Mary Szondy has a thriving solo law practice, and over the past 13 years, she has assisted hundreds of families through the guardianship and conservator-ship process. But her path to advocacy is not typical of most attorneys.
Growing up in a blue-collar family, Mary Szondy knew that if she wanted something, she was going to have to work for it. As a college student at Hamline University, she worked multiple jobs while also participating in Hamline’s swimming and track teams. She graduated with degrees in English and Women’s Studies. Szondy’s career aptitude tests always pegged her as an advocate, and she knew she wanted to make a positive impact on people. A career as a lawyer was one of the many options she considered.
Szondy was unhappy with her career path after college, and she knew she had to make a change. She put the contents of her apartment in storage and embarked on a journey of self-discovery, traveling alone through Europe for four months. She returned with a renewed sense of purpose, and took a job at the Courage Center (now the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute) in Golden Valley. There, as a newly licensed social worker, she advocated for individuals with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. She helped her clients find the community resources they needed so that they could live as independently as possible. She gained additional experience working with vulnerable adults when she was hired to be the social worker on the Alzheimer’s Unit of the Minnesota Masonic Home in Bloomington.
Further inspired by this call to advocacy and certain she could make a greater differnce as a lawyer, Szondy finally enrolled in law school. She is a distinguished member of the University of St. Thomas School of Law inaugural class.
Szondy believed her career path was set in motion. She was working for a respected legal mentor and just starting to feel accomplished, when she was laid off and three months pregnant. Reeling, Szondy hung her own shingle while looking for other opportunities. But what began as a temporary alternative has become a successful 12-year solo practice in the areas of guardianship and conservator-ship. Although being a solo was never part of her plan in law school, she has Thourished.
“Everything happened for a reason,” she said. “I honestly couldn’t be happier with the way it all turned out.”
Szondy has answered her call to advocacy by providing expert and compassionate counsel to families seeking conservatorships, guardianships, special needs trusts and supplemental needs trusts.
She explained, “Many of my clients are parents who have a child with a disability, or are children with a parent who didn’t have a proper estate plan in place. I also serve on the Court Appointed Attorney panel through Hennepin County, and have been on the rotation for Ramsey County, where I represent proposed wards. It allows me to see the other side and advocate for my clients to make sure a guardianship or conservatorship is really needed.”
Drawing upon the skills she honed during her first career in social work, Szondy is also a certified mediator whose calming effect on parties grappling with weighty decisions under emotionally charged circumstances helps move them to resolution.
“I try to help people reach agreements while keeping their relationships intact. It can be challenging when siblings are fighting over who is the best guardian for a parent, or divorced parents see the situation as another opportunity to fight about custody. The goal is to keep the focus on what is best for the proposed ward or protected person. I meet my clients where they are. I look at who they are and what they need in their unique circumstances.”
Part of meeting people where they are is providing them with a safe, comfortable environment in which to explore solutions. Szondy’s office is located in her quaint Victorian home on historic Grand Avenue in St. Paul. Clients can easily identify her office/residence by its striking red door and billowing American flag.
“Eight years ago, my husband and I built an addition on our home and converted our old living room into a charming and comfortable office. A retiring Realtor gave me his solid wood desk with a leather inlay and a huge bookshelf. My office is decorated with pictures of my family and my daughter’s artwork. When clients come to my home, I greet them as I would greet my neighbor. I don’t wear suits unless I’m going to court. I’m not concerned about impressing my clients with a certain image; I’m about providing good service and listening to my clients. Most people I work with have never had an experience in court before. I want to put them at ease by conversing in plain English, avoiding complicated legal terminology, and giving them the time they deserve.”
Szondy provides services to her clients at moderate rates, recognizing that many already bear the burden of additional expenses relating to the care of an elderly or disabled family member.
Szondy has been formally recognized for her outstanding service to Minnesota Women Lawyers as chair of the solo/small section. Under her leadership, the section has grown from a handful of participants to more than 100 members.
“When Mary Madden (the former chair) became a family court referee and couldn’t lead the group anymore, she asked me to take over. I was honored and grateful for the opportunity to grow and lead. Minnesota Women Lawyers is doing important work in terms of furthering diversity and ensuring opportunity for women in the profession.” Szondy is currently serving her second term on MWL board of directors.
Six years ago, Szondy’s daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy. This personal challenge has deepened her compassion for her clients and further ignited her zealous advocacy.
“After her diagnosis, I was more aware of the barriers and challenges that many of my clients face. My daughter also has a learning disability connected with her condition. This personal experience and my 25 years of experience working with people with disabilities, with nearly 13 of them as an attorney, has put me in unique position to use all my skills to advocate for clients. I really enjoy my work. When I look back at these last 25 years, I realize I’ve always been an advocate. I feel lucky to be doing what I love and working on my own terms.”