MBA President Christopher A. Kenney speaks at his opening reception in September 2018.
One year after dedicating his Massachusetts Bar Association presidency to the promotion of civic engagement and responsible citizenship, Christopher A. Kenney is hopeful that the initial success of several programs launched in 2018-19 will extend well into the future. With initiatives ranging from charitable and educational outreach to specialized training for trial lawyers and immigration advocates, Kenney worked on many fronts to encourage active participation in Massachusetts civic life.
Kenney, whose term will conclude on Aug. 31, took office shortly after the House and Senate passed legislation mandating enhanced civics instruction in the commonwealth’s public schools. In one of his first acts as president, Kenney vowed to support the national nonprofit organization iCivics in its efforts to design an eighth-grade civics curriculum based on the requirements of the new law.
When iCivics expressed a primary need for financial assistance, Kenney and his fellow officers organized a February trivia event featuring questions from the U.S. citizenship exam to raise the funds necessary for curriculum research and development. All told, the sold-out MBA Civics Bee brought in more than $15,000 for iCivics (pictured right), exceeding its fundraising goal thanks to the generosity of sponsoring organizations and auction donors.
Kenney said the MBA’s donation will directly impact student learning in Massachusetts schools for years to come, empowering future generations to function as engaged citizens in society. “All of those students will go out armed with that civics education to make a difference in their own communities. Perhaps someday, some of them will be lawyers and MBA members and, in turn, assist in the promotion of civics education and engagement,” Kenney said.
To continue the theme of civic empowerment, the MBA joined with Project Citizenship in presenting a CLE program for member lawyers willing to provide pro bono representation to disabled immigrants during the naturalization process. Held at the MBA in April, the training session equipped attendees with the skills needed to effectively advocate for eligible permanent residents who are unable to complete the citizenship test.
With all participants responsible for handling at least one naturalization interview at the conclusion of their training, Kenney said the program will ultimately change the course of people’s lives and benefit the country’s larger civic interests. “All of these clients can go forth as new American citizens and have a role in promoting the rights and responsibilities of citizenship,” he said.
After he previously co-founded the MBA Leadership Academy to address the lack of development opportunities for young lawyers, Kenney brought a similarly innovative approach to his role as president, establishing a two-day “boot camp” on the fundamentals of trial practice. More than 30 attorneys took part in the MBA’s first Trial Academy (pictured above), where they received instruction from a faculty of accomplished litigators and ran through a hypothetical civil lawsuit complete with jurors and witnesses.
Course participants will now go on to volunteer their services to pro se litigants in the Boston Municipal and District courts, offering legal representation on a limited-assistance basis. In addition to helping individual parties succeed at trial, MBA attorneys will serve a broader purpose in the court system by supporting the timely administration of justice and be better prepared to develop their own litigation practices.
Under Kenney’s leadership, the MBA also conducted a series of classroom presentations at high schools around the commonwealth to educate students about the importance of civic awareness and highlight the judicial branch as an institution of democracy. Organized in conjunction with Law Day 2019, this community-service initiative served to demonstrate the pivotal role of lawyers in society and to stimulate student interest in civic affairs and legal careers, Kenney said.
Citing the large field of volunteer lecturers and the high level of coordination between members and staff, Kenney said the project underscores the MBA’s unique ability to act as an instrument of positive change in legal and public circles.
“It’s really the MBA as an association, working through its remarkable staff and dedicated members, that can be a lever for making an impact in our society in so many different ways,” Kenney said. “This year they certainly did so with regard to civics.”
The 2018-19 association year will also be remembered for a powerful keynote speech delivered by Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck (pictured right) at May’s Annual Dinner. A nationally renowned trial attorney and law school professor, Scheck discussed his pioneering work in post-conviction DNA testing, which recently helped exonerate a Louisiana man who wrongly served 36 years in prison for rape and attempted murder.
Kenney said Scheck’s remarks only reinforced the connection between legal employment and civic service, offering an important reminder that lawyers are often “the last line of defense in protecting one’s freedom.” The noble mission of the Innocence Project, Kenney said, coincides with an attorney’s basic obligation to ensure due process in the court system and “brings to mind the highest calling of the legal profession.”
For Kenney, a career-long member of the MBA, there was no greater honor or responsibility than serving as president during the 2018-19 year. In particular, he said he felt privileged to represent the interests of lawyers around the commonwealth while meeting with elected officials, business leaders and members of the judiciary.
“As president of the MBA, Chris encouraged us all to think deeply about our responsibilities as citizens and assume a more proactive role in supporting the next wave of civic leaders,” said MBA Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin W. Healy. “His leadership in establishing several impactful programs will leave an indelible mark on the MBA and on society at large.”
Kenney also enjoyed a strong working relationship with his fellow officers and the MBA’s professional staff, both of whom he credits with ushering in a host of successful new initiatives. Going forward, Kenney plans to remain actively involved in the MBA and said he is eager to support his successor and close friend, incoming President John J. Morrissey (pictured right).
“I’m proud to be an MBA member and will be an MBA member to my dying day,” Kenney said. “I will be happy to assist John, the other officers and the MBA in general in any way that I can for the remainder of my legal career.”