Posts Categorized: The Profession

Honoring Volunteerism as Something We Do FOR Our Families, Not TO Our Families, at the BBA Law Day Dinner

Last night, I had the honor of hosting the BBA’s annual Law Day Dinner at the Seaport World Trade Center. The event is always enjoyable for me; it’s a rare opportunity to see so many of my colleagues and friends in a lively, social setting. But last night was even more special for several reasons.

First, I had the chance to recognize three talented and dedicated professionals who have made remarkable contributions to public service and have unwaveringly worked to improve the lives of people in need.

Second, I was thrilled to have our new Attorney General, Maura Healey, there with me to give the keynote speech. I came to know Maura through her service on the BBA Council, and I can tell you that she is every bit as engaging, fair-minded and thoughtful in the board room as she is on the big stage.

During her keynote, Maura delivered a heartfelt and moving tribute to the BBA, claiming that she “grew up” at 16 Beacon and attributed many of her core values to what she had learned as a bar member. It was a reminder of why I chose to become involved in the bar myself.

Finally, it was wonderful to be able to share part of the evening with my beautiful daughter Skye, who is five years old.

People often wonder why working parents take on volunteer roles, such as my role with the BBA, in addition to their roles as parents and professionals.

My answer is that doing bar association work makes our community a better place.  This work becomes more important, not less important, when you have a child.  Volunteerism is something we do for our families, not to our families, and I believe that children fundamentally understand this.

Skye and I often look at select pictures in the newspaper and talk about what is happening in the world, and how it is often up to the lawyers to make things better. A few months ago Skye spotted Tom Bean’s picture on the front page of the Mass Lawyers Weekly newspaper honoring the top lawyers for 2014.  Skye said, “That’s Tom from church!”

I said that it was Tom Bean from church, and that Tom – who was in attendance at the dinner – was being recognized for letting people decide for themselves whether gambling in Massachusetts is right or wrong by putting it to a vote.

Skye then started asking about other lawyers, like Allison Wright of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. Skye and I talked about what it must be like to be gay in Uganda, where they had laws saying who you were allowed to love, and how Allison was able to help a gay rights leader from Uganda live in the United States where he could be safe and love whomever he wanted.

It was a wonderful way for me to show my daughter that being an attorney is about helping people. And I’m so glad she could be there to see us as a community of lawyers honor three professionals who help people every day. That’s what we as lawyers do, and it’s why 1,300 of us came together last night to celebrate. I hope those in attendance found the evening to be as special and inspirational as I did.

Speaking Out Against the Death Penalty in the Context of the Boston Marathon Trial

If someone had asked me before today to name something I had in common with both Secretary of State John Kerry and Sister Helen Prejean, I would have been hard pressed for an answer. Not anymore.

This week, I had the honor of accepting on behalf of the BBA the Mass Citizens Against the Death Penalty’s Herbert and Sara Ehrmann Award. In choosing us to receive this award, MCADP highlighted the hard work and deep analysis that went into creating the BBA’s Death Penalty Report of 2013, as well as our 40-year history of opposition to capital punishment.

This is a complex and controversial issue. I understand and respect that not everyone – BBA members and nonmembers alike – will agree with the Association’s position. That aside, it was gratifying to see the careful research and thoughtful analysis of the Working Group be recognized.

I shared the honors with Professor Stephen Nathanson of Northeastern University, who received the Hugo A. Bedau Award for his book, An Eye for Eye: The Immorality of Punishing by Death.

I had the chance to meet and speak with MCADP Chairman David Ehrmann, grandson of Herbert and Sara, for whom the award is named. I was humbled to realize that the reception and award ceremony is not an annual event, but something that is given out when the board is moved by an individual’s or group’s actions. In addition to the BBA, the award has been given to John Kerry, the Archdiocese of Boston, and Sister Helen Prejean.

During the course of the evening, both Ehrmann and MCADP President James Rooney cited BBA’s 2013 Report, which was a team effort led by Marty Murphy and Judge Margaret Hinkle.  The report makes the case that the death penalty is fundamentally inconsistent with the fair administration of our system of justice, pointing out that:

  • The inevitability of error in criminal cases makes it overwhelmingly likely that reliance on the death penalty will lead to the execution of innocent defendants.
  • In practice, the death penalty has a disproportionate impact on members of racial and ethnic minorities.
  • Pursuit of the death penalty is an inordinately expensive gesture, inconsistent with the sensible allocation of resources in a criminal justice system already laboring under great financial strain.

