Incoming MBA President Robert Holloway Jr. and the lessons of music

Issue September 2012 By Christina P. O’Neill

When Robert Holloway Jr. tried out for the all-male Glee Club at Amherst College in his freshman year in 1964, he applied as a first tenor. The first tenor is usually the smallest group in a four-part male chorus because of the demand to hit the highest notes. The fallback was second tenor, which is easier to sing. Holloway vied for the smaller group to increase his chances of getting accepted.  "He would have gotten picked, anyway," says Amherst classmate and friend John Stifler, who now teaches economics at UMass-Amherst. "I was interested that he had such a pragmatic approach to the whole thing."

Holloway, the MBA's incoming president, seems to have a pragmatic knack for hitting the right notes in many other endeavors, but all who know him say he does so in a way that makes other people shine. He is president and shareholder of MacLean, Holloway, Doherty, Ardiff & Morse PC in Peabody, and a past president of the Essex County Bar Association. He has served on the Massachusetts Bar Association's Ethics Committee, and is an emeritus member of the Board of Editors of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, serving on that board since 1981. He is a regular volunteer as a judge for moot court arguments at Harvard Law School and at Boston University School of Law, where he received his JD degree in 1973. And in his spare time, you may find him at a piano or keyboard in any of several North Shore restaurants or other venues, either solo or with band mates.

The smartest guy in the room

Meeting Holloway for the first time, the first thing that comes across is that despite his small stature, he projects a presence -- a desirable trait in a trial lawyer -- but in a very low key way. If you were expecting a master of the universe, as limned by author Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities, he's not your guy. When he's asked about cases that particularly stand out, he avers, "I've had the opportunity to work on a number of things that by all rights, I shouldn't have had the opportunity to work on."

Early in his school career, he acquired the nickname "Stump," a self-effacing moniker that became the title of his columns for the college newspaper. The column title was On the Stump. "He always seemed short, but he never seemed little," Stifler says.

Attorney Douglas Sheff of Sheff Law Offices, who will succeed Holloway as MBA president, characterizes him as taking cases others might deem as unwinnable, and turning disadvantages into advantages.  "He'll always say, 'after you,'" Sheff says.

Attorney Walter Costello of Walter A. Costello Jr. & Associates has known Holloway for 30 years, both personally and professionally. Both served as president of the Essex County Bar Association. Costello typifies Holloway as very committed to the ideals of the practice of law, possessing a high energy level, and a willingness to step up to the plate to resolve difficult issues.

Attorney Michael Tracy of Rudolph Friedmann has watched Holloway work as a mediator. It's a mediator's job to convince the opposing sides that they need to compromise. Through a gift of gab, Holloway keeps discussions going rather than allowing them to fall into an impasse.

But he also knows when to pull back. Attorney Leonard Clarkin of Clarkin & Phillips PC, who has seen him in court on at least 20 occasions, has this perspective: "I think the greatest skill of the trial lawyer is to cross examine, to get the right result without looking like a bully. 'Projects' is a great word. Bob is a great cross examiner and always gets what he wants. When things get a little edgy, he looks like the victim [of an unresponsive and evasive witness' intransigence].  If you have an unresponsive witness, call Holloway."

He adds, "He'll fight like hell in the courtroom, and when the day adjourns he'll have a friendly conversation with the opponents."

What the people want

Those who know him say he has a knack for finding out how to do what others need done, whether the work itself is attractive or not. This trait has garnered him the informal position of class Treasurer for Life at Amherst, "partly because people trust him and partly because nobody wants to learn to do what you have to do to be Treasurer," remarks Stifler.

Holloway likens the MBA presidency to being a team captain. Active in many different team sports in high school and college, he says the formative years stick with you, "particularly if you had a good time," which he apparently did. His small physique did not deter him from playing rugby in college, on a team that in senior year Stifler says became one of the best collegiate rugby teams in America.

"Most team sports require that everybody be on the same page," Holloway says. Priority must be placed on what's best for the group, not for a particular player. "I was never a star," he adds. "I just felt lucky to be on a team."

