Profile with Ann Olivarius  

Ann Olivarius (Connecticut & Somerville 1978) is the Chair of the Executive Committee of the law firm McAllister Olivarius and the Founder of the Rhodes Project. Throughout her career she has worked as an advocate for equal rights and women’s rights in particular.  She was a plaintiff in the landmark civil rights case, Alexander v. Yale, has served as General Counsel, CEO and Director of Scientific Programs of a medical foundation, and worked at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.  She holds a Bachelors’ in Political Science from Yale College and a D.Phil. in Economics from the University of Oxford, where she won the Nuffield Award for original research.  She also holds a JD and MBA from Yale Law School and the Yale School of Management, where she was the first student to complete their joint program in three years, with highest honors.

Rhodes Project: What led you to set up the Rhodes Project?

Ann Olivarius: Really, ever since I became a Rhodes Scholar in 1978, I have been intrigued by what success means for able and ambitious women – how do we conceive of it, how do we achieve it, what are the tradeoffs, how do we compare to the men?  After leaving Oxford I had some great conversations with other women Scholars on this subject and felt they all had interesting stories to tell, which I thought would be powerful and worth sharing if we could figure out a way to tap into a wide range.  Also, it was evident ten years ago when I started thinking about studying women Rhodes Scholars that women were still pretty invisible within the Rhodes community.  You can see that in Philip Ziegler’s otherwise excellent history of the Rhodes Trust, which mentions women just once, in the context of posing a question about whether Rhodes women have reduced the average “worldly success” quotient of the Rhodes brand!  I came to think a comprehensive study of women Rhodes Scholars could be both a rigorous study of the way success works for women in our generation, and a public platform to celebrate the achievements of women Rhodes Scholars.  My view is that we are thriving – there are so many Rhodes women out there who are really changing the world in so many different ways, enjoying capital “S” success, some making tons of money, some are leading academics and public servants, artists – a lot of these women are forging significant paths. 

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me a bit about the experience of running a firm with your husband?

Ann Olivarius: It’s been a fun endeavor; it adds to the passion and joy of our relationship.  We originally came to London from the States in 1999 so that Jef could serve as Bureau Chief for TIME Magazine in London.  I opened our London operation in September 1999 and we grew rapidly, quickly negotiating some important deals, like the purchase of the Savoy Theatre, and then some major cases in employment and employment discrimination, child protection and corporate disputes.

After Jef left the Time post seven years ago, we have worked together every day.  We have different and complementary skill sets, so we really understand what each other does but we are still able to work in our own way.

Rhodes Project: What have been some of the most personally significant or affecting cases you have worked on in your career?

Ann Olivarius: There have been many, and some are on my desk right now.  During my time as an undergrad and as a graduate at Yale I learned a lot about the kind of law I wanted to practice.  I worked with Catherine MacKinnon, a first class mind and a pioneer of women’s rights, to define sexual harassment as an illegal offence for the first time in legal history.  We argued that the pattern of sexual harassment and assault that we experienced as female students hurt our access to education and constituted sexual discrimination, putting the University in violation of Title IX of the Education Act.  During my time at Yale I also worked on devising the term “date rape” and then publicizing it and campaigning against it, something that seemed insane at the time but which we now know describes the experiences of so many women.

What I’ve come to understand is that any lawyer can file motions but to be a great lawyer you need to work both with and around the system.  Normally you focus on figuring out what you can actually achieve for clients efficiently and economically; sometimes it’s right to fight for a principle, but this can be costly.  You also need to have a sense of humor. And, at times, this may be the best tool for achieving your legal objectives. For instance, I was on the varsity swim team at Yale and in comparison to the men’s team our treatment was disgraceful.  We had terrible training hours right at the crack of dawn or in the evenings, scheduled around the men, who got special training tables and food which we didn’t get, and we didn’t even have our swimsuits paid for by the university, while the men had an excess of funds.  So I called members of the press and staged a press conference outside of the athletic director’s office.  Wrapped in our towels, we explained our circumstances, and then turned our backs on the cameras and dropped our towels, showing our naked bums painted in large letters reading “WE NEED SUITS!”  Even the athletic director thought it was funny. We got suits after that.  The Yale women’s crew later followed this strategy which helped get them proper equipment.

Rhodes Project: Is your work today still motivated by those same concerns and priorities?

Ann Olivarius: Our firm does commercial litigation and corporate work too, often with a US-UK angle, and I really believe in helping companies do their best because it’s the way creativity and prosperity come together.  But we also represent a lot of people fighting for justice for people on both sides of the Atlantic – women, people of color, old people, men – who have been wrongly terminated from their jobs, denied promotions, shunted aside despite obvious talent and excellent performance.  That’s important because if people don’t have work to define themselves by, their lives are often not as rich.  I also run a British-based firm that is dedicated entirely to child protection.  Those are the cases that really tear my heart apart.  Most of those are currently against the Catholic Church for protecting its pedophile priests.

