Why the state bar association counts

Issue August 2012 By Richard P. Campbell

Over the past 12 months or more, we have been soundly tested as a profession. Just bring to mind some of the problems that have manifested over that timeframe:

  • The judiciary, so starved of financial support, closed some courts, suspended normal operating hours in other courts such that ordinary citizens could not get their business done when they rightly expected to find the courts open (e.g., the lunch hour), and lost some of our most experience trial judges to early retirement as they chose to avoid the indignities of continued service to the commonwealth without adequate financial support.
  • Predator businesses like "Notarios," holding themselves out as experts in law, fed off the ignorance of unsophisticated clients in Gateway Cities like Lawrence, New Bedford, Brockton and Springfield, causing great damage to them.
  • The nine in-state and seven area law schools, like a ruptured gushing watermain converting an otherwise valuable resource into a costly problem, kept spilling more than 1,500 unemployed and unemployable newly minted graduates into the commonwealth's law economy with little regard to the impact of their actions on those new graduates or on our citizens and practicing lawyers.
  • Hapless and hopeless, many newly admitted lawyers "hung a shingle" without any practical experience or skills, thereby choosing to experiment on unsuspecting clients, opposing counsel, and the courts.

Why does your state bar association count? The answer is really self-evident. The Massachusetts Bar Association is the singular organization in the commonwealth that speaks for all lawyers regardless of the city or county where they practice; the race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or religious tradition that define them; or the idiosyncrasies of their individual practices. Large metropolitan bars, county bars and affinity bars are incredibly meaningful to their members. But, when the Legislature wants to hear from "the bar," it turns to the Massachusetts Bar Association. When the governor needs support in solving problems in Gateway Cities, he looks to the Massachusetts Bar Association. And, when the judiciary has "someone at their back," the image in the mirror is the Massachusetts Bar Association.

This year the Massachusetts Bar Association chose to tackle major problems head-on. For the first time ever, the Massachusetts Bar Association pursued a broad based outreach program involving highway billboards and website videos to inform and instruct ordinary citizens about the adverse impact that an underfunded judiciary had on the rule of law and with it the quality of their lives That initiative, trumpeted and acclaimed by the American Bar Association, is now being copied across the nation.

For the first time ever by a state or federal bar association, the Massachusetts Bar Association publicly called into question the endless expansion of graduating law schools students saddled with enormous debts. In the face of biting criticism from some law schools, the association formed a task force to study and report on the law economy and the law school paradigm. Following publication of the task force's report, the American Bar Association organized its own task force on the "future of legal education." And, most prominently, Boston College Law School's Dean Vincent Rougeau called for reform of the law school education model by incorporating a residency-like program comparable in substance to the one advocated by the Massachusetts Bar Association's task force.

In the face of abundant numbers of newly admitted lawyers opening law offices shortly after passing the bar, the Massachusetts Bar Association opened debate on the necessity of minimum, mandatory continuing legal education. And now, recognizing that dramatic shifts in the legal market place leave new lawyers without mentors, the Supreme Judicial Court, has since proposed the first ever mandatory CLE program in Massachusetts history. In my opinion, it is just a matter of time before the SJC chooses to add Massachusetts to the list of 46 states that already mandate continuing legal education for all licensed lawyers.

The importance of the Massachusetts Bar Association to the Executive Office of the Governor, the Legislature, the judiciary and our profession was front and center at our annual dinner at Westin Seaport Hotel on May 31. Gov. Deval Patrick was represented at the event by his Chief of Staff Mo Cowan and his counsel Mark Reilly; the Legislature was represented by Speaker Robert DeLeo and at least a dozen members, including the chairmen of the Judiciary and Ways and Means Committees; and the judiciary was represented by Chief Justice Roderick Ireland and five of his colleagues on the SJC, Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert Mulligan and the new Court Administrator Harry Spence, five of the Trial Court Chief Justices, and numerous judges from across the commonwealth. Most importantly to me, however, the annual dinner was completely sold out, because my fellow members of the bar recognized the importance of our gathering and took time from their busy lives to be present and to register their approval of the association's efforts.

We just completed our 101st year of dedicated service to the citizens of the commonwealth, the advancement of an independent and properly supported judiciary, and the education and assistance of the Executive and Legislative branches on matters related to the law. Our work never ends, however, because our basic rights depend on an active, engaged, committed, and financially viable bar. In year 102, the Massachusetts Bar Association will carry on as the Knights Templar for freedom and the rule of law.