Bench-bar unity: 'get it,' together

Issue November 2013 By Douglas K. Sheff

Improving the public perception of lawyers first requires the public's confidence in the legal system. That responsibility falls on us, as lawyers and judges, to work together. While the extent of positive cooperation and communication between bench and bar today is unprecedented, our collective future depends not only on how we work together, but how the public sees us doing so. The good news is we're taking steps to get there.

Last month at the Massachusetts Bar Association's annual Bench-Bar Symposium I had the honor of introducing Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland, who gave his Annual Address to the Legal Community. Judges, attorneys and government leaders came out to hear Ireland's remarks, as well as those of Chief Justice of the Trial Court Paula M. Carey, who also spoke about her plans for the court.

I was proud to stand at the same podium with both Ireland and Carey - two justices who "get it" and share our mission for improved collaboration between lawyers and the judiciary. We need to speak "with one voice."

As I said in my opening remarks, one of Chief Justice Ireland's proudest accomplishments and a big part of his legacy is the Judicial Youth Corps (JYC), a program in which the MBA has been involved in Worcester and, beginning next summer, in Springfield. The JYC mentors young people aspiring to become part of our legal community. Ireland has proudly stated: "We did something good. We made a difference in the life of a child."

I would take it one step further and say that, by growing this program in plain view of working class families, Ireland and the JYC volunteers - lawyers, judges and court staff - have also made a difference toward greater public appreciation of what lawyers and judges do.

But there is an important additional step: we will never convince the public of the virtues of our profession unless we present a unified front. Fortunately we are already putting into action initiatives with others who "get it," in order to further foster a trusting and publicly collaborative relationship between the bench and bar.

Associate Justice Ralph D. Gants, Ireland's colleague on the SJC, gets it. The MBA has recently worked with Gants and the SJC to establish a bench-bar lunch series where lawyers and judges can discuss important issues.

As I mentioned, Justice Carey gets it, as well. She is now working with the MBA to accomplish a similar program in the Trial Court. Court clerks get it, too; they are working with us on an additional program. Carey even recently took the initiative to send out a letter to every judge in the Trial Court system, urging them to participate in bar activities, including dinners, receptions and educational programs.

With five Superior Court judges volunteering their time to sit on last month's CLE panel at the MBA's A View from the Bench Series, it's a positive sign that many of our judges "get it," as well.

We'll continue to do our part by doing more to enhance our relationship with the judiciary. For example, the MBA, through its Judicial Administration Section (JA) and Young Lawyers Division (YLD), is rolling out a new series of educational seminars and roundtables focusing on bench-bar issues, followed by receptions where judges and lawyers can interact, mingle and share ideas. I encourage you to come to these. JA is also putting together an update to the Judicial Preference Guide, so that judges and attorneys can better work together.

A combined effort has even helped the bench and bar to succeed politically. The MBA and the judiciary have recently combined efforts in order to secure an increase in court funding this year. The MBA is now rolling out our new "12 for 12" program, which will allow our geographically diverse membership to send a message, through the constituents of legislators from every town in the commonwealth, that court funding is an important priority for the public.

I believe that our profession must recapture the public trust, and I know we can do it. But it's important that we "get it," together, with one voice, to ensure a bright future for all.