Headshot of MARYANNE F. SANTINI a partner at Holm and O'Hara

MaryAnne F. Santini, Esq. Named Partner at Holm & O’Hara LLP

Jan 01, 2024
Practice Area:  Labor & Employee Benefits

As of January 1, 2024, MaryAnne F. Santini, Esq., has been promoted to Partner in Holm & O’Hara LLP’s Labor and Employment practice. Ms. Santini has been with the firm since 2018 and specializes in multi-employer benefit plans, public sector benefit plans, retirement plans, welfare plans, and ERISA compliance.

How did you find your way into labor and employment law?

I grew up in a household where both of my parents were in unions. Unions and employee benefits were regular topics of discussion at the dinner table. I’ve seen first-hand the benefits of union membership and skill needed for the work performed. All this to say, my early exposure to the benefits of unions certainly left an impression.

Going into law school, I originally thought I’d pursue a career in corporate law. However, I switched tracks after taking courses in ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) and employment law. The skills between ERISA and corporate law were easily transferable—drafting contracts, assuring compliance, trusts, and corporate governance.

Today, I work mainly with multi-employer and government plans, which were the same types my parents belonged to. So, you could say I’ve gone full circle.

What do enjoy the most about your career as a labor attorney?

I enjoy working with so many varied clients and the different dynamics of each of the benefit plans. Each union or benefit plan has its own goals steered by what their membership needs and wants. Working with each of the parties involved—employment or union trustees, providers, administrators, and participants—can be complicated.  But at the end of the day, they all need to find a way to achieve their goals and get things done. It is immensely satisfying to work through the issues, parse out what each party wants, and find an agreement.

What has been some of the most surprising aspects of your work?

Although we are a labor-side firm, I work with many employers as trustees of the various benefit plans I represent. It is great to have a different perspective on the issues involved in administering these plans and to see how it shapes the overall outcome.

Another totally unexpected aspect of my benefits work is how much family law is involved. I spend a good amount of time dealing with court orders, called QDROs, regarding the separation of retirement benefits when there is a divorce or reviewing beneficiary status when a member passes away. Not exactly what you would think working in labor law would entail.

You work almost exclusively with trustees and not directly with union members or plan participants; what about your work is most meaningful with respect to your impact on their daily life?

Great communication is key; meaning communication with our clients of course but also in enabling better communication between our clients and their constituents. For example, I regularly review benefit explanations and notices, and if I, who reads these types of documents all day long, have to read something 10 times, that means a participant is going to have to read it 20 times—that’s unacceptable. Participants need to be able to make decisions for themselves and their families with a minimum amount of effort and confusion. Communications about their benefit plans need to be clear, concise, and easy to understand.

There is a delicate balance between saying what you need to say from a legal standpoint, and also ensuring that information can be understood by plan participants. In that sense, one side being an attorney involves storytelling. Not in the sense of fictional stories, of course, but in relating the facts and how they are shaped by rules or policy to reach a determination, all in the clearest terms possible.

What are the most important personal qualities you bring to your practice?

I’m curious, and I like to learn. After finishing my undergraduate studies and before attending law school, I went to my community college to take classes in economics.  In my role now, that expanded to a real curiosity about how benefit plans are structured and a continuous desire to improve upon them. When I am working on questions from clients, they sometimes reveal gaps in coverage and lead to a reassessment of plans by the trustees. I am always brainstorming strategies and arguments for how to address them, and the final outcome may be a change to the plan’s benefits and an expansion of coverage.

I could talk benefit plans for hours. They are incredibly interesting, and each one is so specific based on what it’s trying to achieve for its particular participants and available resources.

What do you like best about working at Holm & O’Hara LLP?

I really like the team that I work with. Our firm’s retired founding partner, Vin [O’Hara], built an incredible labor group with great clients that care not just about their participants but also about doing things right. Our Labor team here operates in much of the same manner, considering not just our legal obligations towards the participants, but striving to produce the most advantageous outcomes for them.

What are some changes you’ve seen in benefit law over the past few years?

There have been many changes in benefit law in just the past five years.  Starting with the SECURE Act, which made several changes to laws regarding retirement plans, the age when a participant must start taking distributions from their retirement account changed from 70 ½ to 72 to now 73 and will change again to 75 in another few years. All these changes require updates to plan documents and plan administration, and sending notices to the participants. In addition, federal, state and local governments enacted many employment and benefit laws in response to the COVID pandemic. This affected paid sick leave, timelines for employee benefits, different types of distributions from retirement plans, applications for relief from the government; the list goes on. Some of these laws have since sunset, but some still remain.

On top of all these changes, there have also been large compliance changes for healthcare plans. Now, these plans have several new annual filings and reports related to prescription drugs, mental health and the types of contracts they have. All these changes have made it an interesting time to work in ERISA and employee benefits.

What do clients sometimes misunderstand about your role?

For the most part, we work very well with our clients. However, sometimes they may be quick to reply to issues or complaints with their participants or providers without first consulting us. That quick reply can make a mountain out of a mole hill—even just a matter of wording can unnecessarily prolong or complicate a matter. When clients encounter infrequent or new issues—these should, in particular, be examined by counsel to avoid a future escalation.

We are here to help clients find answers. Sometimes clients are expecting to hear back a “no” from us, so they avoid reaching out. But it’s always advisable for them to do so, even if they are expecting the worst. Although we may have to counsel them that they can’t do something, it is often followed by an alternate solution.

Ultimately, we’re here to try and make our clients’ lives easier; but occasionally things become more difficult in the short-term in an effort to avoid larger future consequences and promote longer-term benefits later.

We vigorously represent our business, individual, and estate clients in a wide range of legal actions, whether they are the plaintiffs or the respondents

The attorneys in our labor practice collaborate closely with our union clients, their business managers and members in a broad spectrum of areas

Holm & O’Hara LLP’s Trusts & Estates practice is dedicated to crafting effective estate plans that honor your wishes and safeguard your assets

Holm & O’Hara LLP’s attorneys have decades of experience representing purchasers, sellers, and borrowers in commercial and residential real estate matters

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