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Section Review

Senior Partners for Justice - Life After the Bench

Edward M. GinsburgRetired Justice Edward M. Ginsburg thanks Julie E. Ginsburg; Hon. Eileen Shaevel, Ret.; and Joan E. Kolligian for assisting him with editing and production of this article.

As I approached mandatory retirement after serving 25 years on the Probate and Family Court bench, I noticed two trends that appeared to be unrelated. One was the increasing number of pro se litigants attempting to navigate through the family court system, and the other was an increasing number of senior lawyers who had retired but who were still looking to remain active in the legal profession. From these disparate groups, the idea for Senior Partners for Justice was born. The mission of Senior Partners is to offer legal counsel to indigent litigants before the Probate and Family Court while providing new challenges for lawyers who are available to serve.

Access to justice implies that litigants will have both the opportunity to get into a court and adequate legal representation once in court. A recent op-ed piece in the Boston Globe discussing Gideon's legacy noted "the right to be heard is of little avail if it does not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel." Although Gideon articulated the right for criminal cases, civil litigants in fear of losing their children or their homes or worse should have the same protections. More than half of the litigants appearing in the Probate and Family Court are without legal representation. For the most part, those pro se litigants are unfamiliar with the substantive law and court rules, and often are unaware of the significant facts that will affect the outcome of their cases.

In an effort to address the problem, courts have endeavored to assist pro se litigants through the process. As a result, more people are representing themselves, and the system is becoming overwhelmed. Moreover, the position of the judge also can be seriously compromised. Rather than presiding over the adjudication of complex legal and factual issues, the judge is often required to act as a hearing officer at an administrative procedure trying to tease out facts from warring and uninformed litigants. In the changing area of family law, where the definition of family continues to evolve, a dignified court proceeding in which the judge plays his or her traditional role is essential in allowing the law to develop. For the process to work, legal representation is critical.

Due to the changing demographics in the legal profession there are numbers of experienced lawyers who are potential resources for providing representation to those who cannot otherwise afford counsel. Large law firms are encouraging lawyers in their early 60s to consider retirement in order to provide advancement for younger lawyers. Unless senior lawyers are rainmakers with an established client base, these firms have mandatory retirement dates that often force lawyers out when they are still intellectually and physically vigorous. Many of these lawyers realize that after earning a good living and accumulating a pension and retirement benefits, they now can contribute in a different way to the legal profession. The idealism with which they entered law school is rekindled and they have the time and ability to use their legal skills to help the less fortunate in society. With retraining and the support of other lawyers similarly situated, they can enjoy the new challenge offered by Senior Partners for Justice. They are joined by judges who are forced to retire at age 70 after years of resolving legal disputes but who are not ready to end their professional lives. Many of these retired judges are still interested in doing meaningful work and continuing the collegiality they enjoyed on the bench. Even lawyers who spend their careers in family law have joined the program. Some of them want to slow down and others believe strongly in the concept of payback for what the profession has given to them.

There are a number of organizations that have helped make Senior Partners a reality. Meg Connolly, the executive director of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, offered her organization to recruit and screen litigants for financial eligibility and merit. Volunteer Lawyers Project also will provide malpractice coverage for all the lawyers participating in Senior Partners for Justice, serve as fiscal agent for the project and provide administrative services.

Jack Reilly of MCLE produced 3,500 brochures describing Senior Partners for Justice and mailed them to lawyers who had been practicing for more than 35 years. He is also making MCLE facilities available to bring the senior lawyers together. Monthly gatherings at MCLE for lunch and discussion have been scheduled. At the first meeting in January 2003, Ed Berger, an experienced professional in the area of pension valuation, talked about pensions. He has generously volunteered to prepare qualified domestic relations orders on a pro bono basis for all cases in the Senior Partners project that require them.

Newton lawyer Robert Loventhal, with the strong endorsement of Richard Huber, former Dean of Boston College Law School, has sent solicitation letters to more than 100 law firms. It is hoped that we will receive seed money to develop and expand this venture.

The law firm of McGrath and Kane provides me with office space from which I can operate.

With all of these resources, a fortuity of circumstances has coalesced into an opportunity to act. The French philosopher Voltaire is reputed to have said words to the effect: "There is nothing more powerful than an idea that has come of age."

Senior Partners for Justice came into being on Oct. 14, 2002, the day after my mandatory retirement. Like former President Jimmy Carter, whose post-presidential years serve as a role model for all of us, I was sure that many others shared similar views. I have been meeting and talking with potential participants about this project. There are now more than 30 Senior Partners for Justice who come from a wide variety of legal backgrounds. Among them, there are three retired district court judges, a retired Probate and Family Court judge, a retired labor lawyer and a former tort lawyer. There are several general practitioners and family lawyers who are phasing out their practices or joining Senior Partners for Justice as an added activity.

The members of Senior Partners for Justice who have little or no experience in family law are offered a two-part training program run by Jill Crockett at the Volunteer Lawyers Project and in which I participate. Everything from how to fill out a divorce complaint to arguing a motion is discussed. No question is too simple, and every effort is made to foster collegiality and confidence. Senior Partners for Justice also are provided with a list of more than 20 experienced family lawyers who have agreed to act as mentors and give advice on an as-needed basis.

To date we have one legal intern. I am soliciting interest from area law schools for students to do the footwork for Senior Partners in exchange for senior mentoring. In this way, Senior Partners will have an added opportunity for intellectual stimulation.

Senior Partners for Justice has a distinguished Board of Advisors from a variety of legal and non-legal backgrounds. These advisors include former presidents of the Massachusetts Bar Association and Boston Bar Association, a retired Probate and Family Court judge, the former head of the Merrimack Valley Legal Services and the first Peace Corps director to Pakistan, who is experienced in working with volunteers.

I have found the challenge of getting Senior Partners for Justice in operation both thrilling and humbling. To find people of good will, such as those previously mentioned and many others who have given generously of their personal, professional and economic resources to help this program meet what everyone knows is a serious legal need, is most heartwarming. Watching the enthusiasm of the Senior Partners for Justice as they rise to a new challenge has its own reward. Historically, pro bono work was something done mainly by entry-level lawyers just out of law school. The economics of paying back college and law school loans, and raising a family have forced lawyers to postpone gratifying their idealistic impulses until later in their careers.

Senior Partners for Justice provides a unique opportunity for lawyers to make a meaningful contribution and "pay back" for what a legal education has offered to each of us. The time commitment is flexible. Lawyers can take as many or as few cases as they wish. If they are away at certain seasons of the year, coverage can be arranged. They can choose from a variety of family law cases and select the counties where they prefer to go. They will get sociability and ongoing contact with lawyers and, if they wish, law students to help them.

To join, write Edward M. Ginsburg, Senior Partners for Justice, c/o McGrath and Kane, One Longfellow Place, Suite 3610, Boston, MA 02114. Or, call (617) 523-5600 or cellular telephone (617) 645-9262 and ask for Edward Ginsburg. I look forward to having you on board.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association