Special Olympics' Chief Legal Officer is Right in Her Game

Angela Ciccolo joins the Special Olympics legal team from the NAACP.

Angela Ciccolo Photo By Patrice Gilbert

Finding your way to the chief legal officer role at one of the country's most respected non-profit organizations is no small feat. And Angela Ciccolo knows that. The journey, both personal and professional, that led Ciccolo to the top legal spot at Washington, D.C.-based Special Olympics has been long and challenging but, more importantly, rewarding and exciting.

Ciccolo grew up in a modest Indianapolis community with limited resources, which provided her with motivation to excel in school. She received a scholarship to a small private high school in Indianapolis that emphasized the importance of international relations. During those years, she studied abroad in France. "The international community can be a really good connection for an African-American woman," she says. She went on to Georgetown University's School of Foreign Services and studied international economics, finance and commerce.

After graduating, Ciccolo got married and took a job as an economist with the Department of Labor. Although she liked her work, her husband's job took them to Cairo, and because they had small children, she decided to stop working while living abroad. It was then that she began considering law school.

After a year in Cairo, the family returned to the U.S., the kids started school, and Ciccolo went to law school. After graduating in 1992, she worked for a small firm in Washington, D.C. "I was really attracted to plaintiffs work because I would be able to try cases right away and work with people who didn't know much about legal work," she explains.

In 2000, she made her move in-house, becoming assistant general counsel at the NAACP. While there, she worked her way through the ranks, and in 2008, she was named general counsel of the organization--the first woman to hold the position. In April, Ciccolo was named CLO of Special Olympics.

Q: How did you end up at Special Olympics?

A: Over the years, either in private practice or when I was with the NAACP, I got calls from organizations that wanted me to work for them. Usually I wasn't interested. But one day, I got a call about Special Olympics. I knew exactly the kind of organization it was and what it stands for. Everyone I have ever known who's been involved in Special Olympics has changed for the better. I wanted to learn more.

After I got here, every meeting that I had reinforced the values that Special Olympics conveys to the world. There is an electricity and excitement at Special Olympics, and that's how I want to live my life every day.

Q: Tell me a little about the work you do as GC of the Special Olympics.

A: The Special Olympics is an international organization, so we do a lot of the same things large corporations do--employment matters and risk management. But because of its mission, we have programs all over the country that have to be accredited. We have our charitable fundraising, registering subsidiaries properly. We have rules and bylaws we have to make sure are maintained. We have tax matters. We also have a number of trademarks that have to be enforced around the world. We also work on licensing, sponsorship and cause-related marketing. Right now, Special Olympics is preparing for its 2011 World Games in Athens.

Q: What are your plans as the new GC?

A: I am excited to dive in. For me, the most important thing right now is to listen a lot--to learn the client's needs and make sure we're protecting the Special Olympics brand and using the legal work we do to enhance the experience for the athletes. We want to make sure the mission remains intact and strong.

As a brand new general counsel, I spent some time trying to learn the organization before I got here, but there is so much to learn that isn't in a document or codified in a policy. My goal in any job is to meet people, establish relationships, and work on a very strong and incredible team. But it's especially true here.

Q: Why do you think you're a good fit for this position?

A: I have good, solid, non-profit GC experience. A good GC is a good generalist. I don't expect to know every nuance of trademark law, but I do know how to recognize these issues and get the best insight. I also have good judgment and get along with people, but I can be firm.

Q: What do you love about your work?

A: The athletes work here at the headquarters. We interact with them on a daily basis. They are phenomenal men and women. I am constantly reminded that what I am doing will enhance their experiences and provide opportunities for others.

Q: You work with the Virginia State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Tell me about that work.

A: All the states have advisory committees to the civil rights commission. In my jurisdiction, I monitor the state of civil rights enforcement efforts and what new efforts should be undertaken or enforced. It's a great opportunity for people of very diverse points of view to come together and discuss very difficult issues.

Q: What advice would you give a young lawyer who would like to someday become GC of a non-profit organization?

A: One thing students don't understand is that they can have interesting careers they aren't even aware of. You don't know what you don't know.

I would say, find mentors who have walked down the road a little bit ahead of you and get to know their experiences. I know I didn't have anyone at certain points, but when I did find those people, it revolutionized my experience as a lawyer. Having different mentors at different times is so important.

Getting involved in organizations--not even at the leadership level--is so important. You can learn so much.

Make sure you learn something from every job you have. You leave with enhanced skills, knowledge and contacts, so you are prepared for challenges you don't even see coming down the road.

If you had asked me a year ago if I would be sitting here as CLO of Special Olympics, I would say it wasn't something on my horizon. But I was prepared when it did come along.

Q: If money, family, etc. weren't an issue, what would your dream job be?

A: I would be working to improve the life of someone else. And that might just be working in a soup kitchen--you can do all kinds of things. People who have opportunities, where they can, should help others.

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