These systemic flaws compel us to speak openly against capital punishment, even when the facts of a particular case do not appear to raise questions about innocence or discrimination.

As many of you may know, the BBA rarely comments on specific cases.  But in the case of Boston Marathon bombing, we did. And I have to say that I’m really proud that we chose to emphasize our death penalty position in the context of what is arguably the most watched trial in recent history.

In the weeks that have followed our public call for the Department of Justice to take the death penalty off the table in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I have had many conversations with people about our position.  I have given interviews with NPR and spoken to reporters of all kinds, have debated the issue with David Yas in the podcast Unbillable Boston, and have debated a Boston Herald reporter in a BBC radio broadcast.

I think what has struck me about these discussions is how receptive people are to hearing the reasons behind why we came to oppose the death penalty decades ago and continue that opposition today: reasons that are rooted in data and focused on the fair administration of justice.

Even when we’ve agreed to disagree, the discussions have been civil and respectful, which can be a challenge when emotions are running high.

We don’t yet know what the sentence will be in the Boston Marathon trial, but I’m proud of what the BBA has added to the public discourse on this issue, and I’m grateful that – in receiving this award from the oldest abolition organization in the nation – the dedicated volunteers of MCADP feel we have added value as well.

A Look at Limited Assistance Representation

As I’ve already mentioned in this blog, one of the most exciting parts about beginning my term as BBA President has been the opportunity to meet with leaders of the courts and discuss current topics of concern for the bench and the bar. The chief judges and justices have all expressed the desire to continue to work closely with the BBA on matters of mutual interest.

It’s no surprise that one of those matters is access to justice, a major area of focus for both the courts and the BBA. We of course plan to maintain the momentum from the release of “Investing in Justice,” our task force report on civil legal aid, but there are many other steps to take in the meantime. One subject that has come up repeatedly in my meetings with court leaders is Limited Assistance Representation, its place in the courts, and its potential expansion.

Limited Assistance Representation (or LAR) is currently available to litigants in the Massachusetts Probate & Family Court, Land Court, Housing Court, District Court, and Boston Municipal Court.  Although many people are unaware of its existence, LAR has the potential to offer great benefits to litigants who would otherwise be handling their legal matters pro se. When using LAR, an attorney and client decide, before any legal work has been started, what portion of the case each will be responsible for and what sort of fee arrangement might be appropriate. This way, instead of navigating the legal system entirely on their own, self-represented litigants have some support in the more complex aspects of their individual cases. In some situations, litigants can seek LAR for reduced fee, or even occasionally on a pro bono basis.

LAR allows lawyers at all stages of their careers to get involved in cases that truly need the guidance of someone familiar with the legal system, but without committing to the full case, which could take up a great deal of time and require services beyond what the client can afford. It’s a way for experienced attorneys to support the cause of access to justice, and also gives newer attorneys who are not yet established a chance to gain some practical legal experience. After a specialized training session on how to approach these cases and work with clients on just a single or limited portion of the case, attorneys can manage different portions of multiple cases and charge for the assistance they provide, which is beneficial to the participating attorneys and also makes more affordable legal services available to litigants.

In this way, we see LAR as one of the potential methods to bridge the gap between attorneys seeking work and individuals who need legal services. Let me put this in perspective: in 2012, a briefing paper by the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission found that approximately 75% of litigants with a case in the Housing Court were self-represented; broken down further, almost 95% of those defending a case in that court were self-represented. Those numbers have not decreased over the past couple of years, and that is troubling. The glut of pro se litigants in this court and others needs to be alleviated in order for the courts to operate more efficiently in the service of justice.

The BBA is constantly exploring ways to improve access to justice in our state. To that end, the BBA is pleased to offer LAR training and serve as a resource for attorneys seeking LAR certification. In the comings months, the BBA will continue to consider the role that LAR and other methods of improving access to justice can play in better meeting the needs of our courts and the litigants who appear before them. This is an ongoing effort, and one which I hope we can continue to count on the legal community to support.

Pro Bono Month and the Work of the Private Bar

“Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.” – The American Bar Association

 

October is Pro Bono Month at the BBA and across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – a time for us to recognize and celebrate meaningful pro bono contributions to the legal community and learn more about how else we as attorneys can make a positive difference.

With the pending release of the report from the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, this month takes on a deeper meaning.  Let me share one figure from the Task Force’s report with you: the estimated market value of time donated by attorneys through pro bono work with just four Boston-area legal services providers in 2013 was $17.6 million, representing the value of over 82,000 hours contributed.

