In the fall of 1997, the members of Pittsburgh law firm Meyer Darragh Buckler Bebenek & Eck gathered at Oglebay Resort in West Virginia for a strategic planning retreat. It had been a rough year for the firm; the managing partner and a few other lawyers had left to hang their own shingle. Those at the retreat had a huge task in front of them: to elect a partner to lead the firm.
As Marie Milie Jones remembers it, 15 equity partners were in a conference room, seated in a semi-circle, for the count. When the votes had all been tallied and her name was announced, Jones became the youngest female managing partner in Pittsburgh history. She was 35 years old.
Not bad for someone who nearly became a doctor. In 1981, shortly after enrolling in Duquesne University, Jones contracted mononucleosis and spent some time bouncing between doctors and tests at the hospital. It was during this time that she decided medicine was not her calling. “I felt that the atmosphere in doctors’ offices and hospitals, while intellectual, was also a bit depressing,” Jones says. So she set her sights on the law.
As a high school student Jones had received a taste of life as a lawyer by accompanying her attorney father to work. She sat beside his secretary to observe how a law practice operates and accompanied him to the courthouse to watch litigation in action. Her father even phoned Judge Donetta Ambrose, a judge in Greensburg at the time and now the chief judge for the U.S. District Court in western Pennsylvania, and asked if his daughter could spend a week with her. She readily agreed.
“I loved the courtroom,” Jones says, “and I was very impressed with Judge Ambrose. She was one of the first female judges in the county.” Jones was also fascinated by the lawyers who appeared in the courtroom; they made the law come alive for her. “Their job definitely didn’t appear boring,” she says.
She entered a program at Duquesne that allowed her to enroll in law school classes while still an undergraduate. As a result, she started law school in 1984, finished her undergraduate degree in 1985 (majoring in French and minoring in math), and obtained her law degree in 1987.
Jones, who had clerked at Meyer Darragh while in law school, joined the firm upon graduating, and became a partner in 1993. She works in the areas of civil rights, constitutional law and employment law, as well as commercial litigation. Her specialty involves alleged police abuse, excessive force, violation of constitutional rights and similar charges.
“My clients in civil rights cases are trying to do the right thing for the public, and it sometimes feels like they’re getting the short stick, police officers in particular,” Jones says. “On the employment side the cases can be very personal. If I can help people feel better about the employees they manage, then I have helped them a great deal and that’s a good feeling.”
Judge Ambrose offers the inside scoop on Jones’ many talents. “Representing elected officials and politicians takes an amazing amount of finesse,” says Ambrose. “Everyone getting sued is concerned, but these people have public concerns besides personal ones. They’re not only speaking for themselves, [in many cases] they want to get elected again.”
Being elected managing partner was not a total surprise, Jones admits, since she had expressed interest in the job. But that didn’t make the challenge any less daunting. It was a time of uncertainty at the firm. “We had lost some people who were very productive, and we had to retool and make changes,” she remembers. Since then the firm has specialized, enhancing its civil rights practice and labor and employment areas, and adding a medical laboratory defense practice, among others. With three offices (the other two are in Greensburg and Altoona) and 38 lawyers, 15 of whom are equity partners, Meyer Darragh is among the top 25 largest firms in the Pittsburgh area.
Dean Passodelis, a Meyer Darragh partner, is not surprised that Jones was recently elected to a third three-year term. She’s well liked and respected within the firm, he says. “What is most remarkable is that she was able to take over the firm’s leadership at such a young age, without the support or guidance of prior managing partners who were no longer with the firm, and succeed in making the firm prosper.”
Her relative youth has not gone unnoticed by the wider community. A couple of years ago, when she and one of the partners were in Chicago on business, a client expressed surprise that someone Jones’ age had risen to her position. Jones takes experiences like this in stride. “I just chuckled and said that maybe it is nice to be viewed as youthful for someone in my job,” she says.
Not long after she was elected, during the difficult retooling time when she had to make some tough calls, Jones received one of her favorite expressions of support. “One of the lawyers, even more conservative than me, said I reminded him of Margaret Thatcher,” she says. “He meant it in a positive way. He said I was tough and could make tough decisions.”
Whenever she can get away, Jones enjoys traveling with her husband, Cameron Jones, who owns two car dealerships in Butler County. A couple of years ago, the pair spent three weeks in Cameron’s native land of Australia.
She also loves to spend time with her 9-year-old niece and godchild, Alexandra. Just as others introduced the law to her, she is making sure Alexandra knows her way around a courthouse. When Alexandra was 6, Jones took her to court and introduced her to Judge Ambrose. The little girl brought a notebook and took copious notes.
Rest assured, Meyer Darragh is in strong hands for years to come. At least until Alexandra is ready to take over.