Shattering Glass Ceilings

When Mary Ann Oakley began her law career, women were still a rarity in the profession

Published in 2004 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine

By Andy Steiner on February 21, 2004


In 1976, just two years out of law school, Atlanta attorney Mary Ann Oakley agreed to take on a case that would ultimately shape her career — as well as her perspective on life. It all began when Rebecca Machetti of Athens, Ga., was convicted of conspiring to murder her ex-husband and his wife. Because Georgia law awards equal punishment in both murder and conspiracy convictions, Machetti became the first woman in the state of Georgia to be sentenced to death. Oakley, then an associate in practice to Atlanta attorney Margie Pitts Hames, took over Machetti’s appeal. 

“Someone asked me to take this case on,” recalls Oakley, now a partner at the Atlanta law firm of Holland & Knight. “Back then, I didn’t realize that it was until death — or reversal — do us part.”

With the help of a team of legal assistants and interns, Oakley saw the case — Machetti v. Linahan — through a remarkable six-year legal battle, eventually succeeding in having her client’s conviction and two death sentences reversed by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In the process, Oakley became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty and an advocate for the rights of the poor and disenfranchised.

“I am opposed to the death penalty for lots of reasons,” Oakley says evenly.“One reason is pragmatic: It doesn’t work and it costs too much. Another reason is moral: It simply isn’t right to take a life.”

From the beginning, Oakley knew that her client “wasn’t exactly a model citizen.” She also understood that Machetti had played a role in a horrible crime. But she also believed at her very core that putting her to death was wrong.“I never would let myself think that she was going to be executed,” Oakley says. “It would’ve killed me if she had been killed.”

It’s not as if the pre-Machetti Oakley was a stranger to progressive politics (in 1972, for instance, she volunteered for George McGovern’s presidential campaign), but her involvement in the case only helped underscore the reason she decided to become a lawyer in the first place.

“I wanted to use the law to help people,” Oakley says. “I wanted to do the right thing. So this case made sense professionally.”

In 1970, Oakley was a 30-year-old mother of three when she decided to apply to law school. The West Virginia native already held a master’s degree in American studies from Emory University, and she’d worked as a teacher and published a book on the life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Feminist Press 1972). When her physician-husband’s job took the family west to Seattle,Wash., Oakley decided the time was right to make a change.

“I was interested in politics and women’s rights and racial justice,” Oakley says. “I took the LSAT and did good on it. I thought, ‘Wow! I guess my brain hasn’t been lost in the diaper pail!”

Oakley applied to the University of Washington law school. She attended for two years, until her husband, Godfrey, took a job with the Centers for Disease Control and the family moved back to Atlanta. Oakley, who had grown to love life in Seattle (“If it wasn’t for my husband and kids,” she jokes, “I would’ve stayed.”), was sorry to leave her adopted hometown, but she made the best of the move, transferring to Emory Law, and joining a student body that was still mostly male — and very conservative.

“In the early 1970s, the University of Washington was a very liberal, almost radical place,” Oakley recalls. “There were lots of other women students, and most of my classmates were graduates of the progressive California colleges. Emory Law was the other extreme, with lots of men and lots of Republicans.”

As it turns out, the segregated environment at Emory proved to be a good training ground for Oakley, who graduated from law school to join a small number of practicing women attorneys in Atlanta. “When I started out in 1974, I knew every woman lawyer in the city,” Oakley says. “Now there are too many to keep track of.”

Even though the ranks of women attorneys has grown by leaps and bounds in the decades after she established her law practice (in 1965 only 3.7 percent of those who passed the Georgia bar were women;—this year 45 percent are female), Oakley never forgot what it was like to be a woman in a man’s world. “I never really had a woman mentor,” she says. “That’s why I feel so strongly about mentoring women coming behind me.”

Women who have worked for Oakley credit her with improving their professional lives; with being an empathetic, listening ear; and with serving as a role model for what women attorneys can achieve — without sacrificing their personal lives.

“She was the single best person I have ever worked for,” attests Tanya Lawson, a former associate of Oakley’s at Holland & Knight who now practices law in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “She was wonderful in the sense that she was very knowledgeable in the field. She was a great teacher and a great partner.”

