Advocacy and Empowerment

October 4, 2021

On Episode 21 of Decision Dialogues, Mindy Neira joins Jennifer Faherty to speak with Maria McGinley, Managing Partner at Mayerson and Associates. Maria discusses how she decided on a major career shift from teaching to law, through which she represents the families of children with autism and other disabilities. She also offers advice to other women pursuing law, emphasizing the importance of mentorship and empowering, supportive networks.

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The summary below has been created by a professional transcription vendor upon review of the recorded presentation. Please excuse any typos as well as portions noted to be inaudible.

Thanks for joining us on Decision Dialogues. We’re thrilled to have you along. My name is Jennifer Faherty, and I’m the Chief Client Experience officer at Modera Wealth Management LLC. Today, my colleague Mindy Neira, Senior Financial Advisor, and I will be chatting with Maria McGinley, Managing Partner at Mayerson and Associates. Mayerson and Associates is a law firm dedicated to representing individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. Welcome, everyone, to the show.

Thanks, Jennifer, for that intro, and Maria, I’m so happy to be here with you today.

Thank you, Jennifer, and Mindy, thank you for having me.

I know that we’ve now known each other for a couple of years. And I just think your story is amazing. I know you’re a lawyer and partner at your firm now. But that’s not where you started. You started as a teacher in New York City. So I’d love to start there and hear about that, and how did you make the decision to get to where you are now?

Sure. That’s right. So I started my career, my first career as a special education teacher working for the New York City Department of Education. And I worked with students with autism, as well as students with other developmental disabilities, or students who had IEPs. And I loved being a teacher. It was extremely rewarding. It was also extremely challenging at many times. And it was really a wonderful career. But through my experiences, I saw that there was a great disparity between a lot of the students’ needs and the services that they were being provided. And I personally got to a point where I felt as though my advocacy abilities might be better suited in more of a legal context. So I decided to go to law school and pursue law representing families, specifically families with autism, but any families with children with IEP is in more of a legal capacity.

Wow. Well, what a decision, I mean, to change careers midway through a career or, you know, a few years into your career. And that’s just amazing.

Thank you. It’s a big decision.

Yeah. And then since then, I know, you’ve represented your firm, and you’ve been a part of this—represented some cases that have gone to the Supreme Court. Is that right?

Yes. So we work not only with families, in administrative contexts, as well as families who have children in public school, who feel as though their child needs different supports or more supports in that public school environment. But we’ve also been involved in quite a number of cases at the federal level, the appellate level, and through Autism Speaks and otherwise, we have served as amicus counsel in a number of cases that could potentially have a broader impact on the autism community, either in a specific region or nationally.

It’s great, so you just mentioned the impact on the community. And so how do you feel that your decision to change career paths in this space—how do you think that you’ve been able to make an impact the same or different at this point in your career?

You know, as a teacher, you definitely have an impact on your students, right? You’re with them all day, every day. So you’re inevitably going to have an impact on them and the programming that they receive. But in the legal context, your impact can be seen sometimes a little bit more clearer than this more amorphous impact that you may have on a student, wherein when you’re representing a family, they often come to you in a state of crisis. They are in extreme—they have a problem, they need a solution. So you work with them not only to get through those challenges, and sometimes the challenges identify the solution to begin with. Many families come to us and they don’t know what their options are. They don’t know what solutions exist. So it’s counseling them through what avenues they might be able to go down and then taking action on trying to meet their objectives. 

So for example, with a family who is in a public school program, and their child is languishing or regressing and having a really challenging time, and they’re able to identify an alternate option—maybe that’s a private school program, maybe it’s something else—we can work with that family to secure that placement or that program, and try to seek some financial relief from their school district to compensate them for that program. And then throughout that process, you can see the child make a transition from a program where as they said before, they may be regressing or languishing, to a place where they’re enabled to access their education and make meaningful educational progress.

I mean, that’s huge. You know, my specialty in financial planning is working with special needs families and people with disabilities. And that financial help and relief is hugely impactful, not only on their current finances, but the compounding effect in the future.

