2017-18 MBA President Christopher P. Sullivan.
Outgoing Massachusetts Bar Association President Christopher P. Sullivan set a clear tone for the 2017-18 membership year when he urged respect for the rule of law and more active participation in democracy. During his ensuing term, the MBA joined the chorus of opposition to immigrant family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, and successfully championed both criminal justice reform and full funding for legal services.
Amid what he calls “an all-out assault on the judicial system,” Sullivan repeatedly emphasized the moral responsibility of lawyers to defend America’s most sacred legal principles. Sullivan specifically lamented the rise in accusations of judicial partiality and the proposed abandonment of due process in immigration proceedings, two fronts on which the MBA adopted firm public stances in 2017-18. In addition to its continued support for an independent judiciary in Massachusetts, the MBA issued a June statement condemning the Trump administration’s border policy of separating migrant children from their parents, which President Trump rescinded later that very same day. (Pictured above: Sullivan, Massachusetts Trial Court Administrator Jonathan S. Williams, Massachusetts Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants.)
“Lawyers are the bulwark of liberty, and it is the responsibility of the bar to step up and advocate for our most precious principles that are enshrined in the Constitution,” Sullivan said. “We, as attorneys, need to be in the forefront to resist any attempts to roll back those constitutionally guaranteed rights.”
The 2017-18 association year also coincided with the formal signing of landmark criminal justice reform legislation, spurred in part by the MBA’s steady commitment to policy-based advocacy under MBA Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin W. Healy and several immediate past MBA presidents. The final bill satisfies many of the MBA’s long-held positions, namely by reducing the waiting period to seal certain records, allowing for the suppression of resisting arrest convictions, elevating the felony larceny threshold, and reforming bail conditions and determinations.
“Criminal justice reform is one of the most important accomplishments of the association over the last five to 10 years, and it will have a lasting impact upon all of the citizens of the commonwealth,” Sullivan said.
Along the same lines, the MBA’s legislative outreach helped secure an additional $3 million in fiscal year 2019 funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, which addresses the overwhelming need for basic legal services. This funding increase will improve legal outcomes for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, who require assistance with matters related to housing, immigration, family law, domestic violence and health care, among others. (Pictured above: Sullivan speaks at the 19th Annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid at the State House.)
Fulfilling Sullivan’s promise to strengthen the bench-bar relationship, the MBA notably established a Judicial Diversity Task Force to complement existing efforts around increasing minority representation in the Massachusetts court system. As evidenced by its unique capacity to take on this ambitious project, which was first raised by two affiliated bar services, the MBA remains the organization best positioned to uphold the interests of lawyers throughout the commonwealth, Sullivan said. Besides its contributions to the advancement of diversity, the MBA worked alongside members of the judiciary to implement Lawyer for the Day programs across the Housing Court’s now-statewide jurisdiction.
The MBA celebrated these and other accomplishments in April at the 2018 sold-out Annual Dinner, keynoted by CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen (pictured, right), who echoed Sullivan’s message on the historical tradition of lawyers as public servants. A modern example of civic-minded attorneys, Gergen applied his legal background to the role of White House adviser under four separate presidential administrations. Sullivan believes that Gergen’s “thought-provoking” talk will encourage more MBA members to enter the political fray, where their “professional understanding of how laws are enforced” will better serve the Legislature and the people of Massachusetts.
This year’s Annual Dinner also acknowledged the early success of the MBA’s Student Loan Bankruptcy Assistance Project, which provides pro bono representation for insolvent borrowers seeking to discharge their student debt in adversary proceedings. Sullivan noted the occasion by presenting the MBA President’s Award to program Co-chair Francis C. Morrissey, whose ingenuity in confronting this prevalent social issue will benefit student debtors for the foreseeable future.
On the more functional side of leading the association, Sullivan presided during the launch of a fully redesigned website in 2017. When the new MassBar.org went live in October, it marked the culmination of a multi-year effort to bolster the MBA’s online presence and optimize the user experience for members. Sullivan, who hailed the completed project as a long-awaited and signature achievement, said the revamped site succeeds in providing “a much more robust and technologically advanced platform” for professional networking and information access.
Continuing with the theme of innovation, the MBA recently began summer improvements to its first-floor lobby area at 20 West St., which is being remodeled to include private conference rooms and space for members to interact on an informal basis. “The idea is to invite people in to a comfortable place to work and socialize,” and to better accommodate the needs of today’s lawyers, who must be readily accessible to their clients, said Sullivan.
As he prepares to leave the MBA “in great hands” with incoming President Christopher A. Kenney (pictured, right), Sullivan expressed sincere thanks and appreciation to his fellow officers, the 2017-18 slate of section chairs and vice-chairs, Healy, and the “terrific staff” at the MBA’s two offices. “One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most is the relationships I’ve developed with members of the MBA — not only the leaders, but also the rank and file,” said Sullivan, whose presidency concludes on Aug. 31.
Praising Sullivan’s distinct brand of leadership, Healy said, “Chris fearlessly spoke out in such a way that brought a palpable and honorable sense of purpose to the rule of law and the importance that lawyers bring to society. Amid all the vital issues that were ongoing, Chris never lost sight of the individual lawyers and members that he represented throughout the state.”
Reflecting on his stint as president, Sullivan concluded, “It was a very busy and very fulfilling year, packed with a lot of movement forward for the bar association. I feel very good about what the MBA accomplished this year."