New MBA President Turco to focus on bridging justice gap, supporting lawyer well-being

Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023 By Cameron Woodcock
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2023-24 MBA President Damian J. Turco

Damian J. Turco’s journey to becoming president of the Massachusetts Bar Association began as a sole practitioner in Florida and then started to take shape when he returned home and set out to establish himself in the local legal market. Eleven years and many leadership engagements after attending his first MBA event, Turco will concentrate his presidency on the pursuit of more equitable justice for civil litigants, individuals served by the state’s innocence programs, and lawyers themselves.

According to Turco, the MBA’s efforts within the civil legal system will center on closing the justice gap for low-income court users whose basic rights may go unfulfilled because they cannot afford to hire attorneys. He said that economic imbalances in access to justice are especially prevalent and damaging for litigants in the areas of housing, debt collection, and family law — because lawyers have less financial incentive and, candidly, financial ability to take on clients without the ability to pay typical attorney fees. 

“While thousands of Massachusetts attorneys dedicate their careers or a substantial amount of their professional lives to helping those in the justice gap, a significant gap persists. Lawyers in several practice areas, family law included, tend to serve those on the upper end of the income spectrum. This often leaves those with the greatest need for help unrepresented. Individuals and families being evicted from their homes for nonpayment of rent are more likely to avoid homelessness and resolve their cases by agreement with the assistance of an attorney because an attorney helps hold the other party accountable for their legal shortcomings. The same is true for litigants defending debt collection cases or seeking fair and reasonable results in family law cases,” said Turco, who is the founder and managing partner of Turco Legal PC, a 12-attorney divorce and family law firm with offices in Andover, Boston, Newburyport, and Newton. 

When litigants don’t have attorneys in these important types of cases, they’re more likely to experience inequitable results. To address this need, Turco said that the MBA will work with legal aid organizations across the state to increase the availability of technological resources and automated forms for self-represented parties. Turco’s focus on legal technology and its empowering potential for pro se litigants is a natural extension of his role as the co-founder and president of JusticeApp, which enables users to manage all aspects of their cases in one central location.

To coincide with his emphasis on civil justice, Turco will aim to strengthen legal advocacy for victims of wrongful convictions through increased support to the Committee for Public Counsel Services Innocence Program, the New England Innocence Project and the Boston College Innocence Program. Given the funding and personnel shortages facing these groups, Turco plans to support their important efforts with educational outreach to prospective volunteers and to raise money to aid in their delivery of legal services. 

In its primary fundraiser for both innocence and legal aid organizations, the MBA will hold a Fall Festival & Run for Justice on Sunday, Oct. 29, at Artesani Park in Boston. Conceived by Turco and his wife, Melina Muñoz Turco, the event will feature food, games and live music, along with a charitable run around the Charles River. The event will be free to attend and will raise money through sponsorships and donations.

In discussing the impetus behind the fundraiser and the importance of community-wide support for innocence causes, Turco cited the impact of incarceration on affected individuals and their loved ones.  

“An individual wrongfully convicted, sitting in a prison cell while their family continues without their contribution and presence, is a great injustice that deserves our attention. We know there are wrongfully convicted individuals serving prison terms and we must do more to address the issue,” he said.

More broadly, Turco said that attorneys have a moral and collective obligation to ensure that the legal system lives up to its promise of equal justice for all. 

“Our system of adjudication is meant to maximize fair, impartial justice, and it’s really impossible to attain that when we have gaps in the system,” Turco said. “I view these issues as our responsibility — we’re the lawyers, we’re the leaders in our legal community, and we’re the ones who should be advocates in pushing forward on better solutions, better resources, and more effort.”

As part of the third phase of his agenda, Turco will seek to advance justice for lawyers by shining a continued spotlight on mental health concerns and issues of representation within the legal community. Turco said that lawyers often shoulder a heavy emotional burden due to the vicarious experience of representing clients during times of major upheaval and the struggle to find work-life balance in a competitive and high-stress environment. Along with the widespread anecdotal evidence of the pressures involved in practicing law, a recent report by NORC at the University of Chicago offers definitive proof that Massachusetts attorneys suffer from high rates of burnout, anxiety, and depression, Turco said.

Against that backdrop, Turco said that the MBA will take further steps to promote supportive and inclusive cultures in legal workplaces, with several initiatives planned by the Lawyer Well-Being Committee. In Turco’s view, it’s well established that lawyers are engaged to manage complicated and sometimes traumatic matters, and that they carry the associated burden in a way not experienced by other professionals. In addition, because attorneys often experience emotional challenges unique to their practice areas, Turco said that the MBA will work to address lawyer well-being with increased regard for these individual considerations. 