Most certainly, I mean, the cost of special education programming is large. And when you put appropriate and effective programs in place, sometimes those programs can be more costly than perhaps a public school program. But the benefit can be huge. If you—particularly with kids, with younger kids who present with significant needs, you know, the research shows the earlier the intervention, the more likely a more positive outcome will be. And so if we’re able to get effective programming in place earlier on, it’s possible that that child over the span of their educational career can get to a point where those more costly services and support are faded out. And they are able to access more of a general education curriculum, or something that’s less restrictive and potentially less costly. So the financial impact is huge. And then especially when you’re looking at it over the span of a child’s entire school career, it can be enormous.

And then that makes me think—put my financial planning cap on—and beyond just the educational years, but then life after and the impact of the families. So I applaud you for making that career change and making that decision to go back to law school. It’s not an easy one. 

So let’s go back to that decision. So when you made the decision to become a partner of the firm, you were, I believe your track was that you worked there first, you became a partner. And so that has expanded. Can you talk to me about what, you know, how did that impact you and your family? How did you make that decision specifically?

So when I was in law school, I knew that I wanted to work in the field of special education law. So that was not even a question for me, I didn’t go to law school thinking, well, maybe I’ll go into something else. Like that wasn’t an option. And I identified Mayerson and Associates as a firm that I wanted to be affiliated with. I did start with them when I was still in law school as an intern. I then became an associate there and I was an associate for about six years before the partnership question really came up. 

You know, I kind of think about it a little bit like this phrase from Spider Man: With great power comes great responsibility. Not from a power perspective, so much. But you know, it’s this increased position that carries with it increased responsibility, but also potentially increased advantages financially and otherwise, for myself, my family and my career. And so I knew I wanted to continue to be associated with the firm, I had taken on a tremendous amount of additional responsibility, even as an associate. And I believe in our firm, I believe in our team, we have an amazing team. I work with people who are dedicated to enhancing the lives of individuals with disabilities. So for me, it was, in some respects, a no brainer, that that would be my natural progression. And then, of course, there are certain other aspects financially and otherwise that became considerations as well.

So one consideration—well, I guess now this happened after is, you just had a baby. So congratulations, a few months ago. 

Yes, thank you. 

So how do you feel this decision has impacted now your family and growing family?

You know, it’s such an interesting question. I was a working woman in both of my careers for 20 years before having a child, and your financial planning and your goals and your objectives and your day in and day out management is significantly different when you’re only looking to worry about yourself and your needs now and in the future. And so having a child from a financial perspective, obviously, is a humongous change, both like the day in and day out expenses, as well as the planning feature. And now you’re not planning for one person, you’re planning for your whole family. So that is a huge consideration. 

But I also think in connection with that, there’s a practical consideration as well. And so I have many female colleagues who work in law firms, whether they’re small law firms or large law firms. And I do think that there is a distinction there, in some respects, not all, but some who made the decision, either very intentionally, or somewhat unintentionally, to put off having a family so that they could address their career first. And that can be great. But it also can have its challenges as well, because you get to a point where you’ve established yourself, you’ve established your career, your reputation, the quality of work that you want to provide to your clients. And then you have a baby, who needs you 24-7, and the work-life balance really gets called into question. 

But on the flip side, I also know a number of female colleagues who chose to start families earlier. And they were met at times with certain challenges of their own trying to get back on track. And what they may have felt was the perception of other people that for whatever reason, their value might not be the exact same as their male counterparts, despite the fact that many of their male counterparts had children also. So it’s been really interesting for me in that it’s been a huge change. And having that change so much later in life than a number of other people has really called into question just about everything for me, practically, financially, professionally and otherwise.

What would you say to someone—a young female entering the law profession—as they make and navigate these decisions throughout their career? What one or two pieces of advice would you give them? 

The first piece of advice I would give them is certainly identify a mentor or mentors, especially if they can find female mentors who have gone through the same legal trajectory and really learn from them and absorb everything and ask questions and really try to get a perspective of what they’ve gone through, and what’s not only been successful for them and put them in a position of success, but also what hasn’t worked for them and identify how if at all that comports with their own sense of what they want to see and what they want to do and what their objectives are. 

