Making an impact 
in the courtroom 
and out

Issue September 2011 By Bill Archambeault

A few things surprised Kathi Sullivan about Richard P. Campbell, whose term as Massachusetts Bar Association president began Sept. 1, when they met in early 2009. Sullivan's 17-year-old daughter, Taylor Meyer, had drowned in two feet of water in a Norfolk swamp after getting lost in the woods at an underage drinking party on Oct. 17, 2008.

Sullivan started speaking to community groups about underage drinking a couple of months after her daughter's death, and she noticed that Campbell's Boston firm, Campbell, Campbell, Edwards & Conroy PC, was a regular presence at the events. She wrongly assumed the firm was being paid to participate and warn parents about the devastating personal, legal and financial consequences teenage drinking parties could have.

Campbell was a strong public speaker on the topic, she said, but when she met with him privately, "I was more impressed with his inner personality. He was very, very nice. I felt at ease when I sat down in his office. I was impressed that he put so much into this cause. He has that warmth, as a father figure."

She was also impressed that he never approached her about suing over her daughter's death. He even warned her that the family "would be put through the ringer" when she told him a year later that she and her ex-husband had filed suit against seven people who were involved with supplying alcohol 
at the party.

"I had not seen any change in the young adults who were with Taylor that night. Their small criminal charges had no effect on them and their behaviors didn't change after. There were continuous parties in our small community in the months after Taylor's passing. At that point, I realized I could not change them, but I certainly could make the public's awareness change by this civil suit," Sullivan said. Two of the parties have settled, but Sullivan expects the case will take years to resolve.

"For me, it's such a personal thing," Sullivan said, admiring Campbell's commitment to an issue that hasn't touched him directly, and is far removed from his practice area.

Tackling a different kind of case

As a trial lawyer, Campbell represents the institutional interests of large national and international corporations, including the areas of aviation, product liability, breach of fiduciary duty, contract disputes, intellectual property and employment. He's a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, and has been active in bar associations, including the American Bar Association, where he chaired its 34,000-member Tort, Trial & Insurance Practice Section (taking office just prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001).

His interest in underage drinking and social host cases began when a colleague referred Ruth E. Langemann to him in the mid-1980s.

Langemann, a retired Catholic nun, was "catastrophically" injured by a teenager driving home after drinking at a friend's house party. The issue before the Supreme Judicial Court was whether the friend's mother, the owner of the house, was civilly liable for Langemann's death because the alcohol was consumed by underage people at her property, though she was not physically present at the time.

In its 1986 decision on what would come to be known as "social host" responsibility, the Court found there was no liability. Beyond the legal issues, the underlying problem profoundly affected Campbell. Since the Langemann case, he has handled similar suits, including one that he was scheduled to argue before the Supreme Judicial Court on Sept. 6. That case involves Rachel Juliano, a teen who suffered brain damage as a passenger in a drunk driving accident after an underage party.

Campbell's firm was all too familiar with drinking and driving accidents from representing clients like General Motors, Nissan, Toyota, Mazda and Ford in cases in which alcohol was often a substantial factor in the tragedy.

"I've always been involved in this issue, but from different perspectives," he said. "My entire career I've been dealing with the ramifications of alcohol and automobiles. If anyone knows anything about the disastrous effects of drinking and driving, it's the lawyers in this law firm."

Making an impact beyond the courtroom

Campbell has made about a dozen presentations -- including one called "Be a Parent -- Not a Pal," on social host liability - to parents and students with Essex County District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett. The DA had been grappling with how to attack the problem when Campbell suggested they speak together.

"I am so grateful for his help and assistance," Blodgett said. "Dick's input made it much more effective. His presentation packs a powerful punch."

Campbell, who estimates he's spoken about underage drinking 150 times, said it's important that he has an understanding family, given the time commitment.

"We have a very large family, and are very close," he said. "It's important to have an understanding and supportive spouse. I'm fortunate in the sense that my wife tolerated all of this stuff. The job alone is enormously time consuming, and then you add on speeches … ."

Blodgett admires that Campbell felt strongly enough about the issue to make the transition from representing clients on the issue to advocating solutions.

"For him, it's evolved from being a private attorney (who's handled these cases) to reaching out to the community and helping it understand that it's a serous issue that's preventable," Blodgett said.

It's the same reason Campbell represented the family of Christian Giambrone, a Boston high school student working part time as a CVS clerk who died when a shoplifter he was trying to stop slashed his throat.