This is a staggering number, and all the people behind that number deserve our wholehearted respect and applause.  In Massachusetts, lawyers are expected by the Board of Bar Overseers to donate at least 25 hours per year of their time to pro bono legal services – and many attorneys go above and beyond this.  You may recall Law Day Dinner this past year, when Mayor Marty Walsh asked the crowd of 1,300 attorneys and other representatives from the legal community how many would be involved in a pro bono project in the coming year; almost everybody raised their hands.  As Mayor Walsh succinctly put it, “Boston’s legal community has an established tradition – and an active culture – of pro bono legal work.”

Many others show their commitment to the cause by answering the call to donate 1% of their incomes to legal aid and similar causes.  Those who pledge to the Boston Bar Foundation, for example, are supporting both legal services organizations and pro bono initiatives, since the Foundation provides grants to legal services and community organizations as well as funding for pro bono initiatives of the Association.

Even as we celebrate and laud the generous donations of time and resources made by members of the private bar, we must be aware that their contributions alone can never meet the entire need.  Pro bono work by the private bar provides crucial support to legal services organizations, and, judging by the numbers, attorneys are actively engaged in this area.  Yet, with the rising number of income-qualifying individuals that legal services organizations are forced to turn away every year, there is no way the private bar alone can entirely bridge the gap between those who need legal aid and those who receive it.

In short, there is still much more work to be done.  This is why we are looking forward to the full report of the Task Force to recommend steps not only to fund legal services organizations, but to create more opportunities for the private bar to help address the unmet need.  The Legislature has been instrumental in this effort thus far.  We appreciate their support of this cause and look forward to continuing to partner with them in the future as we work to secure legal assistance for all who need it.

If you want to get more involved in pro bono work, there are numerous ways to do so.  The website at www.massprobono.org is a great resource for finding pro bono opportunities across the state.  Many cases require special training, which is why the BBA partners with community legal services organizations every year to create a full slate of pro bono events and training sessions every October.  You can find that calendar here.

I would urge you to consider getting involved, or, if you are involved already, increasing that involvement and encouraging other attorneys to join you in taking pro bono cases and volunteering time and expertise.  There is still much work to be done.  I am confident that if we continue to give as generously as we have in the past, if we continue to show our commitment to advancing access to justice, and if we continue to work alongside our partners across the legal community and in the government to implement the Task Force’s forthcoming recommendations, we will make even greater strides in meeting the need for legal assistance in our state.

Supporting Our Judiciary

One of the most rewarding aspects of serving as BBA President is that I have the privilege to meet with the Chief Justices of our state and federal courts in Massachusetts to discuss matters of interest to the bench and the bar. It is a rare opportunity to talk on a one-on-one basis about how we may work together in the coming year, and one that I have been very much looking forward to. This week, I’ve had the honor of speaking with Chief Justice Paula Carey and Court Administrator Harry Spence of the Massachusetts Trial Court, Chief Justice Angela Ordoñez of the Probate & Family Court, and Chief Justice Steven Pierce of the Housing Court, with more meetings to come throughout the fall.

As you know, supporting increased funding for the judiciary has always been a major priority of the BBA, and it is one that I fully intend to advance in my year as President. We have talked about the cause a great deal, but we don’t always go into the background details about why we consider it so crucial. Our courts face many challenges that can hinder access to justice, and even affect the quality of justice. Here are just some of the issues the courts face on a daily basis and some of the changes they hope to implement in the future to enhance efficiency and improve the court experience for all users:

  • The caseloads of all of the courts are far higher than you might expect. The Probate & Family Court alone saw almost 160,000 cases filed in FY2013; altogether, the Trial Court saw just under 1 million filed. Even for cases that never make it to the courtroom, the accompanying paperwork, as well as the time spent handling them, stretches thin the limited resources of the courts.
  • Likewise, the numbers of pro se litigants that come through the courts place a burden on court staff members, as they have to devote precious extra time to giving guidance and providing materials to litigants who are unfamiliar with the court system and are not always prepared to properly present their cases.
  • Relieving this burden and ensuring access to justice for those who cannot afford representation, or who have entered the system struggling with difficulties like substance addiction, is a priority of the courts – and of the BBA. The Trial Court has implemented several initiatives to provide support for these individuals, including the Brooke Courthouse Court Service Center, a workshop for self-represented litigants to access court services and individualized attention from volunteer attorneys. In addition, specialty courts provide treatment plans attuned to the particular needs of those dealing with substance abuse and/or mental health problems, as well as to struggling veterans. These are a critical part of the expansion of the courts.  The latest budget for the Trial Court includes a line-item funding specialty courts, and this appropriation is a positive first step in the right direction.  After speaking with the Chief Justices, I am convinced that there is a need to expand these programs further.
  • Implementing advanced technological upgrades will be an essential part of streamlining the courts. In the long run, these improvements promise efficiency and ease of use, and we must be willing in invest in them today.
  • Apart from the internal systemic maintenance that the courts require, the physical courthouses themselves need work as well. Several are long overdue for repairs and basic accessibility features, such as handicap entrances and routes.