And I also think something—you know, in society, I think we’ve made a lot of improvement with respect to advancing women’s rights. And we have a lot of discussions in small firms and large firms, generally speaking outside the legal field, regarding equality and diversity. I think that that has improved. I think we have a really long way to go. And I think one of the things that if I were talking to my younger self, I would say, is to have really frank, real, candid discussions with your inner circle, especially your inner female circle, but your inner circle generally, about everything. You don’t know where you are, until you can kind of see where other people are, and what they’ve gone through and what you’re going through and how they’ve handled things, even when it comes to things like salary and benefits, and, you know, performance reviews, and how to prepare for that, and how to present your arguments, potentially to an employer, for an increased salary or additional benefits or additional compensation. 

I don’t know that those conversations happen as much as they should. And I have found that when I’ve done that with my innermost circle, not only have I learned so much about other people’s paths, which has helped me figure out well, do I want to do the same thing? Would that work for me? Wouldn’t it work for me, why wouldn’t it? But it also makes you feel like you’re part of a community and I think that inherently builds your confidence and your self esteem to know what your worth is, to identify what your worth is, and then to feel comfortable appropriately asserting that in a professional context.

Is that something now that you’re kind of later on in your career? Do you see yourself doing more with regard to mentorship or, you know, and maybe even drawing from your past career in education, maybe doing more within your industry in terms of females, or diversity, or anything that—is that something that might interest you, or you’ve thought about?

Definitely I, you know, I’ve had the opportunity to teach a number of continuing legal education classes. I’ve been able to go back to my alma mater and teach some classes there as well. And we’ve onboarded younger lawyers or paralegals at our firm over the years. I really enjoy that aspect of my professional career because I think it’s so important. And I think building someone’s confidence, and enabling them to see what’s out there and what they’re capable of is huge. 

From a team perspective, within an organization or within a firm, you really are only as good as your weakest link. So you can look on Instagram, or social media at all the memes that say, you know, we have to build up other women, but like, we have to build up other women. I just can’t impress upon everyone enough how critical that is to really creating not only a good atmosphere right now, but also developing the next generation of people who are going to come into these roles, and hopefully continue the work that we’re doing right now.

Yeah, I think that’s huge. You brought up salary and discussing salary, it’s so—maybe you call it taboo—to talk about what you earn, or you feel like you can’t tell people what you earn. But unless we all talk about it, that’s transparency. It doesn’t exist. And how do you know? And we hear all the statistics about how women are paid less than men and, you know, a person of color is paid less than a white man. And so, you know, all those disparities in order to make the progress that you’re talking about—we need to discuss it, it’s a really great point.

Can I ask a question that might kind of turn us into a little bit of a different direction? Now I’m curious, because you know, Mindy, you mentioned that your specialty is working—one of your specialties, you have many—is working with families with special needs children, dependents. How would you two might work together at some point, or deal with an attorney like Maria or a firm like Mayer and Associates? And similar, same question with you, Maria, how might you work with other professionals?

I can, I can go first. And the work that I do with the families that I have, you know, I am building up a client base of families with special needs. And a lot in New Jersey, a lot of families have children with autism. Actually tends to be—Maria, correct me if I’m wrong—one of the better states to be in for education, and advocating for education. And so I may have a client who comes in and they’re just starting that process. And I’m not an expert in how to do that, I’m not a lawyer. So I’ll bring in Maria in that case and introduce them to my clients and say, here’s an attorney who can help you advocate for your child to see what else is out there if your school is not providing the education that they need to progress.

And from my perspective, I am a lawyer, I work with families in the educational context. But I usually typically don’t go too far afield from that. That really is my area of expertise and I like to stay within my area of expertise. So why all the educational costs and the programming for so many of these families, and especially all of the families that I’m working with, can be a huge price tag. There are so many other financial considerations that are outside of my field and outside of my scope, where, you know, if a family needs to start doing financial planning or considering what investment vehicles are appropriate for their children or their adult children with autism, or other various like ABLE accounts or other investment vehicles or financial considerations, that might be a point in time where I would refer them to Mindy and say, you know, she really can provide you more insight and guidance throughout that process.

That collaborative nature for helping these families think will help them over a long term, right.

Sure. And I think, if I may just add in one other point, you know, I feel like when I started my first career, there was such a focus on early intervention. And by that I mean legitimate early intervention, what is considered services from a child aged birth through three. And for reasons I said earlier, you know, getting that earlier intervention can lead to potentially better outcomes later on, but the focus has progressed and we have kids with autism who are becoming adults with autism. 