Campbell argued unsuccessfully to the SJC that Giambrone's parents, who were ineligible for workers' compensation benefits because they were not financially dependent on their minor son, should be entitled to bring suit against his employer and hold it accountable. Under state law, he explained, parents have no right to those benefits, or a civil right of action, if the minor died during a work-related act.

"I thought that was an unjust law and tried to get it changed. The SJC had the opportunity to change it and make it just, but chose to leave it to the Legislature," he said. "Every trial lawyer who takes his job seriously, who believes in the system, who sees a flaw in the system, would or should try to change it. In the Giambrone case, that flaw still exists."

Campbell is proud of the trial firm he's built -- which now totals 45 attorneys in eight offices in seven Northeast states -- and its impressive roster of national and international clients. But in addition to handling complex business litigation, he's devoted to addressing societal problems, both inside and outside the courtroom.

"Those cases are not taken for the purpose of earning a fee. I take those because I'm interested in the topic, I'm interested in the law. I take the cases on because I think it's important to do," he said. "The development of the law can be done incrementally for a client, or it can be brought about by advocacy in the courtroom and in society at large."

Campbell as neighbor, then mentor

Massachusetts Superior Court Judge David Ricciardone has unusual insight into Campbell's work ethic and motivation. Ricciardone not only grew up a block away from Campbell's family in Medford and was a close friend of Campbell's younger brother, he was also mentored by Campbell.

Ricciardone recalls, as a law clerk in his mid-20s in early 1981, watching Campbell try a case in federal court involving the security at a Puerto Rican resort. The scene made an impression on him.

"I was struck, absolutely struck, by how in the moment he was," said Ricciardone, who sits in the Worcester session. "He was absolutely focused and unswerving" in serving his client, Ricciardone said. "To see it in someone I knew so well was absolutely striking. He was an impassioned and professional litigant. He had an uncanny ability to focus and give it his all.

"Dick is the consummate professional. I remember his attitude from my earliest days as an intern in his firm, that a lawyer doesn't necessarily have to be the smartest person in the room, but there's no reason why he/she can't be the hardest working or the most prepared," he said. "Dick's success has been hard-earned. He now takes every opportunity to give back to, and enhance, our profession."

Ricciardone ascribes Campbell's work ethic, his interest in charitable causes, and his ability to connect with everyone, from the poorest individual to corporate executives, to his blue-collar upbringing.

Campbell was the first member of his family to become a lawyer -- his brother, James M. Campbell, is president of the firm, and his son, Richard L. Campbell, is an associate. After earning an undergraduate degree, Campbell went into the Army, then decided on law school, primarily for economic reasons.

"In my mind, practicing law would provide a better and more fulfilling way of life for my wife and child than something else," he said. His son was 2 years old when he started. "In law school, it was very serious business for me, because I had a wife and kid. I was never content to be a 'C' student, or to be anything but the best student I could be, in order to provide the best for my family. I was one of the very few law students with a kid. There was no messing around. I was a very determined student, because I had to be."

But Ricciardone says Campbell has always been uncompromising.

"He doesn't do anything halfway. I think a lot of that has to do with not taking things for granted," Ricciardone said. "Dick is a true reflection of his working-class Medford upbringing. His strong work ethic and character are a product of the loving, but no-nonsense, guidance of his parents grappling with all the issues that come along with raising six kids."

Even with his high expectations and eye for detail, Campbell was not difficult to work for, Ricciardone said.

"He was, in a lot of ways, low key. He was demanding, not so much in his words, but in what he brought to the table. He was a good role model. It's what he instilled in me from an early age," he said.

High expectations

Given the increasing crisis in court funding, Ricciardone is encouraged that Campbell will be leading the state bar as an advocate for the courts.

"We're lucky to have him at the helm of the MBA, particularly as an ally in the pursuit of adequate funding for our all of our courts," Ricciardone said. "He truly appreciates our current struggles in this economic climate given our never-ending goal of full access to justice."

Blodgett, as Essex County's DA, is also enthusiastic about Campbell's term, from playing a role in confronting underage drinking to meeting with the state's district attorneys and imparting that he wants to work with them.

"It speaks volumes about the kind of president he's going to be," Blodgett said. "He just gets it. As a district attorney, as an attorney with 16 years of experience, and as a father, I'm very happy he's on board."

Campbell wants to increase the voice the state's lawyers have in Massachusetts, from explaining why adequate court funding is critical to all residents, to participating in discussions about improving communities.

"I'm proud of being a lawyer. I think lawyers are important contributors to our society. They are among the hardest working people I know, and the most ethical. I'm incredibly honored to be president of the Mass. Bar Association," Campbell said. "What an honor."