Oakley joined Holland & Knight in 1996. For years, she had resisted working at a large firm, she says, because she knew all too well about the demands made on young associates — demands that didn’t mesh with her commitment to family life. Oakley wanted to succeed in the law, but she wanted to succeed on her own terms.

“When the time comes to have a family, a lot of women leave the law or go part-time because the demands made by large firms are just too much,” Oakley says. Instead of falling into what she calls the “burn-out trap,” in 1980 Oakley joined a small firm, formerly Stagg, Wildau, Simpson, Hoy & Oakley, and then, in 1984, she founded Oakley & Bonner, a partnership developed with her friend and colleague Alice D. Bonner.When Bonner left to become a judge on the Fulton County Superior Court, Oakley started a solo practice.

“Neither one of us had the desire to fit into a large firm,” says Bonner of her six-year partnership with Oakley. “We had similar personal circumstances and similar legal interests, so we made a good partnership.” Of Oakley, Bonner adds: “She is extremely skilled and she is a very good trial lawyer, so it was a joy to work with her.”

Being her own boss may have allowed Oakley to set her own hours, but it didn’t keep her from a demanding work life. From the beginning, Oakley and her husband had a two-career household: Each partner’s work held equal importance, and with three children to raise, that made for a hectic household. “My husband and I have said for years that what we really needed was a good wife,” jokes Oakley. “It’s rough to keep up with the demands of a family when you’re both working. I look back on it now and I wonder how we did it.”

When her children were young, there were times when Oakley worried whether all the work was worth it, but somehow she managed to balance the demands of work and family life. She and her husband made a point of attending all of their children’s school functions, for instance — even when they were needed somewhere else.

“I was out to prove something,” Oakley says of her years as a working mother.“I thought,‘Damn, I’m going to do this.’ There were times I felt overwhelmed, but I stuck with it. Sure, sometimes I’d feel guilty, but looking back now, I think I did OK. My children are all great people, well adjusted and articulate, and I have been fortunate to have both a satisfying career and family life.”

Many of Oakley’s friends and associates were surprised by her decision to go to Holland & Knight. “At the time, everybody said I must’ve flipped my lid,” Oakley says. “But I felt right at home here from the beginning.”

“I wouldn’t have guessed that Mary Ann would end up at this big firm doing what she’s doing,” says Paula Frederick, deputy general council at the Georgia State Bar. “She was successful on her own. She didn’t have to go anywhere. But she went to Holland & Knight, so that says something for them. She’s a person of great integrity. It definitely gives the firm credibility to have her there.”

At Holland & Knight, as throughout her career, Oakley focuses on employment law, first representing plaintiffs, then moving over to the defense side. The move to defense was another curve ball for Oakley, who had made a name for herself as a defender of the underdog. But she sees her defense of employers as an opportunity to impact working conditions on a larger, systemic scale. Most of her cases she argues settle out of court.

Explains Lawson:“Under Mary Ann, I learned that defense lawyers have a greater impact on the small person by helping employers implement policies that can change their work life for the better. And with her integrity, you can be sure Mary Ann is doing just that.”

For the most part, Oakley finds her work satisfying. Her quick, sharp mind craves variety, and her chosen specialty provides enough stimulation on most days to keep her happy.

“I love doing what I’m doing,” Oakley says, glancing around her comfortable Midtown office. “I’ve been involved with people from ditch diggers on city roads to presidents of universities. It’s a great area of law.”

Oakley insists that employment law is anything but dry. “You get all kinds,” she laughs. “I could probably publish Hustler magazine with some of the cases I’ve seen.” She stops, pushes up her glasses, and adds, with a devilish twinkle in her eye: “When I retire I’m going to write a book. But I’m going to change the names to protect the innocent — and the guilty.”

But for now, retirement isn’t something that Oakley likes to dwell on.

“Sure, I’m going to retire in two years, when I’m 65,” she says, glancing out the window of her comfortable office.“To tell the truth, I don’t want to think about it very much. Of course, there are times when things get rough and I’d like to retire right now. But most of the time when I am busy, I’m happy. I love my work and I don’t want to retire, not anytime soon.”

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