Small firm, big picture

Issue September 2004

For new MBA President Kathleen O'Donnell, knowing the needs of small-firm and solo lawyers comes from firsthand experience

by Krista Zanin

From her fourth-floor office, Kathleen M. O'Donnell enjoys hearing the noises that accompany working in the heart of downtown Lowell, from the chatter of teen-agers milling about at the end of the school day to the bustle of people moving through the city.

O'Donnell has become accustomed to an energetic environment by working in the Marcotte Law Office. There, she and her colleagues help numerous clients deal with a variety of legal issues all while facing the challenges that arise in running a law practice.

Photo by David Gordon
MBA President Kathleen M. O'Donnell is planning a number of projects to reach out to small firm and solo practitioners as well as the public.
These skills, in addition to her talent as a litigator and leader in the legal community, will shape the energy that O'Donnell brings as president of the Massachusetts Bar Association.

"I think it's good for the bar association to have someone from a small law firm, because really that is what our membership is - mostly people in small firms or solo practitioners," said O'Donnell, whose term as MBA president began Sept. 1. "Hopefully I'll be able to address issues important to the small practitioner."

O'Donnell is devising programs to assist solo and small-firm practitioners, such as the new MBA position of a full-time law practice management adviser who will be skilled in the business aspects of practicing law. This individual will offer advice on issues ranging from software to bookkeeping. For a nominal fee, the person can audit a law practice and then make recommendations on how to make it run more smoothly. Input from Bar Counsel's Office also will help in developing the job description, as many complaints made against lawyers relate to business issues, such as office mismanagement. The individual also will design education courses on topics relating to running a law practice.

"The MBA deals with broad issues in terms of access to justice and representing the public," O'Donnell said, "but I don't think we can ever lose sight of the fact that we are a membership organization and our purpose is to help the lawyers in Massachusetts, whether it is representing them on legal issues at the State House or whether it is in helping them make a living, which is important."

O'Donnell also has created a task force to evaluate whether changes should be made to rules used in disciplinary proceedings against lawyers. Serving as an expert witness on a case last year brought by Bar Counsel's Office, O'Donnell learned that lawyers facing disciplinary charges have very few of the procedural protections available to clients in court. The task force, comprised of lawyers experienced in representing clients before the Bar Counsel's Office, will make recommendations to the Supreme Judicial Court.

"Lawyers who have charges brought against them face the loss of their ability to earn a living, a pretty serious prospect," O'Donnell said. "There are few procedural protections such as a statute of limitations, a motion to dismiss or discovery rules. If we were going into a foreign country and organizing a system of justice, those protections would be mandated."

Beyond these two programs to help lawyers in the practice of law, O'Donnell plans several public-interest projects, such as increasing awareness of the impact of the USA PATRIOT Act, legislation approved by Congress shortly after Sept. 11 that places limitations on civil rights and liberties. The House of Delegates in May passed a resolution to promote awareness of PATRIOT Act implications.

Past-Family Law Section Council Chair Denise Squillante will work with the Individual Rights & Responsibilities Section Council in talking with local communities about the importance of protecting civil rights and liberties. During the Bar Leadership Institute this fall, volunteers will be trained on how to reach out to the public.

"The MBA made a conscious decision to do this at the local level rather than at the state level, because we want to get local people involved in talking about these issues," O'Donnell said. "The goal is to have the governing body of the city or town pass the resolution and then pass it on to their senators and congressmen andl urge them to reexamine the USA PATRIOT Act."

O'Donnell also wants the MBA to reach out to the public by hosting a People's Law School, a program that would run for several weeks to offer practical legal education to community members.

Lawyers with expertise in a variety of fields will teach courses, with each week of the program featuring a different topic, such as landlord-tenant law or how to appoint a health care proxy. At the end of the program, participants would receive a certificate.

