating big-time business deals to benefit the Association and its members, she is quick to listen, relying on the insights and experience of those around her before making final and definitive decisions. Her first major project centered around proSHARE—a professional digital network that works directly with Google to help bar associations across the country earn non-dues revenue from national advertisers—which coincides with the OSBA’s history of entrepreneurialism and allows the Association to strengthen member benefits without increasing membership dues.
She goes about her work with a light demeanor and ever-present laugh, remaining at ease in the midst of tense situations, despite being thrown into the fire less than three short months ago. How she arrived at her current position—as the OSBA’s first-ever female executive director and a leader within Ohio’s legal profession—is a story that began in the early days of Mary’s childhood.
A call to service
“I’ve wanted to be an attorney for as long as I can remember, going back to the second grade,” Mary says. “I knew lawyers had a reputation for being community leaders and very smart people, and I wanted to be like that.” Years after this realization, having graduated from The Ohio State University with a degree in political science, Mary continued to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer at Capital University Law School, where she developed an interest in legislative and governmental affairs. “As a lawyer you learn to help others solve problems, and when you work for the public, you’re not only helping individual clients, you’re helping all Ohioans.”
During law school, Mary spent her nights in the classroom and her days at the Ohio Statehouse, where she worked as a legislative aide for Jeff Jacobson in the Ohio House of Representatives and eventually the Ohio Senate. After graduating and passing the bar, she brought her legislative experience to her new role as chief legal counsel and policy advisor for the state majority caucus in the Ohio Senate in 2002, a role she assumed at just 30 years of age and fulfilled dutifully for the next five years.
“Something I’m most proud of is being involved in the Ohio Homebuyer’s Protection Act,” Mary says. “Many of the Senate members wanted to review Ohio’s mortgage laws and make sure we had appropriate consumer protections in place given what was going on in the marketplace and the economy.” That bill, designed to bring increased enforcement and regulation to mortgage lending practices and protect borrowers’ rights, went on to be touted as a model for other state governments to follow and implement around the country.
Following her work as Senate legal counsel, Mary began private practice as an associate with Squire Sanders in Columbus before returning to her true passion of public service, working as an executive for the Ohio Department of Commerce as a divisional chief counsel and department policy advisor and for the Ohio Auditor of State’s Office as the director of policy and public affairs until 2012, when she left to join the OSBA as legislative counsel.
Welcome to the OSBA
Mary was not an unknown commodity when she arrived at OSBA Headquarters in January 2012. Her hard work for the Ohio Senate many years earlier caught the eye of OSBA Director of Legislative Affairs Bill Weisenberg, long-time OSBA veteran and venerated figure in Ohio’s legal profession. In his corner office, littered with awards and accomplishments from his 35 years of service to the lawyers and citizens of Ohio, he lights up when discussing his earliest encounters with the young lawyer who would ultimately become his new boss. “I’ve known Mary for most of her professional career,” says Weisenberg. “Probably our first contact was in her capacity in giving advice to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which she did in a highly professional and capable manner throughout. She was always easy to work with, well-prepared, and had great respect for the legislature as an institution and great respect for the law.” He was instrumental in bringing Mary into the Association as legislative counsel, a position that required a strong knowledge of the internal workings of state government and the tenacity to push through bills and legislation on behalf of the OSBA membership. During her service in that role, Mary contributed to successful legislation efforts across many areas of the law through the work of OSBA committees and sections, something she says is extremely important to members and the Association as a whole. “Members participating in our committees and sections are constantly evaluating how the law is working for their clients, and when they see a problem they bring solutions. That’s what our advocacy team takes to the General Assembly.”
This track record of success, as well as her time spent learning the ins and outs of executive management and organizational relationship building, led to her becoming the next executive director of the OSBA. During the interview and hiring process for the position and in the time since her appointment, Mary has resolved to improve on the existing cadre of member services and benefits to retain the OSBA’s reputation as one of the best voluntary bar associations in the nation.