So from my perspective, in the legal aspect, there is an entire section of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that speaks to transition planning for students when they reach a certain age. That age is different in every state, but when their school district is required to start having assessments and discussions with the student, and the students’ family and the students’ educational team about what is to come, but the planning piece of it, as Mindy mentioned, is so important. You can’t ever be too early in considering what’s potentially coming down the line. And so that’s not only just from an educational perspective but an overarching perspective, because at the end of the day, all of our clients, my clients and Mindy’s clients alike, are people and they have a whole host of needs that really need to be not only addressed but planned for. 

Yeah, that’s a great point.

I’m so glad you mentioned that, as Mindy mentioned, you know, in our area, there’s so many families in need. And you’re right, there has been such a focus in a good way on early intervention. But as I’m seeing, many of my colleagues, my friends where I live, they’re really at a point now where their child is older, they’re adult children, you know, they’re older now. And they haven’t really thought about what to do next. And the services out there are really not, you know, there’s just so much more opportunity to have more services for those young adults. So kudos to you in the work that you do.

Yeah, and it’s a good point you bring up, Jennifer, because a big discussion within the autism community is services beyond education. And to Maria’s point on starting to plan early and starting to think about these things now—it’s really hard. I mean, you have competing priorities, you’re trying to just get through your day, we just went through a pandemic, and you’re home, with your kid or your multiple children, and so much to take care of. But thinking about the future is really going to be key in making sure that you have services at that point. Having support systems like myself and Maria, who even if we’re not the expert in that field, or we may know someone or have a resource that you can talk with. 

Sort of speaking of that, Maria, I know that you’re also involved in external organizations. So your decision to get involved to help the autism community outside of just the law work you do and helping other attorneys come up the pipeline and do the same thing—you’re also involved outside. How did you decide on which organizations you work with? And actually, what do you do for them?

So I have been associated with Autism Speaks for quite a number of years. I originally got started with them doing their walks, which are pretty popular throughout the country, as well as my work at Mayerson. And in working with the organization and the staff and the board members and the overall team, I just identified that their mission was something that was directly in line with my professional mission as a partner at Mayerson. And so that seemed to be a natural marriage, if you will, of kind of putting myself in a position working with them. And I have been the Chair of the Board of Directors here in New Jersey for the past couple of years. And I find that it’s important to not only focus your interests in your career, but also to take that over and to be able to pay that back to the community. 

So, you know, it’s not the only organization that I’m affiliated with. But for me, the priority in determining who I want to affiliate myself with or what organization I want to affiliate myself with, comes down to how much their mission aligns with my general philosophy on meeting the needs of either the autism community or students with special needs or the disability community in general. And then the work that they’re doing and how it is having an impact on the community that we’re trying to target.

Great. So I have one more question related to this and then our final question, to wrap up. This is kind of elaborating on, you know, some of what Autism Speaks does is a lot of research. There’s a lot of other organizations that also do research. And when we talk about the autism spectrum, you know, I don’t know how much of this you can comment on but it’s just an interest of mine is that, generally speaking, we hear that males have autism more often than females do. But in recent years, we’ve learned that actually, females are going undiagnosed and so a lot of females are being diagnosed at much older ages. So I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. And sort of, you know, what should families be thinking about? And what should we expect going forward with this, especially for just—I’ll elaborate for a minute—for those families who have children in school now and thinking about, you know, what are some key identifiers to start helping my child if they may have autism?

You’re right, while the national incidence of autism has increased pretty significantly, year over year, or at least the years in which the CDC is reporting the research, the diagnosis rate currently is one in 34 boys and one in 144 girls. So it’s a very disparate representation. And I think, you know, the research is certainly suggesting that there are quite a number of females who may go undiagnosed. I think there are a number of reasons that can contribute to that. I have worked with a number of families who have come to me with a somewhat older child —an older female child who just received a diagnosis. And some of those families have reported, well, we didn’t really see a lot of the same signs that you might typically, and I’m using that in air quotes, I know we’re on a podcast, but what you might assume would be earmarks, or waypoints, or early identifiers. And that can be for a host of reasons. 

