Jamie Bence

From the Seat of Power: Mary Rouvelas

Mary Rouvelas is the Senior Counsel for the American Cancer Society in Washington, D.C. Mary graduated from Wellesley College magna cum laude in 1992, and worked in Venice Beach, CA for a year as a private investigator before attending the University of Virginia School of Law, graduating in 1996. She is a member of the bar in Virginia and the District of Columbia and is also admitted to practice at the United States Supreme Court. She currently directs the American Cancer Society and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network’s Judicial Advocacy Initiative, which recruits law firms on a pro bono basis to assist with public policy work.

    What factors led you to the American Cancer Society?  I always knew that I wanted to go into the public interest but what part of that I didn't know. That was up in the air. There was no program for public interest at UVA Law at that time, but now they've set up a sophisticated system for public interest recruitment, which is great. I went to a large law firm right out of school because it was the easiest thing to do. They paid all expenses for bar review and such. I went to work for Patton-Boggs straight out of school, and I liked it. But I always knew I wanted to do public interest.

Eventually, I set up a lunch with a family friend who was involved in public interest work to see what my options might be. He told me that he thought there might be an opening at the American Cancer Society. It was fortuitous because their Legislative Counsel had resigned earlier that day. I don't think I initially gravitated toward public health, but pretty soon I realized how much it mattered, and why it's an important thing in people's lives. I ended up really enjoying it.

    What's a typical day like for you? Is there any usual rhythm or is every day different?  Every day is a little bit different, and my job has evolved since I have been here. I used to do almost exclusively tax and election law compliance. There are significant limitations on what 501(c)(3) charities are allowed to do in the public policy arena, and the Society wanted to be able to advocate to the maximum extent possible without exceeding these limits. To that end, in 2001, we created a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. For many years I worked on appropriate separation between the organizations, and helped structure a wide range of activities from ad campaigns to voter guides.. About two years ago, I started a new program, the Judicial Advocacy Initiative, recruiting law firms on the pro-bono side for ACS and ACS CAN. This program gets law firms to provide free work helping ACS and ACS CAN write amicus briefs in cases related to our mission, as well as draft comments to regulatory agencies when their decisions impact our goals. Most of my day is spent reading through issues that matter to us, and connecting experts in the law firms with internal clients who need assistance here at ACS CAN.

    How does your current job compare with your previous experiences? What do you think is especially challenging and/or rewarding about this job?  I love to be in a place where everyone is working to make peoples’ lives better. There is a fundamental difference in the focus from working in a law firm. In the private sector, maximizing client's worth the goal, and that is very different than being around a table with a bunch of people who are there because they want to save lives. One thing that I miss a little bit is a much wider variety of issues at the law firm and a wide variety of clients. You were educated very quickly on a lot of issues. ACS has a narrower range of issues, but I like that it is commitment driven.

    Do you feel that your job affords good work/life balance?  Part of the reason I am here is that this job has great work/life balance. I actually work part time and I have two small kids. This job has allowed me to have a lot of flexibility in terms of my personal and professional life, which is key for me.

    What advice would you have to law students and lawyers who would like to work in a capacity like yours? Looking back, were there any steps that you took which were important to getting this job?  Find something that you're committed to and passionate about, and dedicate yourself to it. Feel good about what you're doing.  For my current job, understanding how law firms work is critical to the work I'm doing. Having an understanding of how they operate is very useful for encouraging them to do pro-bono work.

    A very special thanks to Bianca Yip for her assistance in arranging the interview for today's column.

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