28th recipient of the Association for Women Attorneys (AWA)
Marion Griffin-Frances Loring Award
Editor’s note: The following biography and tribute to the achievements of Mary Lee Wolff was provided by the AWA.
AWA pays homage posthumously to Mary Lee Wolff, who was known both for her tenacity and for the high bar she set for the next generation of attorneys. She began her career in 1975, when the legal climate posed many challenges for women. Undaunted, gender barriers only made her more determined to succeed. While she was triumphing over those circumstances, she opened doors for others. Family, friends and colleagues now celebrate her life and legacy of inspiration.
Originally from Jacksonville, Fla., Ms. Wolff graduated with honors from Germantown High School. She graduated magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University in 1972, where she was an officer of Phi Beta Kappa. She received a juris doctor in 1975 from Boston University School of Law and was awarded the Sylvia Beinecke Robinson Award for significant contribution to the life of the School of Law. And then in 1985, she became the co-recipient of the Young Lawyer’s Chair, presented in recognition of distinguished achievement, along with her partner and law school classmate Patrick M. Ardis.
Ms. Wolff joined the Memphis law firm of Canada, Russell and Turner in 1975; in 1978, the firm merged with the national law firm of Wildman, Harrold, Allen, & Dixon. On January 1, 1988, she became a founding shareholder of Wolff Ardis, P.C.
Beginning in 1975, Mary Lee Wolff spent the principal amount of her time representing both plaintiffs and defendants in complex commercial litigation, including financial institution litigation. She was on the team of lawyers that saved Union Planters Bank from failure. Her practice focused in the areas of securities fraud, fidelity bonds, products liability, directors’ and officers’ liability claims and professional malpractice. She managed complex litigation from its inception, through the trial and/or settlement process, organizing legal theories, as well as personnel, documentation and witnesses to support each case.
Ms. Wolff successfully handled fidelity bond claims for the FDIC and for national banks, as well as for small financial institutions Mary prosecuted and defended claims arising under federal securities laws, state securities statutes, common law fraud, constructive fraud, breach of trust and fiduciary duty, violation of NASD rules and violation of federal and state RICO statutes. Consequently, she was well-versed in “black letter” securities law, pleading and motion practice, discovery tactics, negotiation and settlement strategies, trial preparation and appellate advocacy.
In addition to maintaining a full work load, Ms. Wolff actively supervised the management of Wolff Ardis, P.C. and participated in the development and presentation of numerous seminars on fidelity bond claims, testifying and the management of complex litigation.
Ms. Wolff served for six years as a Hearing Committee member for the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility. She was a member of the court-appointed panel of Court Certified Mediators for the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee and was approved as a mediator in the field of General Civil cases by the Tennessee Supreme Court. She was admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth, Sixth and Ninth Circuits, the Federal Courts in Tennessee, and in the Tennessee state court system. She turned down federal and state invitations to become a judge … she was a lawyer and proud of it.
Mary Lee Wolff often donated her time to clients who were unable to pay and went the extra mile to connect clients in crisis with support groups. No client has ever been turned away from Wolff Ardis PC because of the inability to pay. “We exist to help others, not only the ones that can pay for it,” she would say.
Outside of work, Mary held leadership roles within many organizations, including the Women’s Foundation for Greater Memphis and Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS). She was a member of the Association for Women Attorneys for seven years, serving on the AWA board committee in 2014-2015 as AWA Golf Tournament co-chair. During the 2016 AWA Banquet, the name of the Golf Tournament was amended to bear her name in memoriam.