He's all for giving others the credit, citing 200 to 250 MBA members in leadership positions in various capacities in the organization. "What separates some from the others is their ability to implement and execute," he says, and then gets into a discussion of how MBA officers come up through the ranks, the annual cycle of officers actually plays out. The year is effectively only nine months, from September 1 to June 30. In the remaining quarter, the next round of officers are already starting to implement their agendas. "If you want continuity," he says, "you need objectives that will survive beyond any particular president."

Easing the pressure on courts

That's all the more important today. Holloway cites the decline in involvement in trade associations across the country over the last 10 years. "The legal profession has had its own issues enhanced and exacerbated by an influx of new lawyers [for whom there are] no jobs," he says. Then there's the issue of court funding, over which the MBA has been "a loud and insistent voice." He credits outgoing president Richard P. Campbell for bringing these issues to the forefront and plans to prioritize focusing on the needs of members, because if a trade association doesn't meet the needs of existing members, it won't attract new ones.

In the court system, a significant pressure point to address is the increasing number of pro se litigants who either can't afford an attorney or choose not to have one. In probate and family court and in housing court, 70 percent of the litigants are pro se. Emergency litigation that needs immediate attention increases the wait time for the more straightforward cases. The MBA can help address the situation by exploring ways to reduce the wait time, expense and tension of these overstretched courts.

Holloway commends Campbell with stressing the importance of a sound legal system to an open and free society. The U.S. court system is the world's best, he says, and it's modeled on the Massachusetts court system, which came first. Technology has made great strides in reducing the number of staff needed to support an attorney from 3:1, 20 to 25 years ago, to one staffer for every two attorneys today. That said, he cautions that the legal profession moves slowly.

Walter Costello notes that an effective MBA president has to be able to grow into the position, and that Holloway "clearly has brought himself up to that level."

Music to clear the head

Clarkin notes Holloway's versatility in the many aspects of commercial law that his firm handles, such as tort and contractual disputes. Holloway says this multidisciplinary reach gives him constant opportunity to solve new problems and to remain outside a comfort zone, a state of being which he prefers.

That's where music comes in, as an ability to clear out all the pressures of the legal profession and to focus on something else. "You get lost in it; it's a great way to clear your mind," he says. He cites Boston as a hotbed of accomplished musicians who are relatively unknown outside their respective circles. He has played with musicians such as Jesse Williams, whom he cites as the best bass player one could find, and keyboardist Bruce Bears, who has accompanied blues great Duke Robillard. But he mostly goes solo due to the logistical challenges of keeping a regular band together.

Clarkin has attended many rock concerts with Holloway, including a memorable one at the Orpheum in Boston in 1988 that featured Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards' then-side band, the Expensive Winos. They found themselves sitting next to Steve Morse, then a music critic for The Boston Globe, and they all agreed it was "one of the greatest concerts we'd ever see."

Sheff, himself an avocational drummer, says Holloway's proficiency in music serves to remind his colleagues that there's a world outside of law.

Attorney Denise I. Murphy of Rubin and Rudman LLP in Boston works with Holloway on some serious matters. She characterizes him as dedicating himself to learning everything about the issues at hand. "He's fully vested in anything he undertakes," she says. At the same time, "He's a gifted musician, he has fun, and he's infectious that way." When a colleague's son graduated from the Berklee School of Music in Boston, Holloway hit the keyboards with gusto.

Holloway has played at two MBA officers' receptions and at weddings, including that of a niece in Bridgewater last October - a wedding over which he officiated, as well, obtaining a one-day license to do so. "I was a full-service uncle that day," he says.

Music in the family

Holloway has been married for 43 years, and has a son and a daughter, as well as a 2 ½-year-old grandson.

His son works in the investment business, but also plays regular and bass guitar, and keyboard. His daughter is currently in Chicago working on President Obama's re-election campaign. Holloway says his office's proximity to home resulted in his being able to spend more time attending his children's activities as they were growing up.

Both grown children have an interest in music and his grandson is showing signs of interest, too. If you sit a small child at a keyboard, he says, "some will pick out notes and others start banging." His grandson falls into the former category. "If kids are exposed to music and have any interest, they'll get involved," he says.