With football season less than a month away, one former Big Law partner who represented the National Football League’s New York Giants and New York Jets on the construction of MetLife Stadium is getting ready for a new season of her own.
Mary Jane Augustine, 70, retired from McCarter & English’s partnership earlier this year. A construction law expert who in 2010 was named the firm’s first female managing partner in New York, Augustine is now a co-principal at Simply Sustainable LLC, a startup company that provides green and highly sustainable building materials and interior finish products.
“I realized that the older you get, if you work for someone else, you’re always very vulnerable to being terminated,” said Augustine, a former leader of McCarter & English’s construction practice. “I really wanted to do something long-term that I could be in control of—and that’s when I realized the best thing I could do was to be an entrepreneur.”
During her more than 40 years in private practice, Augustine worked on the 2004 renovation of New York’s Museum of Modern Art by Yoshio Taniguchi and the construction and opening of The New York Times Building in 2007. After retirement in late 2016, Augustine was ready for a slower pace, but didn’t want her life to grind to a screeching halt.
“I didn’t just want to retire and do nothing,” she said. “But you have to be practical about your age and physical state and [last year] was a good time to wind up my career on a high point and control my own departure.”
Two years prior to her leaving McCarter & English, a firm she joined in 2005 from what is now Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Augustine and her daughter, Lia Nielsen, began to plan their new business, which was founded in 2015. Augustine said that McCarter & English was extremely helpful and generous in allowing her to finish her work and phase out of Big Law on her own terms.
As her career in law wound down, Simply Sustainable was just getting started. The company, based just outside Trenton in Lambertville, New Jersey, began and remains a part of The Green Building Center collaborative that Nielsen and her architect husband, Jason Kliwinski, founded in 2010. The group of businesses includes architects, contractors, designers and other professionals providing a one-stop shop for sustainable and healthy construction and interior projects.
Augustine, who was LEED certified during her Big Law career, said she has always been interested in sustainability, going so far as doing graduate work on the subject at Harvard University. That shared interested with her daughter made going into business with Nielsen a logical next step after retirement. Nielsen, a co-principal at Simply Sustainable with Augustine, comes from a construction management background. She worked on the curtain wall at One Bryant Park in New York, as well as a new library and chemistry building at Princeton University.
Nielsen is already WELL accredited—a key certification for green space professionals who demonstrate a commitment to human health and wellness in buildings, communities and the workers that create them— and once Augustine obtains that status she will begin working full-time at Simply Sustainable.
“She threw herself headlong into studying to make sure she knows what she’s talking about,” Nielsen said.
For the past eight months, Augustine has been taking some down time, studying to get her WELL accreditation and working part-time at Simply Sustainable. And while she expects her retirement life to start ramping up soon with new activities, Augustine is willing to let Nielsen take the reins on their new venture together.
“She stays to the back a bit and lets me run things because she’s still got so much to learn,” Nielsen said. “She’s always watching and seeing how the process works. It’s new for her—she never actually got to participate in the design process, which is part of what she really wanted to do and part of the reason she wanted to go into business with us.”
Not surprisingly, there are quite a few differences between Big Law and small business. Augustine said that there is less pressure and the working hours are a lot better. The compensation, she said laughingly, is also a bit different.
“The main difference, though, is that there are no support people,” Augustine said. “It’s us. And if there’s a problem, we’ve got to figure it out by ourselves.”
Nielsen acknowledged that figuring things out is a bit easier with mom at her side. Augustine’s ability to write up documents or review matters related to Simply Sustainable has been invaluable, she said, noting that her mother’s Big Law experience working with prominent architects and large projects has brought a “unique and interesting perspective” to their business.
“I am so thrilled to have her,” Nielsen said. “Her knowledge base and her experience are fantastic. And getting to hang out with my mom all the time is awesome.”
Augustine’s added that her relationship with her daughter, which has always been strong, has adapted as they started working closely together.
“We are having a ball working in tandem,” Augustine said. “There’s the affection and love of mother and daughter, but the respect and understanding of partners.”
Overall, Augustine is happy with her career switch, a retirement strategy she calls “carefully choreographed,” but necessary at her stage in her career.
“I loved the field that I worked in, but I was very tired,” Augustine said.
Now she is working in a field that she is passionate about with her daughter. So far, it could not have worked out better, and moving forward, Augustine expects Simply Sustainable to be on the cutting edge of advancement in green construction.
“There’s a real movement toward product transparency, making what we do very relevant,” Augustine said. “Products is the new frontier.”
Even in retirement.