“Our jobs are to be the best advocates and problem-solvers and do our best to address our clients’ issues. That can’t mean we sacrifice our own well-being in the process. The NORC report puts it in very clear terms. We need to do more to support well-being in the practice of law and we’ll continue to lead on this at the MBA,” Turco said.

Legal Career and MBA Involvement

Although he hadn’t formulated a clear career path while attending high school in his hometown of Andover, Turco still remembers vocalizing that he was sure he did not want to become a lawyer. Following his graduation from Bryant College in Rhode Island, Turco developed a newfound interest in the law when he increasingly found himself working through legal issues as part of his job at TJX Companies — with a non-practicing attorney serving as his boss and mentor. 

Inspired by this formative experience at TJX, and knowing that he eventually wanted to open his own business, Turco enrolled at New England Law | Boston and began to visualize his future career while taking a course in law practice management. Turco started his post-law-school journey in Florida, where he passed the bar exam and launched his solo firm one day after being sworn in as an attorney. 

According to Turco, he spent his early days in the profession learning how to practice law and run a business, initially working close to 100 hours a week to ensure the success of his new venture. “Working that much when I was a new lawyer, I later learned, was unnecessary in building a successful practice. But I was really doing it out of fear. I was successful in building my Florida practice. I helped hundreds of clients and employed a dozen staff members but working that much was a mistake. When I returned to Massachusetts, I was determined to find a better way.” 

Turco sold his Florida practice in 2012 and returned to Massachusetts to found Turco Legal. He works about 40 hours a week and sets billable hour requirements well below the average for his team, providing billable credits for vacation time taken. He emphasizes the importance of diversity, well-being, and flexibility and support for employees in their family lives. Given the success and growth of his firm over the last 11 years, Turco believes that he can serve as an example to other senior leaders who favor the traditional structure of legal practice and billable hours.

“I hope to lead by example and be a catalyst for change by demonstrating what’s achievable — a growing, profitable, formidable practice incorporating all of the initiatives we pursue today across our legal community,” Turco said. 

Turco’s evolution as a managing attorney also corresponds with his involvement in the MBA, which he originally joined to establish credibility among potential clients and build connections within the state legal community — with no real intention of serving as president. While he still counts the MBA as his largest source of referrals, he has found an even greater sense of fulfillment in meeting lifelong friends and working on issues of importance to fellow lawyers and members of the public. 

“I don’t know of any other group I would rather be around or build friendships with than the people at the MBA — and you don’t have to be an officer to do that. I don’t think any factor has had a more positive impact on my career than getting involved in the MBA,” Turco said. 

Now a long-standing presence on MBA boards and committees, Turco was first appointed to the Law Practice Management Section Council and later served as its vice chair and chair. In addition to nurturing his love for small-firm marketing and administration, that initial committee assignment helped Turco increase his visibility within the organization and motivated him to seek other leadership opportunities at the MBA. He has gone on to serve in notable roles on the Executive Management Board, Budget & Finance Committee, and Civility and Professionalism Committee, with his most gratifying work coming as a member and then chair of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Scholarship Committee.

The attributes that have carried Turco through the MBA’s leadership ranks and into his current position as president are also at the heart of his aptitude for handling divorce cases. Turco said he has a naturally even temperament and that his ability to de-escalate emotionally charged situations goes back to the training he received in employee relations at TJX Companies. In addition, Turco believes strongly in the importance of deriving enjoyment from one’s occupation, and he has embodied that philosophy in exercising his inherent passion for family law and for the work of the MBA.

Speaking along those lines, MBA Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin W. Healy said, “Damian’s measured demeanor and driven commitment to our organization are defining aspects of his character that will continue to serve him well as he completes his term as president. He is a natural leader with a genuine and compassionate interest in improving access to justice for people around the commonwealth, and his priorities as president are both innovative and true to our mission at the MBA.”

In looking ahead to his presidency and ultimate aspirations for the association year, Turco underscored his focus on leading positive change for the legal profession and society at large. 

“My hope is that we can make significant strides in bridging the justice gap and improving well-being in the practice of law,” Turco said. “I hope that when we look back on my presidency year, we’ve made great systematic change as a result of the work we’ve done at the MBA, and that it has a ripple effect throughout the entire legal community.”