Murphy sees opportunities to grow MBA in time of challenges

Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020 By Cameron Woodcock
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2020-21 Massachusetts Bar Association President Denise I. Murphy

In a time of growing social unrest and ongoing health concerns related to COVID-19, new Massachusetts Bar Association President Denise I. Murphy sees an opportunity to challenge the status quo within the legal profession. Drawing from her experiences as a young female attorney and now as co-chair of the Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, Murphy will use her platform to pursue institutional change in the areas of diversity and wellness.

A partner at Boston-based Rubin and Rudman LLP and co-chair of its Labor and Employment Department, Murphy broke from family convention when she decided to become an attorney rather than seek employment as a teacher or secretary. Following her graduation from Suffolk University Law School, where she enrolled after a post-college stint as a business owner, Murphy overcame the adversity of being treated differently by colleagues and community members because of her gender. Having remained true to herself in the face of early pressure to conform, Murphy now plans on increasing MBA outreach to others who have felt marginalized, specifically lawyers of color. 

“I want to help the MBA grow and become an ally to people of diverse backgrounds, and to help us all acknowledge that we have an opportunity right now to make our profession more inclusive and diverse. To me, that means taking all of the best that we have at our disposal and welcoming those who have felt either disenfranchised or isolated,” Murphy said.

Noting that minority attorneys have traditionally lacked an equal voice in the legal industry, Murphy said the MBA must provide a forum for open discussion of long-standing inequities and be fully attentive to such concerns. The MBA began to examine the issue of representation in bar leadership under Immediate Past President John J. Morrissey, and Murphy looks forward to resuming these important conversations as part of the nationwide movement for racial justice.

Murphy hopes to create a supportive environment at the MBA where people with differing viewpoints can come together for thoughtful discourse. While acknowledging that feelings of disenfranchisement are not unique to underrepresented groups, she emphasized the need for those with inherent social advantages to embrace and elevate new voices. 

“We need to listen and give voice to those who never had a voice to express it before,” Murphy said. “This isn’t a question of ‘them against us.’ It’s a question about examining our basic humanity, and listening, not just hearing.”

Murphy also intends to expand the MBA’s Judicial Youth Corps and Tiered Community Mentoring programs, which provide pathways to legal employment for high school, undergraduate and law students residing in urban areas. By growing the TCM program beyond Boston and Worcester, and thereby increasing mentoring opportunities for students at all levels of study, Murphy believes that the MBA will help encourage a more diverse crop of future job seekers. In addition to its educational benefits, TCM allows students to see people who look like them in positions of leadership, Murphy said.  

Lawyer Well-Being Focus

To fulfill the second part of her agenda, Murphy will build on her work as co-chair of the SJC Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, a role she has held since January. She previously served as the MBA representative to the SJC Steering Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, whose July 2019 report on the state of attorney wellness has guided the standing committee in its efforts to ease the mental burden of legal practice.

"I have known Denise for many years, but I have worked most closely with her in connection with the critical role she has played in the SJC's efforts to improve lawyer well-being," said SJC Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants. "Denise did yeoman's work on the initial Steering Committee and was rewarded with the bigger task of leading, with her co-chair Justice [Margot] Botsford, the new SJC Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being. I am told by Justice Botsford that Denise's commitment, energy and creativity are greater than anyone reasonably could have hoped for. She has been a sustaining and guiding force in getting this new committee up and running. And her embracing this task with compassion and good humor, while maintaining a busy law practice and handling all her considerable MBA responsibilities, is nothing short of remarkable."  

Describing her time on the standing committee as an illuminating experience, Murphy said she will now aim to cement the MBA’s role as a wellness resource for all attorneys in the commonwealth. That process began in April when the MBA’s Attorney Well-Being Working Group launched a universally accessible webpage directing lawyers to various sources of mental health assistance, and it will continue under the leadership of a now-permanent task force. Co-chaired by MBA Vice President Grace V.B. Garcia and Marianne C. LeBlanc, the task force will help implement wellness programs at county bar associations, explore ways to alleviate the financial strain of law school and support recent graduates preparing for a remote bar exam. 