One of the things that I always tell all families is, first of all, you have to go with your gut. You’re a parent, and you’re a parent to a child, you know that child better than anyone else, even if they’re in school all day, or they’re in daycare. You know your child. And if you have a gut feeling that something just isn’t right, or something’s a little bit off, it’s worth exploring. School districts have requirements in terms of evaluations, and sometimes they may not, though they have a requirement to evaluate any child who is suspected of having a disability in any area of development, they may not do that, they may see that things are fine. Maybe a student, maybe a female student, is for all intents and purposes, when you’re looking at them in the classroom, doing okay. And some of the silent struggles that they may be having might not be apparent to the common eye. 

So I always tell parents that they have the right to request evaluations of their school district, if they believe that there is an area in which they suspect something may be off or something might constitute a diagnosis or a disability. There are also, you know, in getting back to what we were saying earlier about professionals and different people having different areas of expertise. You know, families have a whole team worth of people, it’s not just their special education attorney, it’s not just their financial advisor, it’s a whole host of professionals that can be available to them. And so there are various neuro psychologists who can conduct pretty extensive evaluations and testing. And sometimes families go through that process regularly yearly or every other year, just to kind of see where their child is, maybe there isn’t as big of a concern as they thought there was.

But when you have data and you have testing results, and you’ve had an outside unbiased third party come in and observe what’s happening, there’s credibility and there’s value in that assessment and the recommendations that are being set forth by the person who’s conducting that evaluation. So I think that’s one piece of it. I anticipate that we’re going to continue, at least in the near future, to see that there are quite a number of people, not just females, although I think the incidence will continue to be higher in females, but a number of people who may receive a diagnosis a lot later than anyone might have otherwise wanted to see happen.

Yeah, it’s great perspective. And I know that from people I know personally and from, there’s a lot of online videos and a lot of people with autism who received diagnosis in their late 20s and 30s. And sort of speaking out as to how lifechanging in a positive way it’s been to receive a diagnosis to know that—things that are happening behind the scenes that others didn’t know about. It’s not, you know, a bad thing. It’s just the way your brain’s wired. And that, you know, you can make sense of the world a little bit better.

Absolutely. It’s in some ways, I don’t know that this is the best analogy to use, but it would be as though, you know, you presented with a certain medical condition. Like let’s say you have diabetes, and you don’t know that you have it and your body feels a certain kind of way because you don’t know that you’re supposed to be targeting certain things and not targeting other things. And then with that diagnosis, it enables you to take action and ownership, and it enables you to address what needs to be addressed. And I think that that’s an excellent point, Mindy where it empowers individuals to know, okay, this is where I’m at. And this is what’s happening. And it gives a sense of confidence, I think, also.

Yes. 100%. That’s what I’ve heard consistently. So this has been great. I do have one last question for you as we wrap up the podcast, and this is more of a fun one. But what is the last decision you made today that was not financial?

Wow. I chose to wear a pink shirt, because pink is my favorite color. And I thought that that would brighten up what has already been a bright and lively discussion. And so it might be silly, but that was my last decision.

Oh, that’s great. Thank you so much, Maria. This has been so much fun. I always admire everything you do and love having these discussions. So I appreciate the time today.

I thank you all for inviting me here today. And it has been a great conversation and I look forward to continuing to work with you guys going forward.

So thanks very much to Mindy and Maria for letting us listen in on their conversation. We appreciate their time and perspective. And thank you for tuning in. We hope you’ll join us next time on Decision Dialogues for more stories from successful business owners. So long for now.

About Maria

Portrait of Maria McGinley

Maria McGinley is Managing Partner at Mayerson & Associates, where she represents individuals with autism in educational rights matters, empowering families to access the services that meet their needs. She also serves as the Chair of the Board of Directors for the New Jersey Chapter of Autism Speaks, a nonprofit that provides advocacy and support for people with autism. 

Before becoming a lawyer, Maria was a special education teacher in the New York City public school system; her experiences as an educator inspired her to advocate for students with autism in a legal context.

Maria graduated from New York University with a Bachelor of Arts in Politics and French and has earned a Masters degree in teaching from Fordham University and a Juris Doctor from New York Law School.


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