Obituary: M.J. Tocci / Tireless worker on behalf of women

May 16, 1953 - Feb. 15, 2014


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When the first class of the Heinz Negotiation Academy for Women graduated, they presented the director of the program with a bag of 100 jelly bracelets all embossed with "WWMJD" for "What would M.J. do?"

M.J. was M.J. Tocci, a former trial lawyer turned legal consultant who made it her life's mission to work with women to help them achieve success, however they defined it.

Ms. Tocci died on Saturday at Canterbury Place in Lawrenceville from ovarian cancer. She was 60.

She founded and was the director of the Heinz Negotiation Academy for Women, a five month-long program for executive women; it was a professional accomplishment of which she was incredibly proud.

"I think of it all the time, 'What would M.J. do?' but practically speaking, I would find that to be impossible. So instead, I try to do what M.J. would advise me to do," said Bonnie Pfister, a graduate of the academy and the content manager for Imaginepittsburgh.com, an initiative of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. Ms. Pfister said she still wears her wristband daily.

Ms. Tocci was also one of the principals in the legal consulting firm Trial Run Inc., working with law firms and government agencies to prepare for major trials and teaching attorneys high-level litigation skills.

She was born in Latrobe on May 16, 1953, named Mary Jane and baptized a Catholic. She changed her name to M.J. in high school and converted to Judiasm when her son, Sam, was a bar mitzvah.

Her father, the late Joseph Tocci, was a basketball coach on the high school and college levels, and the family moved for his jobs. She graduated from the University of Connecticut, where she studied cultural anthropology.

While she was in college, she participated in a program called "urban semester." She spent that semester doing housing discrimination checks, wearing a wire while pretending to be interested in renting an apartment, usually following a black colleague who did the same thing.

At first, she said, she thought she would be bad, tricking people into admitting their intentions to discriminate against black renters. So, she was surprised when she relished it, but what they were doing was so blatantly wrong, and she knew discriminating behavior had to be stopped.

From college she moved to Boston and worked for a couple of years with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Then, realizing the limitations of a government bureaucracy, she went to law school at the University of San Francisco and into a job as a prosecutor for the Alameda County district attorney in Oakland, Calif.

It wasn't a likely fit, a liberal from New England becoming a prosecutor, but a friend had told her that was where the power was: the ability to drop wrongly brought cases and to go after truly bad guys. Over the next 15 years, she prosecuted many cases, starting with smaller scale crimes and ultimately heading the major fraud unit.

"You find out the victims are often elderly people. I had no trouble getting behind that at all," she said in an interview shortly before she died.

While working in California she was named "one of California's most effective prosecutors" by California Lawyer magazine.

She left the district attorney's office after she met Jonathan Rest, a doctor in the area who had always wanted to go back to school to direct plays and films. They had a son, Sam, who was 18 months old when his parents quit their jobs and moved to Pittsburgh in 1996 so Mr. Rest could study at Carnegie Mellon University.

Ms. Tocci never practiced law in Pittsburgh. The California bar does not have reciprocity with Pennsylvania, and she said she never needed to join the bar. Instead she became a consultant, founding Fulcrum Advisors, in which she taught women lawyers how to try cases and worked with law firms and corporations to recruit, retrain and promote talented women.

Her focus on women also lead her to team up with Linda Babcock, a Carnegie Mellon economist, to start the negotiation academy for women.

In 2011 she was given the Athena Award presented by the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.

Ms. Babcock described Ms. Tocci as a "whirlwind Mack truck, a force of nature with a mission and a vision."

She said Ms. Tocci had "an approach that engaged people, made them laugh and made them just as committed as she was."

"I feel that was the key to my success in the D.A.'s office," Ms. Tocci said. "Everyone thought I was just chatting with my friends when I was talking to witnesses and cops and people who weren't friendly to my cause. It's all about relationships."

In addition to her husband and son, she leaves a daughter, Zoe of Highland Park; and two brothers, Timothy of Highland Park and Joseph of Belmont, Mass. A memorial service will be held on April 5.

Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.



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