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September

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Lawyers Journal

Finding opportunity in challenge

I think it is not a curse to say that we are living in interesting times. Challenges surround us, but in each challenge there is opportunity, an opportunity for each of us as individuals and for all of us as an association. It is with those thoughts in mind that I set out some of my presidential to-do list (and believe me, there is a lot more than fits in this column!).

In addition to the great responsibilities to our clients and our families, we have even larger responsibilities to the world we live in. One of those responsibilities is reducing our impact on our environment. The world is facing environmental crisis. Energy supplies are limited and the Earth is warming. The practice of law contributes to these problems in many ways, but in many ways that we can control.

This year, the MBA will become a leader in conservation efforts, not just for law firms, but for business in general. Our recently appointed Energy and Environment Task Force will provide simple and inexpensive guidance on reducing energy use, picking office equipment wisely, reducing resource use, and making the business of law a leader among all businesses in fighting global warming and resource depletion.

On a completely different, but equally important, front, Massachusetts must face the simple reality that our criminal sentencing system is failing in several respects. It costs roughly $45,000 each year to keep a prisoner incarcerated, yet the system is failing to educate, treat or train a large number of inmates. As a result, inmates complete criminal sentences and return to the community without the tools and skills they need to thrive as productive members of society. This translates into a rate of recidivism that is extraordinarily high and prison populations that continue to grow exponentially.
With several simple changes, Massachusetts could resume programs which provided substance abuse treatments, adequate mental health care and treatment, needed education and job training. With reformed sentencing guidelines, post-incarceration supervision could be increased, reducing the rate or recidivism. The benefits to the commonwealth include the rebuilding of families and communities, and ultimately, greatly reduced costs for the prison system. Progress in other states, such as Washington, demonstrates that the successes can be rapidly realized.

An essential first step is the revision of the state’s many mandatory minimum sentences, particularly for drug crimes, which prevent rehabilitation and training opportunities, tie the hands of judges and discriminate against urban and minority communities. There is already clear support in the Statehouse and the governor’s office for such amendments.

The MBA will build a broad coalition for sentencing reforms. One of the first steps will be a Sentencing Symposium at the Statehouse on Oct. 23. I look forward to reaching out to every corner of the legal community, as well as to the business and medical communities, to build a broad consensus on these vital issues.

Our trial courts are making great efforts to improve the throughput of cases, and to make the scheduling of trials more predictable. At the same time, reports from some surveys have indicated that sometimes unmanageable demands are being placed on practitioners and their clients. The quality of our courts cannot be measured solely by the numbers of cases resolved each year; there are much broader measures of justice, of which scheduling is just one factor. I look forward to continuing to develop the MBA’s Bench-Bar Forums to reach into every corner of the state, to make sure our judges hear our members’ concerns, and to work creatively with court leadership to continue to improve the quality and administration of justice.

The MBA has several other projects that will be carried forward this year on the judicial front. The Plain English Jury Instruction project moves into its next phase, with MBA Treasurer Valerie Yarashus as co-chair of a joint bench-bar committee to be appointed with the full support of the SJC. Jury trials depend on engaged, impartial and adequately instructed jurors. We will continue to ask the courts for more meaningful voir dire. I also look forward to urging changes on jury instructions on insurance, liens and set-offs in civil cases.

Of course, the MBA is not just about the big policy issues, it is also about you, our members. You need information that is instantly up-to-date. The MBA will continue to be a national leader in the development of online information sources, alerts on critical cases and the expansion of a Web site suited to your needs.

As individuals, we face the daily challenges of balancing our work lives with our home lives, the stresses of deadlines, client demands, evolving technologies and competition not just from other lawyers, but from the very technology that is flattening the world. Old techniques might still work, but never quite as well. We need to continually strive for that which will keep us successful, and also that which will allow us the opportunity to enjoy our families and our lives.

I worry that lawyers are not as happy or as healthy as they should be. Whether it is the stress of business, the stress of marriage and family, depression or substance abuse, there is opportunity for improvement. I hope this year will not only be one where we make the important policy changes that will serve our justice system, our clients and our bottom lines well, but also one where we can look at ourselves. We need to plan on approaching retirement smiling and healthy, and that task begins today! Take a moment (and if you have a mirror handy, take a look in it), and ask yourself how you can make tomorrow a better day for yourself.

I would like to close with a couple of thank-you’s. I am fortunate to have enormous support for my year as MBA president. I have a wonderful family and a great law firm. The staff at the MBA will never be thanked enough for their dedication, creativity and hard work. And the five officers I have the privilege of working with are a continual source of brilliant ideas, many of which they will be carrying forward this year. We really hope to make a difference.

Your voice is the one we need to hear. Let me hear from you about how you want to get involved, how you think the MBA can better serve the public, and how the MBA can better serve its members. Most of all, this year I look forward to working with you.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association