John Ansbach, CLO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, finds reward in challenging work

Ansbach is grateful to work for something he believes in

Boy, 10, pinned between two vehicles after drunken driver slams into row of parked cars later dies in hospital. Girl, 13, struck down by drunken driver in her front yard as she comes home from school. Drunken driver traveling more than 100 miles per hour crashes into car, killing high school sweethearts. Boy,5, dies and sister, 2, suffers brain damage after their family vehicle is rear-ended by drunk driver.

These headlines, nearly unbearable to read, bring lumps to our throats and tears to our eyes. But to most of us, they are just that: very sad headlines. We shake our heads in disbelief, wish these devastating events never happened, feel genuinely sad for the families impacted by these tragedies, and then we move on with our day.

To John Ansbach, however, these headlines are much more. Ansbach has been the chief legal officer for non-profit organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) since September 2010, and building a country where these headlines cease to exist is why he goes to work each day.

"I am motivated by it," he says. "I use it to drive the work forward."

The mission of MADD seems simple: to stop drunken driving, support the victims of this violent crime and prevent underage drinking. But the organization has been hard at work since 1980 helping to make changes in the law such as requiring the legal drinking age be 21 in every state, and lowering the legal blood alcohol level to 0.8.

"We are constantly reminded as a team that we are empowering everyone around us to do something special,"Ansbach says of his legal department, which consists of an associate general counsel, legal coordinator and interns.

"Special"is an understatement. According to MADD, since the organization's inception nearly 32 years ago, it has saved more than 300,000 lives.

It takes a dedicated staff to help drive and maintain these changes—not to mention, a superior legal acumen. Ansbach couldn't be a better fit.

Q: Why did you decide to go to law school?

A: I had a couple of work opportunities coming out of undergrad, but nothing great. I applied to law school and got in. I saw it as a great education, and I had a vague understanding that being a lawyer would allow me to be a part of supporting my community. But I wasn't one of those kids who always knew he wanted to be a lawyer.

Q: How did your career progress after law school?

A: I had a couple options, but decided to become a trial lawyer in Dallas. I remained a litigator up until about four or five years ago, working at a large plaintiffs firm that did asbestos and toxic tort litigation.

After working at the firm, I went to EFA Processing as chief operations officer and general counsel. It was a great in-house experience.

In my previous positions, I worked with and learned from really great lawyers, and realized that my skill set was the practice of law but my passion was closer to advancing the cause of an organization.    

Q: How did you end up at MADD?

A: The GC for MADD was retiring and this position opened up. It was an opportunity to be a part of something I truly believed in. I have known Kimberly Earle, MADD’s CEO, for many years. She is an amazing person and someone I knew I would love working for. So I jumped at the chance to do it.  

Q: Did you have reservations about switching from a for-profit company to a non-profit organization?

A: To be honest, to me the practice itself is not much different. We’re an organization that does what we do in 30-plus states. I have an IP practice, a contracts practice, and a labor and employment practice.  

What is different, I have found, is when my department is doing its job, we’re empowering people at MADD to do what they do best. That is saving lives and supporting victims.  

Q: What interested you about in-house practice vs. law firm work?

A: There are a lot of good things about working in a firm. But I wanted something a bit broader. I wanted to be part of a larger mission. Being part of a non-profit allows me to be a part of something bigger.  

I didn’t see that in a law firm, but I see it in in-house practice in general. Bringing skills together with a passion is kind of unique for a lot of folks.    

Q: Tell me about the type of work your team does.

A: We have a couple things we do. On the advocacy side, we don’t lobby, but we support advocacy efforts around the country. In litigation, we are active mostly in filing amicus briefs.  

Q: What do you love most about your work? About being a lawyer?

A: I like having the opportunity and training to make a difference. For some people that means working in a firm.  

Lawyering is about being able to play a significant part in effecting change. You get that degree to play at that level. Lawyering is a special and unique skill set.  

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job with MADD?

A: Getting where we need to go as fast as we need to get there. It is well known in our circles what works to stop drunken driving: ignition interlock devices, sobriety checkpoints. We aren’t waiting to find out if they work. We know they do.  

This past September, the 10-year-old son of a friend of a colleague was killed in a drunken driving accident. The incident happened when new laws were taking effect. All I could think about was whether that young boy would have died if one or more of the laws we’re supporting had been passed in the spring.

Q: What advice would you give a young lawyer who would like to someday lead the legal department of a non-profit organization?

A: Specific to non-profits: I tell young lawyers they should find a cause they are passionate about and volunteer. That will allow them to see if they truly enjoy it and if they are part of the cause. Then they can peruse bringing their legal skills to bear in that area.

Generally, I tell young lawyers to develop a broad area of expertise. They have to be corporate generalists, but have the willingness to explore and develop those skills.

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

A: Being the GC of the Dallas Mavericks would be seriously cool. Being CEO of the Mavericks would also be great. 

Editor

Cathleen Flahardy

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