Given the large number of daily stressors associated with practicing law, Murphy said it is imperative for attorneys to attend to their own emotional well-being while striking an appropriate work-life balance. As MBA president, Murphy will encourage members to think of themselves as human beings and resist the natural urge to deal with their hardships alone, recommending instead that they seek professional help at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

Murphy also hopes to humanize members of the legal profession to the business community and society at large, dispelling the notion of lawyers as unfeeling and adversarial. 

“We are the people that friends, families, relatives and clients call in the middle of the night when there’s something going on. They call us when we’re on vacation and attending weddings and funerals — whenever they need help. We answer that call, but it has a cost,” Murphy said, noting the high rates of substance abuse, depression and anxiety among attorneys. 

Murphy acknowledged that the loss of in-person programming due to COVID-19 will present challenges for the MBA and its members, particularly those who rely on some form of physical peer interaction to maintain their well-being. However, Murphy said the MBA will continue to increase virtual opportunities for social connection and member networking, with active participation by this year’s officers. 

Family Life and MBA Family

DavidDeniseprofileThe MBA has been home to Murphy for more than 33 years, during which time she met her husband, Past President David W. White Jr. (pictured, right), who served from 2007-08. Together, they are the first couple to both hold the office of MBA president. Murphy said this distinction represents a unique shared experience and a special point of pride for her family, which includes her two grown sons, a stepson and a stepdaughter.

Coming from a blue-collar background in Jamaica Plain, where she was raised as the youngest of four daughters, Murphy said she never could have envisioned that she would someday ascend to the presidency. Murphy knew from a young age that she wanted to practice law, having been influenced by the CBS drama “Perry Mason,” even though she was expected to follow a more traditional career path for women. 

After gaining newfound confidence and purpose as a student leader in high school, Murphy went on to graduate from UMass Boston in three and a half years, working two jobs to pay for tuition. Rather than go straight to law school, Murphy initially purchased and ran two businesses until she realized that her real interests lay elsewhere. With some trepidation about the academic and financial demands of legal study, Murphy applied and earned admission to Suffolk Law School, where she thrived as a member of the Law Review.

It was during her law school years that Murphy first became involved in the MBA, a decision based entirely on her employment as a paralegal at Meehan, Boyle and Cohen PC in Boston. Although she initially joined out of necessity, Murphy soon found that she had much in common with the member attorneys in her peer group and has since devoted years of service to the MBA. 

“From law school to her many years as an engaged member at the MBA, Denise has always been driven to help others,” said MBA Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin W. Healy, who was a law school classmate of Murphy’s. “The MBA has already benefited immensely from her leadership over the years, and I have no doubt she will continue to bring people together at the MBA.”

Her fellow officer, President-elect Thomas M. Bond, added: “I have worked closely with Denise as a fellow MBA officer over the past few years. She has a great deal of compassion and empathy for everyone, and I am convinced that will manifest itself during her term as MBA president this year. I am pleased and excited to be working alongside her this year, and am proud to call her my friend.”

A partner at Rubin and Rudman since 2003, Murphy said the MBA has afforded her lifelong friendships and far-reaching connections that continue to pay dividends whenever she travels to other parts of the state. “When I go to a courthouse in Springfield or Greenfield, because I’m an MBA member, I’ve met all of the people. I’m not a person from a big firm in Boston. I’m just Denise Murphy from the MBA,” she said.

As she looks ahead to her presidency, Murphy stressed that she does not have a fixed plan for the coming year and remains open to new initiatives that closely align with the needs of members.

“This year, in the midst of a pandemic and in a time of social unrest, I have a general outline of an agenda, but I’m ready to address anything with the help of the MBA and its staff,” Murphy said. “I think we can face anything together. And when people need us the most, I know that the MBA will be there.”