Turning our challenges into opportunities

Issue September 2003 By Richard C. Van Nostrand

Another September has arrived and with it dawns the term of another new president of the Massachusetts Bar Association. To say that I am looking forward to serving you in the upcoming year would be a significant understatement.

Our outgoing president, Joe Vrabel, has done a very good job and my term must start with thanking him for another successful year of contribution to the bar. Consistent with his prior years of behind-the-scenes bricks-and-mortar efforts, Joe has guided us through this past year with a steady, conscientious and effective hand. The MBA and our profession are deeply indebted to Joe, as am I for providing me the opportunity to observe his leadership during these past 12 months. Thank you, Joe.

I begin the year with a great advantage over other incoming leaders of voluntary professional associations. Being in leadership these last few years has provided me an appreciation for the strength and breadth and depth of this association. We have an unparalleled array of (a) community-service outreach programs such as Conversations, Mock Trial and Dial-a-Lawyer; (b) member benefits such as Casemaker, the smorgasbord of insurance programs and the Legal Tech Toolbox; and (c) continuing legal education programs and conferences taught by some of our best and brightest.

We also have a legislative advocacy program that is extremely effective and, frankly, second to none.

Finally, we have an infrastructure that is solid financially and organizationally. No president could begin a term with a better foundation than what is already in place in this organization. In that regard, my goal is to ensure its continuance and support ongoing efforts to build upon it.

These are difficult times. Many challenges lie ahead. The economy continues to lag, although there are some positive signs. Despite those positive signs, we are certain to face another year of statewide fiscal crisis. As the Romney administration matures, we also are certain to see a continued stream of new ideas, many of which will undoubtedly impact the legal arena. As we have seen in the past several months, some of these ideas are interesting and innovative, but some reflect a lack of appreciation for such a simple thing as access to justice for all. On the federal level, we also are certain to see any number of new initiatives and a revisiting of old efforts that carry similar potential impacts.

I am fond of the saying "with challenges come opportunities." Opportunities will be presented for all of us to assist in managing what changes result, what new ideas are embraced and what new ideas should remain on the drawing board. Under Joe's leadership, noteworthy task forces were created to study the court system and to look again at the judicial evaluation process. Those task forces will remain in place, working toward conclusions in the coming year.

Moreover, this year will precipitate additional involvement of this sort as new issues arise and require attention. Many of you can expect a call asking you to serve - service in intelligent assessment, discussion and deliberation about issues that are likely to have lasting impact upon lawyers, the judiciary, our clientele and our society.

In preparing for this year, I adopted the methodology of speaking with as many people as possible in developing plans for this year. This included every section chair, many MBA past presidents and a variety of other persons in the organized bar circuit. One of the most remarkable things that I observed during this process was the vast wealth of talent that exists in our membership. Through that process, I was able to identify a large pool of talented individuals, our future leaders, who stand at the ready to undertake this challenge. These include section, committee and practice group chairs and members, delegates to our House of Delegates, mock trial team coaches and judges, county and affiliated bar leaders, members of all three branches of government, private, public and legal services attorneys. The list can go on and on, defying the old "wisdom" that virtually every volunteer organization must depend upon but a small core of very committed worker bees.

This is an incredible resource that should be drawn upon in meeting our challenges. I intend to do just that. In the coming year, I will be asking many of you to increase your assistance to the MBA and the profession. What is just as important is that each and every one of us, even if not specifically invited, seizes the leadership opportunities that surround us.

There is no one prescription for "leadership." It can take the form of lobbying to restore legal services funding or facilitating a Conversations discussion about our core rights in a high school classroom or running a fundraiser that helps people in need or debating the merits of an anniversary fee as a means of addressing a fiscal crisis. I challenge you to define for yourself how you will accept the mantle of leadership. And I challenge you to accept that mantle and fulfill it with the best that you have to offer.

We at the MBA will be doing what we can to support this community of leaders. Throughout the year, we will be devoting our resources on a number of fronts. In this regard, the MBA will be sponsoring its first (and hopefully annual) Bar Leadership Institute on Oct. 31 at the Warren Conference Center in Ashland. To this event, we are inviting leaders from all county, minority and specialty bar associations throughout the commonwealth. By assembling this group, we will strengthen this network through a multitude of programs dealing with media relations, legislative advocacy, building volunteer support and the like. Schedules permitting, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, a former bar president herself, and Mike Greco, former MBA and New England Bar President and hopefully future American Bar Association President, will address and undoubtedly inspire those in attendance.

To continue this effort on an ongoing basis, the MBA also has hired Bar Services Liaison Jill Coody Smits, who comes from a county bar association background and has already hit the ground running.

In addition to this outreach, we also are going to do "in reach" to help strengthen our internal MBA leadership. In that regard, we are putting the finishing touches on the orientation for our 16 Section Councils, which will occur in early September. Through this annual event, we will address the various roles of the Section Councils and the resources of the MBA that can be drawn upon by them to fulfill those roles. This year, we are opening this event to all 240 of our Section Council members, new and old. Because of the sheer size of this undertaking, it will be held at MCLE, thanks to the good graces of Jack Reilly.

Unquestionably, we have an ambitious year ahead. I promise that you will have my utmost effort, energy and enthusiasm every step of the way. I hope that you will step up to the plate and join us in these efforts.