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Lawyer Rachael Rollins forges successful career in Massachusetts transportation

Martin Desmarais
Lawyer Rachael Rollins forges successful career in Massachusetts transportation
Rachael Rollins, former general counsel for MassDOT and the MBTA, recently joined Massport as chief legal counsel.

Rachael Rollins, the new chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Port Authority, is used to being among the “firsts.” She has blazed a successful career in the higher levels of state government, an area that has not exactly been known for supporting much diversity in the past.

And she has also risen very fast in the ranks of the legal community, a field continuing its growth in supporting women and lawyers of color.

Prior to taking over as chief legal counsel at Massport, Rollins served as general counsel for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. She was not just the first woman of color, but the first woman to ever hold the position of general counsel at the MBTA. She was also the first person to ever serve jointly as general counsel for two of the state’s giant transportation departments.

She became general counsel with MassDOT in October 2011 and in March 2012 took on the same job with the MBTA.

But if you ask the 42-year-old Rollins about all the “firsts,” she is quick to push the notion aside.

“It is great to be the first at some of these things but I know I won’t be the last,” Rollins said. “I am excited about the fact that there is going to be many more people like me coming after me and I hope we won’t be talking about ‘first’ in a few years.”

Case in point, in late 2012 — about a year after Rollins started her job at MassDOT and MBTA — the state hired Beverly Scott as MBTA general manager and MassDOT rail and transit administrator. Just recently, when Rollins left her old post at MassDOT and MBTA, the state hired another woman of color, Paige Scott-Reed, to replace her.

A native of Cambridge, Rollins graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and then received her law degree from Northeastern University School of Law. She also went on to receive a master’s degree in law focusing on labor and employment from Georgetown University Law Center and work as a field attorney at the National Labor Relations Board

In 2002, Rollins joined the firm Bingham McCutchen and Seyfarth Shaw. She left after about five years and joined another small firm. When she got the opportunity to join the U.S. Attorney’s office in 2007, she jumped at the chance. She remained with the U.S. Attorney until 2011, when she joined MassDOT.

“My background is really diverse, not just in terms of my parents and my upbringing but my work in the private sector and with the district attorney and at MassDOT,” Rollins said.

Rollins has had support throughout her career from experienced lawyers she has worked with — people who hired her and mentored her. She has a long list of mentors she is grateful for, most of whom, she points out, are not women or people of color.

The impact of such mentors has driven Rollins to return the favor as she has grown in experience and status in the legal industry.

Last year, for example, Rollins served as president of the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association. She said her work with the organization is all about supporting young law students of color and also keeping them in Boston. With the city having some of the best law schools in the region it is a great draw for aspiring lawyers. However, she says, with Boston’s past of racial tension, there is a belief that it might not be a good place to start a legal career for young lawyers of color. This causes many young black lawyers to come to law school at one of Boston’s schools then leave to work elsewhere.

Rollins says she advises law students that Boston is a great place to live and work.

“If we can have law students know that there is a vibrant community of color here in Boston in respect to the law community they will stay in Boston,” she said. “If they see that there are lawyers succeeding here, they are going to want to stay.”

Massport CEO Thomas Glynn sees the hiring of Rollins as chief legal counsel as a big plus for his organization. Massport’s close ties with MassDOT and the MBTA meant that Rollins was a well-known individual and highly recommended to move over.

“Massport is fortunate to have someone of Rachael’s background, intelligence and dedication in such a critical role,” Glynn said. “In addition to her career at MassDOT and the MBTA, Rachael worked for four years as an Assistant U.S. Attorney investigating and prosecuting both civil and criminal cases and defending the United States and its agencies in a wide array of civil suits.”

Massport is a public authority but the organization is not funded by state tax dollars. It generates about $8 billion annually through leasing public land, fees and licensing and operates three airports: Boston Logan International Airport, Hanscom Field and Worcester Regional Airport. Massport also oversees shipping and cruises at the port of Boston.

With Massport, Rollins heads up all legal activities in areas such as real estate, construction, litigation, employment and ethics, maritime activities, aviation, security and public finance.

According to Rollins, with MassDOT and the MBTA her work covered a broad range of legal topics as well, but she is particularly looking forward to getting experience in new legal sectors through Massport’s aviation and maritime work.

“Twenty-some-odd days into my job I am really excited about the work we are doing,” she said. “There is the terror and excitement of learning an entirely different area of law.”

In a post-Sept. 11 era, Massport also has to deal with some high-profile legal issues and work with agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

But Rollins is used to the pressure cooker. MassDOT and particularly the MBTA have had plenty of high profile-legal battles both during her time and for many years before she came to the agencies.

Dealing with complaints from the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination was part of Rollins job and she said that she, as well as those in charge of both MassDOT and MBTA took those complaints — and continue to take them — very seriously.

Rollins pointed out that her being the first person to hold the position of general counsel to both MassDOT and MBTA was part of the attempt to better deal with complaints of discrimination.

According to Rollins, the goal was to have the two legal departments work together with one head so that they could address issues more effectively and uniformly. This also helped streamline and support the reporting structure on all issues, including discrimination, throughout both organizations. She said this helped to ensure all the right people were looking at all issues and working together to find solutions.

“The T had very significant litigation prior to my arrival and will continue to have significant litigation,” Rollins said. “I certainly didn’t leave because I thought the ship was going down. They are making sure they are making the changes that need to be done.”