Home > Blog > Mary E. O’Byrne, Esq.: A Sense of Connection
Mary E. O’Byrne, Esq.: A Sense of Connection
Posted on February 11, 2016

An advocate for the financial security of people with disabilities, Mary E. O’Byrne’s multi-faceted career and life experiences are keys to her success.

I first worked with Mary O’Byrne when she invited me to join the Special Needs Trusts Advocates group meeting with the Social Security Administration in early 2013. Since then, I have come to know her as a friend and colleague, and to appreciate her skills in creating relationships and conveying the importance of the real stories of our clients’ lives. I have learned too, that her analytical and research skills, honed in a prior career, help her advocate for her own and others’ clients.

Mary’s ability to reach out and make and keep personal connections is one of her outstanding qualities. She shows that most decisions start with relating a human story that affects the listener. I have seen a number of occasions when she has used this technique to bring the high-level government administrator to the street level, resulting in reasonable and compassionate policy changes.

Former Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue says this about her: “I have known Mary for more than four decades. She has always been bright, charming, and hardworking, and that has not changed over the years. Her attention to detail distinguishes her from many advocates, but perhaps her best quality is her ability to argue not only why change is important to her clients, but why it is important to the agency. Without those qualities I doubt that we would have made many of the changes to Title XVI trusts that we did make right at the end of my term.”

Lasting Lessons

Mary was probably destined to become a lawyer. Her father was a law professor and dean, and the family moved from time to time for his work. Moving had its advantages. Attending three high schools and then college over a four-year period gave Mary a lot of practice in starting conversations and finding common ground.

Mary talks about the lasting lessons of her earliest work experience waiting tables, running a college dining hall, and later as a manager at Crate & Barrel. In her work and advocacy, she returns often to the principles learned in these formative jobs: take the time to understand your customer, deliver with speed and efficiency, and if you can’t provide what the customer needs, send them to someone who can.

While an undergraduate at Yale, she was selected for a U.S. State Department internship in Freetown, Sierra Leone, a life-changing experience. There she found she had the knack of connecting with people from vastly different circumstances, and a craving for travel.

Post college, and after working for a year or so, she set out on a journey around the world. She traveled with a friend, Marsden McGuire, later her husband, through West and East Africa, meeting and getting to know locals, ex-pats, Peace Corps volunteers, fellow travelers, and diplomats. From time to time, she and Marsden would be stopped at border crossings or other checkpoints by armed young men. With courtesy, patience, and good humor — those hallmarks of good customer service — Mary and Marsden made their way through Africa with nary a setback.

Once back home, she set her sights on business school, working as a systems analyst for John Hancock while Marsden prepared for medical school. Together they attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Mary received an MBA in 1985, and after working for Family Health International, a contraceptive research organization, she moved on to Kaiser Permanente where she worked as an analyst in utilization and medical economics. A few years later, after moving to Baltimore, she continued in this line of work with the Columbia-Free State Health Plan, the HMO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Maryland.

Missing a sense of connection to the people whom the company served, and recognizing that meaningful health care reform was years away, she considered her next step. With a toddler in tow (Eleanor, now 23) and expecting her second child (Graeme, now 20), and married to a physician who was working all hours, she decided it was the right time to go to law school. “Actually, the timing had some advantages. My daughter was very young, I had great child care, and a supportive spouse. I knew that I could do it. I knew it was time for a change in my career, and I believed deeply that law school was the right choice. And, in my late 30s, it was now or never.”

Actually, it was a year later. At the same time Mary was applying to law school, she was tapped to serve as the acting CEO for Planned Parenthood of Maryland (PPM), on whose board she had served for many years, while the organization conducted a national search for the new executive. “I was honored to lead PPM at this time, and incidentally delighted to do so while my own pregnancy was increasingly apparent.”

Finding Elder Law and Special Needs Planning

Fast forward, Mary graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law and in 2000, she joined the Law Office of Jason A. Frank, now Frank, Frank & Scherr, LLC, where she is a partner. “While in law school, I took part in an elder and health care clinic, and knew immediately I had found what the Buddhists call one’s right livelihood.”

Firm founder Jason Frank, CELA, CAP, now a NAELA Board member and 2014 NAELA Fellow, recalls that “Mary O’Byrne, still in law school, appeared in my office in 1999, having been referred to me from the Director of University of Maryland Law School’s Health Law program. She told me that she was ‘my new law clerk.’ After a discussion over lunch, I readily agreed. She quickly fixed on Special Needs Planning as the nascent practice area she wanted to pursue. She certainly earned her partnership in becoming a nationally recognized authority in advocacy for Special Needs Planning and trusts.”

About herself, Mary comments, “Elder Law, and later Special Needs Planning, offered the opportunity to serve individuals, understand their stories, help fix problems, and plan for the future. I was lucky enough to land a job with Jason right out of law school, first as a clerk and then full-time as an attorney. I’ve been there ever since. It is a privilege to be part of a firm known for its high-quality services and reputation for advocacy.”

Mary’s practice now concentrates in special needs and estate planning. She was inspired by a friendship made in law school. “My best friend in law school, Michael Maccini, was a brilliant young man who had experienced leukemia as a teenager. His treatment eventually resulted in graft-host disease, and in time, the loss of his mobility and ability to swallow. Nonetheless, he maneuvered through the halls with a motorized wheelchair; and he maneuvered through classes with a nearly motorized brain — he was that smart. He was on SSI, and was lucky to have financial security from his family. I still use him as my illustration for the SSI PMV reduction for in-kind support and maintenance. We studied and worked together, most notably on our appellate argument on the individual’s right to die. He was intelligent, dignified, articulate, and funny. And to many people who passed him every day, invisible.”

