Building a better bar and a better society

Issue October 2003 By Richard C. Van Nostrand

This past summer, I watched as my nephew, who had recently graduated from law school, went through the ordeal of studying for and taking the bar examination. Like so many of his fellow freshly minted graduates, he proceeded into the fall faced with the realities of a difficult job market and an overwhelming educational debt load. Furthermore, in the background was public disaffection, dislike, even apparent hatred of lawyers coming from numerous directions.

This caused me to reflect upon why one chooses to become a lawyer in the first place.

Setting aside the glamour of the profession (eating a McDonald's cheeseburger while speeding down the Mass. Pike to appear before Judge Hiller Zobel on time being a prime example), it is unquestionably true that the vast majority of us selected this profession largely because of a simple reason: our desire to help people.

Depending on our backgrounds and ideologies, the selection of our profession may have borne out of a desire to help others we knew or would come to know: helping an elderly aunt avoid eviction, helping an African-American friend who was turned down for a job for which he was the best qualified, helping a family friend start a business, helping an acquaintance buy her first home.

Also playing a part may have been a broader vision of creating a better society: helping fight consumer fraud, championing constitutionally guaranteed individual rights, cleaning up government.

Whether the result of the broad or narrow vision, we hoped to use our law degree to help make for others (and in turn for ourselves) a more fair and just world.

It is this same calling that causes us to stand up for what we feel is right and good and essential, and has us seeking ways to build a stronger community, state, nation and world. As eloquently stated by former Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Arthur P. Rugg in 1914, "the lawyer was not merely a (person) learned in the law - he was, and was expected by his fellow-citizens to be, the leader in civic as well as legal matters. … to be (a) pillar of strength in the community and (to) stand for that which was highest and best in the civic and educational and political and religious life of the community, as well as in our own beaten path."

In challenging times like these, we should all think back and remember why we are members of the bar in the first place. In doing so, we also should remind ourselves of how strong our community of lawyers can be and how we can, despite what sometimes seem to be insurmountable odds, make our presence felt for the betterment of society.

While my nephew was "reading for the bar," as the arcane expression goes, I too was reading in preparation for my term as your president. One of my selections was Fiat Justitia (a Latin expression for "Let Justice Be Done"), a wonderful history of the Massachusetts Bar Association written by Robert J. Brink in 1986. This book reminded me of the storied history of the MBA.

In 1910, the MBA was formed in part to take up several issues it felt critical to the public interest. Concerned about "pettifoggers," lawyers who took advantage of the public for their own personal interest, the newly formed MBA sought to establish a code of professional conduct with disciplinary powers. At the time, there were no means to discipline or remove a malfeasant lawyer from the rolls of the bar. The MBA also sought to establish standards for admission to the bar. At the time, a lawyer was not required to even have a high school education. In addition, the MBA raised concerns regarding the quality of the judiciary and the appropriateness of the process of selecting judges.

Although the fledgling MBA met with mixed success in the short term, it had the collective clout through its membership to bring these issues to the fore, catalyze the debate and ultimately play an instrumental role in the improvements that followed.

As one deeply concerned with the continued vitality of the organized bar, I have participated in numerous discussions over the last several years directed at "relevancy," specifically, ways bar associations can be relevant to their members and potential members. These discussions oftentimes focused on the direct benefits that can be offered to members, whether insurance benefits, CLE programs or cheaper prices based on the strength of group purchasing. As it should be, the MBA is a leader, with the ample assortment of direct benefits we offer.

More importantly, we offer relevancy to each and every lawyer in this state in that core raison d'etre - helping people. On a fundamental level, this takes the form of helping you help your clients through maintaining your legal knowledge and expertise. On a larger scale, it takes the form of engaging society in the issues that confront us - issues involving the rights of our citizens, our freedoms and liberties, the rule of law, access to justice and the administration of justice.

The essential service that each of us can provide to society begins at the client level and, first and foremost, is up to you individually. The far-reaching service that all of us as members of the legal profession can provide to society is up to all of us collectively. With this in mind, the most significant "relevance" that the Massachusetts Bar Association has is to provide you with the opportunity to help build that better society.