We have also developed a practice that seeks to help people damaged by some new phenomena made possible by the Internet, like “revenge porn” (when your ex posts naked pictures or videos of you) and cyberbullying.  Going back to how people didn’t really grasp the underlying phenomenon until the term “date rape” was introduced, I think we now need some new vocabulary in this area.  The Internet is vital in so many ways but it has become a latrine wall for the nasty and anonymous, for the cowards of the world who won’t put their name to the defamation they write. Right now, the balance is in favor of abusers, because what they post is available instantly, to the whole world, forever.  This stuff has serious impact on people:  kids are beaten down to the point of suicide; ex-lovers post videos of their partners’ most intimate and private moments without their knowledge or consent, pornography depicting rape becomes a regular staple of young people’s visual landscape.  We are trying to create new law that will change this.

Rhodes Project: If you hadn’t become a lawyer, what other career would you have chosen?

Ann Olivarius: A surgeon.

Rhodes Project: Who are some of your personal heroes?

Ann Olivarius: My greatest all-time hero is my colleague, Jeff Anderson.  He is a deeply creative and brave lawyer who started litigating on behalf of survivors of child sexual abuse 30 years ago, and essentially created the field.  He has built a whole movement of experts and other lawyers, worked with networks of survivors, and always put them first.  He opened up the Catholic Church to the scrutiny it has needed to start to reform, a continuing challenge, and taken the fight internationally.  He is the most courageous and supportive person I have ever worked with, a perfect colleague, wise and practiced in achieving justice and acting with integrity as a lawyer but also lively, fun and full of joy – a remarkable person.  

Another is Alice Prochaska, who is currently the Principal of Somerville College, Oxford.  She used to run the Libraries at Yale and she has a powerful new dream for education, how to pay for it and make it accessible for the masses.  She is truly an original thinker and a lovely person. 

Another is Baroness Shirley Williams, who I admire because of her bravery.  She was instrumental in opening the Rhodes Scholarship to women and was a founder of the Liberal Democratic party in England.  For her whole life, as far as I can determine, she has fought to make the world a better, safer, more humane place.  She always says her piece – I remember that during a dinner at Somerville to celebrate her mother Vera Brittain, the famous feminist writer, she stopped all the ritual praise by pointing out that when her mother was at Somerville, she had mostly been reviled for her pacifism during World War I.  But she said it with respect, in a way that people heard.  She does her political work with style, intelligence and aplomb.

Another is Baroness Park of Monmouth, Daphne Park, who in the 1970s was controller of the Western Hemisphere for MI6 and the highest ranking woman at MI6 during much of her service there. I wrote many speeches for her and advised her on her work in the House of Lords. She was formidable, with a fantastic memory, a passionate believer in the good Britain could accomplish in the world.  She sacrificed a lot to serve her country.  We generally had very different political views, but she relied on me to make her as effective as she could be.

Rhodes Project: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Ann Olivarius: Get up every day and approach it as though it will be your last.  Give the best of yourself to each of your endeavors – and to the people whom you love.

Rhodes Project: If you could go back and do it all again, knowing what you do now, would you do anything differently?

Ann Olivarius: I would have liked to have had mentors.  Growing up in the place that I did – there were no helping hands and there weren’t any signposts to show me the most effective route forward.  Throughout my career, really, I didn’t have those figures in my life.  And even if I had been able to find them, then they would have been men.  When I was working at Goldman Sachs, I was asked one day if I would cull files containing evidence under subpoena, at a time when Rudy Giuliani was US Attorney and was going after the investment banks including Goldman.  I had no idea how to negotiate the dynamics of that situation, or who to turn to for advice.  So I was straight with them and said publicly that I wouldn’t do it because it would be obstruction of justice and a crime.  I was fired.  Really, it was never in doubt for me what I would do, but I might have been able to handle the situation better if I could have turned to someone who had been around the track a few times. 

I also was sad for a while at not being able to accept Supreme Court Justice Brennan’s offer to be one of his law clerks. I had loved my clerkship with Judge Marilyn Patel, at the US District Court in San Francisco. She taught me a great deal about the law and I personally enjoyed her spirit, and the joie de vivre and integrity she brought to her work.  I was also blessed to have as my co-clerk Jordan Budd. I couldn’t have found a better colleague or friend even though he hailed from Harvard Law! The clerkship was in San Francisco and looking back now, I recognize what I didn’t then: that carrying on in San Francisco might have been a better life than returning to New York City as we did. Our careers and lives would have been different, but every time I go to San Francisco, which is so beautiful and soul-enhancing as well as stimulating, I think it might have been an equally attractive option to have stayed there, rather than to feel I had to “prove myself” in New York.

Rhodes Project: What’s your favorite meal?

Ann Olivarius: When I was younger my grandparents used to take me and my four sisters to a place called the Hamilton House in Brooklyn, a real old fashioned New York restaurant with room for hundreds of guests and grumpy waiters who had been there 30 years.  It was the only time we ever ate out, and while my tastes now run more towards the vegetarian and healthy, I’m still a sucker for the meal we always got there: prime rib of beef, followed by a Boston cream pie.

Rhodes Project: How do you manage to really unwind and switch off?

Ann Olivarius: Hanging out with the family, going on walks, dinner with great friends, and watching stand-up comedy on TV – something I could never do!

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