Monthly Feature: Get to Know... Mary Ellen Donnelly
October 1, 2021
A future law career wasn’t central to Mary Ellen Donnelly’s thinking when she was considering where to attend college in the 1980s. Instead, a picture in her head helped shape her decision-making.
The Brooklyn native, who grew up on the north shore of Long Island, imagined imposing Gothic Revival stone buildings rising up over tidy quadrangles of green. Syracuse University fit the bill, and she headed north.
“In my mind, I had a picture of what I thought a classic college campus should look like,” she says. “I fell in love with SU right away.”
Loosely guided by career aspirations that vacillated between journalism and education, Mary Ellen kept her options open, majoring in history and English. But an internship she landed at the Onondaga County District Attorney’s Office in her junior year nudged her in entirely different direction. And before long, she was waving goodbye to the Orange and returning to the Big Apple, first to get married and then to attend Fordham University School of Law.
“My dad started his career as an assistant district attorney in the Manhattan DA's Office,” Mary Ellen says. “While law school was never a foregone conclusion for me, it was always a possibility. My dad spoke about the legal profession with such pride and enthusiasm, and I guess it stuck.”
While in law school, she obtained an externship with fellow Fordham alumnus Judge John Keenan of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and discovered an affinity for litigation work. She particularly felt drawn to employment discrimination cases.
“The fact patterns are always interesting, and it’s an area that keeps expanding and developing, in terms of the types of cases being brought,” Mary Ellen says. “As it evolved, it gave me an opportunity to educate clients about workplace laws and appropriate conduct in the workplace – and to even help prevent claims of discrimination.”
In a way, it feels like “greater good” sort of work, she says.
“I believe that most employers want to do the right thing for their employees,” Mary Ellen says. “But they might have policies in place that they assume are good and aren’t, and you can step in and show them how to improve. And then, on the flip side, if you get a claim that raises concerns, you can explain to the client the correct way to handle that claim and how to prevent it in the future.”
She eventually went to work for the venerable New York City labor and employment law firm of Putney, Twombly, Hall & Hirson, where she was able to expand her knowledge base to labor law.
“I like it for some of the same reasons,” she explains. “For example, when you’re negotiating union contracts, give and take is very important. Both sides need to be partners in creating a positive work atmosphere.”
Partnership took on a new dimension for Mary Ellen and her colleagues when Putney decided to combine with Bond in March 2021, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was very challenging to make the transition during the pandemic,” she recalls. “The first time I came over and saw the Bond New York City office, there were two people here. It’s a beautiful office, but it’s very different when it’s empty.”
But the office has been filling up since Labor Day, she says, and the collaboration has been great.
“We’re getting to meet people, and it feels more and more like a like a successful integration,” she says. “Everybody has been very accommodating and helpful, and there are so many resources available.”
When she’s not finding her way around the new warren of midtown offices, Mary Ellen lives on Long Island with her husband of 33 years, Mark Elmendorf. The couple has three grown children: a graphic designer in Philadelphia; a registered dietician in training in Immaculata, Pennsylvania; and a college freshman at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood, New York.
She keeps busy during her downtime with her other passion: CrossFit.
“I go to the gym five or six times a week, mostly the 6 a.m. class before work. I do it to stay in shape and for my mental health. It’s the one thing that helps keeps me sane.”