Advocating for increased funding for the judiciary is certainly about improving the infrastructure for the court staff and judges; but it also affects litigants who pass through the courthouse, often without having a clear idea of how to pursue justice, and the attorneys who practice within its walls. This isn’t just a responsibility we take on by rote – it is one of the BBA’s core tenets. We recognize that our judges and court personnel do incredibly difficult work every day to see justice served, and we remain steadfastly committed to working with the courts to help them continue to do so. The people of Massachusetts demand, and deserve, nothing less.

Annual Meeting and the Power of the Bar

This past Friday, the BBA held its Annual Meeting Luncheon, the first major event of the program year and my first major event as President of the BBA. It was a truly spectacular experience to stand on that stage and look out at nearly 1,200 members of the legal community – attorneys, esteemed judges, government representatives, and many more – who had gathered in force to honor the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts and former BBA President Ed Barshak.

The opportunity to personally present these awards reminded me exactly why we were all there: to express our gratitude to those who have worked and are still working to substantively change the legal community, and Boston, for the better. We are lucky to have leaders with the vision and passion to start initiatives that produce meaningful, tangible results, from Ed Barshak’s Committee on School Desegregation to the imminent report of the Task Force, which I believe will change the debate on the value of legal services. They truly represent the power of the bar to make a difference, which struck me profoundly on Friday. That power resides not only in the incredible work of our honorees, but also in the support and mobilization of the legal community around a variety of issues that are critically important to our community.

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BBA Past President J.D. Smeallie and his Task Force have made incredible strides over the last year in exploring the issue of civil legal aid, working across all branches of government and with pro bono independent economic experts. We are awaiting their findings, but we expect they will help us make the case that civil legal aid constitutes a benefit to society rather than a cost, as every dollar invested in such aid results in a savings of two to five dollars to the Commonwealth and its residents. As President of the BBA, J.D. Smeallie led the charge to work on this issue; the enthusiastic support and determined research of representatives from across the legal system and across Massachusetts have made the report a reality.

Likewise, Ed Barshak is a true leader who exhibits great wisdom, humility, and compassion. When the City of Boston faced a major challenge in the 1970s, he was not afraid to act, and his guidance brought the BBA more fully to the forefront of the Boston community as a reputable and respected voice of reason. As he organized a committee to study the legal case and resulting school desegregation plan in Boston, Ed knew what everyone who has held a leadership position at the BBA knows: that despite all of our members being busy professionals, volunteers will always step forward when the need arises.

Barshak

This is what makes us great, as an organization and as a community, and why it was doubly meaningful to see and meet with so many attendees at our sold-out Annual Meeting Luncheon. The event symbolizes the start of a new program year, and to have nearly 1,200 members of the legal community present to welcome each other, share ideas, offer standing ovations to our honorees, and generally show their support for the continued improvement of the profession, and our society as a whole, was inspiring.

When we talk about the power of the bar and our ability to effect substantive change in our community, we rightly think of leaders like Ed Barshak, J.D. Smeallie, and the members of his Task Force. But even the BBA itself – an organization that has prospered over the past 300 years due to the steady commitment of volunteers, who give their time simply because they believe in these causes and find fulfillment in working on them – showcases the true power of the bar: not just strength in numbers, but strength in our conviction, passion, and drive to support great work.

I would like to thank our honorees again for their work to improve our community, as well as New York Times reporter Adam Liptak for his heartfelt speech about his late friend and former colleague Tony Lewis and what “freedom of the press” truly means. I must also thank all who attended Annual Meeting – and all our members who find the time, year in and year out, to bolster the power of the bar for the benefit of all. If Friday was any indication of what is to come, we have a full and productive year ahead.

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