Van Nostrand reflects on challenges, successes of the past year

Issue August 2004 By Krista Zanin

When Richard C. Van Nostrand kicked off his term as Massachusetts Bar Association president in September 2003, he strived to develop a stronger and more cohesive organized bar.

This year, plenty of events tested Van Nostrand's ability to do so - from a plethora of his own endeavors to responding to critical issues, most notably the landmark same-sex marriage decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health.

Van Nostrand proved capable of his goal by listening to a wide variety of views, maintaining cohesion at integral times and reaching out to smaller and minority bar associations throughout the state.

"I've certainly received no shortage of comments from people saying, "Wow, what a busy year it's been,'" said Van Nostrand as he reflected on his presidency, which will draw to a close Aug. 31. "I would not have had it any other way."

Van Nostrand's past experience as an MBA officer and president of the Worcester County Bar Association prepared him for dealing with unexpected issues such as the Goodridge decision - the most remarkable event to take place during his tenure.

"It's hard to come up with all of the adjectives to truly describe what it was like as president of the bar association for the state in which the first judicial decision legalizing same-sex marriage was rendered," Van Nostrand said.

As a leader of the MBA, Van Nostrand had to organize a number of people to respond to the case on a multitude of levels. When the court declared a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry, the MBA immediately turned its attention to publicly supporting the decision and the justices who had joined in the majority opinion.

Advocacy did not end here.

Outgoing MBA President Richard C. Van Nostrand addresses lawyers and judges during a reception for Michael S. Greco.
The MBA maintained its presence in the Goodridge case by drafting a follow-up brief when the Supreme Judicial Court was asked to decide whether a Senate bill permitting civil unions but banning same-sex marriage would pass constitutional muster, a question the court answered in the negative. The MBA's role continued behind the scenes as legislators debated proposals for constitutional amendments.

For its "acts of public service of enduring benefit to the gay and lesbian community and in furtherance of the ideal of equal justice under the law," the MBA received the Kevin Larkin Memorial Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Massachusetts Lesbian & Gay Bar Association. The MBA along with the Boston Bar Association was recognized for its steadfast support of the MLGBA and the plaintiffs in the Goodridge case.

During each stage of the case and its aftermath, Van Nostrand and other MBA leaders kept in constant contact, often discussing at length how to deal with the potentially divisive issue. Perhaps in part due to its thoughtful management of this sensitive subject, the MBA has seen little negative reaction to its ongoing efforts or to the House of Delegates unanimous vote opposing efforts to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

In fact, Van Nostrand was surprised he heard from more members objecting to a column he wrote denouncing efforts that threatened the independence of the judiciary.

"What I've found incredibly fascinating is it is nearly impossible to predict human behavior," Van Nostrand said. "The response to our position on same-sex marriage was much less negative than what I received from a president's page column alerting our members to the threat to the independence of the judiciary found in the attempt to remove the four majority justices."

Throughout his tenure, Van Nostrand set out to welcome a variety of views."The hallmark of my presidency was providing an open forum in which members could express ideas," Van Nostrand said. "I strived to avoid taking up a new issue with a petrified idea about what the answer was."

The most rewarding aspect of serving as president was helping maintain the association's credibility.

"The Massachusetts Bar Association is viewed as a very thoughtful organization," Van Nostrand said. "It's not viewed as a special-interest group. It is viewed with a significant amount of credibility by the legislature, judiciary and governor's office. To be a part of that culture, that my predecessor Joe Vrabel experienced before me and that Kathy O'Donnell will now experience, is so rewarding, because it makes me feel part of something so important, not just to lawyers, but to the public as well."

Creating a forum for lawyers was demonstrated time and again throughout the year, including during Annual Conference 2004, when a variety of speakers - from noted futurist Charles Robinson to constitutional law expert David Cole - allowed attorneys to step back and think about the future of the profession.

Van Nostrand also reached out to county, specialty and minority bars in an effort to create a more cohesive environment for attorneys in the state. This idea prompted the creation of the Bar Services Department and what now will become an annual Bar Leadership Institute in which members of local, specialty and minority bars will gather each year to brainstorm solutions and strategies for issues each is facing.

"It developed into a good and stronger relationship in which we could draw upon resources and together make the legal community that much stronger," Van Nostrand said. "The more reaching out we do, developing friends and allies, the more strong we will be and our voice will be even louder in the future."

Being MBA president also requires a great deal of travel, sometimes shuttling from Boston to western Massachusetts in one day to attend two separate events. Van Nostrand logged many miles this year and attended many events.

"Going into it, I didn't realize how much fun it was going to be," said Van Nostrand, as he sat in his firm's Boston office during a busy day in which he had attended two swearing-in ceremonies for new bar admittees and the end-of-the year dinner for Section Council leaders.

A number of access to justice issues also remained in the forefront of Van Nostrand's tenure, from seeing the stabilization of court system and civil legal services funding to passing a resolution urging local communities to become aware of the negative consequences of the USA PATRIOT Act. In addition, the MBA drafted an amicus brief supporting higher pay for attorneys representing indigent criminal defendants and filed a petition asking the Supreme Judicial Court to declare unconstitutional the imposition of an anniversary fee on civil litigants.

Van Nostrand also initiated a Diversity Conference to get lawyers talking about how to reduce the challenges facing people of color in the profession.

"Our profession has to be representative of society or it will be very damaging to the public image of lawyers. That representativeness is also important for respect of the judicial system and respect for the rule of law," Van Nostrand said.

As his year as president draws to a close, Van Nostrand said plenty of issues that were started will continue to be present, such as the need for higher pay for bar advocates and establishing this fall a definition of the practice of law.

The bar also must stay focused on the results of the Goodridge decision as attorneys and judges begin to confront issues that at one time were only hypothetical questions. Van Nostrand is optimistically waiting to watch this unfold.

"The climate we have in Massachusetts is such that the body of law that will develop, I suspect, will become a national model," he said.

Finally, Van Nostrand said it is important to keep growing a bigger and stronger bar by developing programs that will retain members and recruit new ones.

"I hope the observation of the membership has been that this has been an active and productive year of the association and our members are proud to be members of the MBA," Van Nostrand said.

Van Nostrand thanked his fellow officers and MBA staff for assisting him as president. He also credited his family and his Worcester law firm, Mirick, O'Connell, DeMallie & Lougee, for being so supportive and encouraging him to make his year as president a successful one.

"They have encouraged me to do the best job I could for the MBA and the legal profession," Van Nostrand said. "I never once felt pressure from my firm to say, 'no, no, no' and I think it's an excellent reflection of what our firm has stood for since it was founded in 1916."

This month will mark Van Nostrand's last as president. Van Nostrand said the MBA will be in very good hands with Kathleen O'Donnell, who will become president on Sept. 1.

"Kathy is firmly committed to the mission and core values of the Massachusetts Bar Association," Van Nostrand said. "She has a proven track record of very hard work and accomplishments in her prior activities with the association and other bar associations she has led.

"She has a passion for those things that are important to the legal profession and to lawyers," he added. "She is dedicated and will be dogged to leave the organization better than she found it."