Mentoring: Returning the favor
On a warm summer day in late July, Mary sits in a quiet midtown restaurant in Columbus across from Holly Nagle, a third-year law student who, much like Mary during her law school days, attends Capital University Law School by night and works as a legislative aide at the Ohio Statehouse by day. They casually chat about everything from law school classes and professors to internships, summer work opportunities and “ladies’ night” at a popular local establishment, with Mary obviously taking great joy in counseling a young up-and-coming lawyer and Holly readily soaking up each bit of advice from a fellow female lawyer working at the peak of the profession.
Mentoring young law students and lawyers is something on which Mary places great importance as a leader in Ohio’s legal profession. “One of the things we can always do better is training and professional development. So I’ve tried to be a mentor or someone who young people can talk to when they have questions as they’re doing their job and developing their careers,” she says. “Along the way I’ve done that for quite a few individuals, and now I’m at the point in my career when I can actively seek those people out, as well.”
Mary believes she is simply returning the favor performed for her by many people in her professional past, from the former chief of staff of the Ohio Senate, Teri Geiger, whom Mary says led by example and from whom she learned much simply by working alongside her, to her relationships with accomplished lawmakers and lawyers such as Bill Weisenberg, whom she admired and learned from long before becoming executive director.
As lunch continues, the conversation turns to resume building and how to stand out in a crowded career marketplace—a ubiquitous problem for new lawyers and soon-to-graduate law students—through paid internships, externships, clerkships, summer associate positions and other opportunities for gaining work experience. They discuss the importance of professional networking and the challenges of being a young woman and a lawyer working toward success in what some see as a male-dominated profession. As the first female executive director in the OSBA’s century-spanning history, Mary is in a unique position to answer these sorts of questions. “I’ve heard that it’s a good idea for female lawyers to learn how to golf. Do you golf?” asks Holly. “No,” Mary says with a smile.
Motherhood and work-life balance
Working tirelessly in the boardroom, traveling around the state and helping Ohio lawyers with their practices as the new OSBA executive director is no doubt a labor of love for Mary, but her other recently acquired title—mother to a beautiful baby boy named Alex—is and always will be her main focus. “After work I try to get home and fulfill my primary role, which is ‘Alex’s Mom,’” Mary says, beaming. She and her husband Ryan spend quality time together in the evenings, discussing Alex’s growth, coordinating schedules and catching up on personal and professional emails. Being a new mother while simultaneously assuming the role of OSBA executive director is definitely a challenge, but Mary doesn’t necessarily believe that women are that much different from men when it comes to work-life balance. “I think men and women both struggle with work-life balance issues, whether it be balancing work and family or another issue someone is involved with, such as community service or other pursuits,” says Mary.
As for any unique challenges of being a woman in Ohio’s legal profession, Mary subscribes to the belief that the harder you work, the less impact bias—gender or otherwise—can have on one’s career. “I’ve always approached my work as ‘do your homework, expand your knowledge and communicate it well,’ and everything else just takes care of itself. Earn respect, and you’ll get it.”
An open-door policy
Since assuming her place at the head of the OSBA earlier this year, Mary has spelled out her vision and mission for the Association strongly, succinctly and consistently. “We’re working collaboratively with our members to make sure that they have the tools they need to serve their clients today and tomorrow.” She plans to achieve this goal by engaging members through committee and section involvement, focus groups, member input, and what she refers to as her “open-door policy,” encouraging Association staff and all OSBA members to call, email or visit her to discuss individual issues they face in their practices or with questions or comments about their membership. It is this inclusive and transparent policy and a dedication to upholding the reputation and integrity of the profession that makes one thing abundantly clear: As the leader and new executive director of this Association, no matter what challenges may lay ahead in the future, Mary Augsburger is not afraid to take the OSBA to exciting new heights.
John Hocter is the publications editor at the Ohio State Bar Association.