Public Advocacy

Mary has been actively involved in advocacy at the state level. In 2007, she spearheaded the effort to extend the same regulatory protections for special needs trusts as provided by Medicaid to the state funded Public Assistance to Adults program. In 2011, with Jason and Laurie Frank, she helped draft legislation expanding the use of special needs trusts and enabling people over the age of 65 to use a pooled trust without a transfer penalty. She joined NAELA members Ron Landsman, CAP, and Louise Gonzales in presenting testimony in support; the bill passed in the first year before the state legislature. For this work, she was honored by the NAELA Maryland/DC Chapter as Member of the Year. She continues to work closely with Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene regarding regulations for special needs trusts.

Her commitment to financial security for people with disabilities is also found in her work with First Maryland Disability Trust (FMDT), a self-settled pooled trust. Led by Jason Frank and Ron Landsman, a group of committed Elder Law attorneys established FMDT, Inc., and obtained 501(c)(3) status. Mary served as the first Executive Director and Trustee for FMDT for two years, and developed the initial systems and procedures for the trust. “The early days of FMDT were an all-consuming project to get a new business model up and running, make it responsive to our beneficiaries, and maintain the necessary controls. I feel like a proud parent to see FMDT now, five years since enrolling the first beneficiary, with a staff of five serving over 300 people, and over $15 million under management. It is clear from its growth that FMDT fills an important need in our community.”

Ron Landsman adds about her contributions to the FMDT: “Mary is one of those charming, talented, sort of quiet people who just get things done. She used her management experience to take over and run our nascent Maryland pooled trust when we just got started, and it could not have happened but for her.”

Mary can already look back on her direct influence in a number of important policy-changing decisions with the Social Security Administration. With the help of pooled trusts around the country, she documented different trusts’ treatment of retained funds and presented this to SSA as the agency was developing new rules on this issue. Following their review of her report, which told the story of how retained funds were being used to help beneficiaries who had run out of funds and to help lower administrative costs, the SSA dropped the planned changes. She has successfully used a similar approach by bringing individual stories and examples to press for greater latitude in the payment for third parties to travel with trust beneficiaries. “SSA is responsive to real-life stories about how their rules and processes affect individuals. The Advocates group (see A Short History of the Social Security Administration Special Needs Trust Advocates, page 9) has provided a forum for us to bring these examples to the attention of senior leaders at SSA and effect real change in their policies and procedures.”

Mary’s public advocacy work continues. Last year, she was ap­pointed to the Maryland Governor’s Task Force on the ABLE Act, charged with making recommendations to the state legislature on establishment of the Maryland ABLE program. She continues to schedule regular meetings with the Social Security Administration for improving trust reviews and policy. All of this is done in addition to her day-to-day law practice.

NAELA is truly fortunate for her warmth, dedication, and skills. She brings administrative advocacy to a new level that provides so much benefit to our clients and our practices.

About the Author
Neal A. Winston, CELA, is a partner at Winston Law Group, LLC, Somerville, Mass.

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What our clients say…

Testimonial1

“We were very pleased with the firms professionalism and courteous way we were treated. We would recommend your firm to our friends and family.”

Testimonial2

“Thanks so very much for all of your work with this tremendous achievement. Our family is very blessed to have you in our world and Angelo would thank you for our family if he could. Your amazing efforts and perseverance on this case were outstanding. Thank you!”

Testimonial3

“My mom and I just wanted to thank you for everything you have done for our family. We would have been lost without you, and your guidance and understanding throughout the last several months meant a lot to us. Thank you also for the kind professional courtesy on the last billing statement – that was most kind. I’m sure I’ll be calling you down the road for help later with mom (but hoping that will be a while) and with our own future planning. Thank you again for everything.”

Testimonial4

“I just want to thank you and your paralegal staff again for all the help you were to me and to my family. Your advice on the gifting process and all your work in navigating the Medicaid application in general was very greatly appreciated. Having all that work done prior to my dad’s death has made things a whole lot easier for all of us. Although he was never in a position to know anything about what was going on, I’m sure my dad would also have truly appreciated all the kindness and patience shown to us by you and your staff.”

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“Many thanks to you and Kandace for all of your help during this matter. Your professionalism, helpful guidance and assistance made a trying and stressful situation much easier to handle. I would not hesitate to recommend your firm to anyone else facing elder care issues.”

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“No words to express how terrific your whole team has been, both legally — and in terms of your compassion, patience, and understanding.

Thanks again!”

Testimonial 7

“Kandace was instrumental in helping my parents move into a retirement/medical facility when my Dad had his stroke. She took care of everything from finances to wills. We never could have successfully settled my parents without her guidance and knowledge. Her firm also helped my neighbor with their long term care needs as well. A-plus Service!”

C. Supik

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“I have greatly appreciated Phyllis Erlich’s legal counsel since 2006 for my mother and legal needs. You have always been friendly, caring and professional. I never hesitated to recommend your law firm to my friends.”

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“Phyllis and Jeannette are outstanding professionals. They were as always (we go back to ‘96) a pleasure and a blessing to work with. I’m glad to know them both.”

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“Greetings Kandace…I was speaking with a client yesterday who is the third or fourth client to mention your name; praising the work you have done with their parents or significant other. Being in this business for 11 years now, it is not very common to hear constant praise for someone tied to the financial industry. Just wanted to thank you for the work that you do! Well done!”

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