Photo by David Gordon
MBA President Kathleen M. O'Donnell with colleagues Mike Najjar (left) and Al Marcotte (right).
"It's a great experience for lawyers to go out and talk to people in the community, and it's also good for the members of the public to see who the lawyers are in their community," said O'Donnell, who took part in a similar program run by the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys. "Most lawyers live in the local community, participate in some civic or community group and give freely of their time and want to help and assist people as much as they can. The public needs to know that."

Other important issues on O'Donnell's agenda include maintaining a watchful eye on legislative issues, establishing a task force to respond to issues across legal disciplines that arise following the same-sex marriage decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health and closely following discussions on medical malpractice reform.

Fair compensation to bar advocates will also be an issue at center stage during O'Donnell's tenure as MBA president. Recent rhetoric about this issue has been very disturbing, O'Donnell said.

Following Gov. Mitt Romney's press conference in August, O'Donnell invited Romney to the first House of Delegates meeting in September to present his views and to answer questions from bar leaders from across the commonwealth.

The MBA also will be moving forward with a new system of evaluating judges.

O'Donnell wants to develop a culture in which attorneys routinely use the MBA's Web-based judicial evaluation project so that feedback is both timely and balanced. This summer O'Donnell met with the Supreme Judicial Court Committee on Judicial Evaluations and representatives of the Judges Conference, who expressed concern that lawyers will tend to only respond when they feel they were treated negatively. O'Donnell is hopeful that filling out the forms will become as routine as filing cases.

"Massachusetts has a fine judiciary in every way," O'Donnell said. "Generally judges are certainly bright. They understand the law. They understand the rules of evidence. They treat people the way they should be treated.

"They are dedicated professionals who want to do a good job. Ninety to 95 percent of our judges meet this definition. Within any profession, whether its lawyers, judges, doctors, teachers, plumbers, electricians, there are always going to have some who need to improve and that's what our evaluations are designed to do - to allow people to evaluate both the good judges and those judges who need to improve.

"We want lawyers to do this as a matter of routine after they've had a hearing with a judge, not just when they are mad about something that happened."

A 12-person committee, which will soon be appointed, will monitor and then forward evaluations to the appropriate trial court chiefs. Except under extraordinary circumstances, evaluations will not be released to the public.

O'Donnell believes the MBA judicial evaluations will become an important tool because the system now being run by the Trial Court is not working efficiently as results have to be tabulated by hand and most attorneys do not respond.

"The reason we don't think the current process is working is because it is so slow and labor intensive," O'Donnell said. "They haven't moved it along fast enough … We hoped to work with the courts on it, but that didn't work, so we are moving forward on our own."
Raised in Methuen, O'Donnell was drawn to the law from a very young age. Immediately after graduating from college, she attended Suffolk University Law School. She taught legal research and writing at Suffolk Law for two years after earning her juris doctor. Then she began working for the Marcotte Law Office in Lowell, where she has since remained because she loves her working environment and being in a city as vibrant and interesting as Lowell.

"Mr. Marcotte and I say that it's the best show in town," O'Donnell said. "The stories we hear and the people we meet are from all walks of life. I'm lucky to work with wonderful people."

O'Donnell's involvement in the MBA and other bar activities during the past 20 years has been a team effort at her entire law firm. She credited her colleagues Al Marcotte and Mike Najjar, saying that without their support and advice she would not have been able to commit her time to bar activities.

An expert in auto insurance law, O'Donnell concentrates her practice in civil work, but she also handles workers' compensation, criminal, probate and domestic law. In addition to serving an MBA officer for the past several years, O'Donnell also has served on the Presidential Task Force on the Preservation of Rights, Liberties and Access to Justice. She is the former chair of both the MBA Finance Committee and the Civil Litigation Section.

Beyond the MBA, O'Donnell has served as the president of the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys and worked closely with the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, serving as State Affairs Committee chair and representing ATLA in legislative and policy debates on insurance issues.

When O'Donnell is not busy with clients and cases or working on numerous projects for the Massachusetts Bar Association, she spends time relaxing at her summer home in York, Maine.