Notice and Comment is pleased to spotlight Mary Bissell, Principal at Child Focus. Child Focus is a national consulting firm that brings together innovative people, programs and policies to help non-profit organizations, foundations, and government agencies support America’s children and families. Below, Mary shares her administrative law experience and offers advice for aspiring attorneys.
1. What is your experience with administrative or regulatory law?
Like many law students, administrative law never had a lot of magnetism for me. I took Administrative Law because it seemed like a class that a well-rounded lawyer “should take,” not because it held any particular interest for me. It was only when I began working as an Equal Justice Fellow at the Legal Aid Society of DC that I realized how administrative and regulatory law strategies were often a more effective – and efficient – fix for some of my clients, many of whom had already experienced years of delay with traditional legal reform and litigation approaches. I also realized the power of economies of scale. One change to DC public school regulations could bring relief to dozens of the clients on my caseload – and sometimes eliminate the need for individual legal representation altogether.
2. Where are you working now and how has your experience with administrative law shaped your approach to legal or policy advocacy?
As a child and family policy advocate, my approach is based on an assessment of the fastest and more cost-effective way to bring about lasting social change. Especially in this current Congressional environment of partisan rancor, I find that focusing on administrative and regulatory reforms is often the short cut to “getting things done.” And while you can also develop strong relations over time when you lobby Congress for statutory reforms, you really develop strong relationships with leaders in the administrative context. Strong relationships and plain dealing are critical in achieving administrative and regulatory reforms – and often those relationships bring rewards that last long beyond a specific proposal for change.
3. What led you to a career in law and an interest in administrative law?
For me, law school was not a fun or particularly interesting experience. I felt that the Socratic method and emphasis on litigation and debate had limited application for me in the real world of problem solving. That being said, when I began to see the things I learned in law school as tools (as opposed to a professional approach), I felt more comfortable with the skills I learned as part of a lifetime of skill building. I now teach a class on advocacy skills for public interest lawyers. What we want our students to understand is that every tool has its time and its place. Lawyers can no longer afford to say, “that approach isn’t in my job description.” You have to understand enough about each aspect of law practice to identify where the gaps are. For me, administrative law is one of the many tools in the tool kit. There is a time and a place for it, just as there is a time and place to elevate an issue using traditional and social media.
4. Do you have any advice about “best practices” for attorneys who are preparing to handle administrative law cases or otherwise interacting with administrative regulations or agencies?
Effectuating lasting change is almost always dependent on lasting relationships. You can have the best legal argument in the world and make the mistake of alienating a key bureaucrat or other decision maker early in your career. Build strong relationships, be straightforward in your dealings with others, and you will realize that success is dependent on more than a strong grounding in law and strategy.
5. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing administrative law practitioners?
As with all legal specialties, lawyers often lose the forest through the trees. In my experience in the public interest, the more “purist” administrative law practitioners have sometimes been short-sided in their overall strategic approach. For example, they may find the perfect legal loophole to derail an administrative reform process, but destroy a key alliance in the process. In the short run, they have accomplished their legal goals, but the approach is a pyrrhic victory over the long haul.
6. For law students or new attorneys considering a career in administrative law, what do you think would be a good way of familiarizing themselves with the field?
I am a big advocate of finding an issue or a cause that moves you and then trying a variety of tools to determine which ones fit your personality and life choices. I wouldn’t recommend that a student pursue a career in administrative law or tax law or estate law right out of the gate. Instead, find something that really makes you pound the table, exposes you to a wide range of experiences and let your career unfold over time. I have always been skeptical of 22-year-old law students who know they want to spend their entire career in one area of the law. A lucky few may find the right match immediately, but it takes work to figure out what you want to do when you grow up. The happiest lawyers I know are those that take the time and have the courage to reinvent themselves on a regular basis.
7. Outside of the law, what are your favorite activities or hobbies?
My husband and I have two children, 11 and 13, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for hobbies (unless hobbies include driving our kids back and forth to sports practices and games). But when I get the chance, I love to read, work out and like nothing more than hanging out with my family and friends.
This post was originally published on the legacy ABA Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice Notice and Comment blog, which merged with the Yale Journal on Regulation Notice and Comment blog in 2015.