Creating a visible public presence

Issue October 2013 By Douglas K. Sheff

The Massachusetts Bar Association has a long history of supporting our judicial system and our communities. And we will continue to build upon our accomplishments this year through my Working Family, Consumer Advocacy and Justice for All initiatives. We know what we've accomplished and what we're capable of. But if we want to do more - and we do - we need to make sure the public understands, as well.

This notion cannot be emphasized enough: it all begins with the public. As Abraham Lincoln said: "In this age, in this country, public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions."

I firmly believe we can go deeper and accomplish more by creating a visible public presence, which emphasizes our support for the courts and our communities, and the good deeds of lawyers. We already have many of the pieces in place.

MBA Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin W. Healy and his legislative team are second to none when it comes to lobbying our legislature for appropriate court funding. We consistently use all means possible to educate the public as to the importance of our courts. Under the leadership of Past President Richard P. Campbell, we went so far as to rent space on billboards to facilitate and enhance public awareness with respect to the courts.

By combining those efforts with a strong message that the courts are a critical element, essential in the protection of the rights of working families, consumers and the disadvantaged, we will unquestionably create a strong public sentiment for properly funded, effective and fair civil and criminal justice systems. In turn, legislators would respond to their constituents and the courts would receive sufficient resources.

Of course, the bench and bar must work together and present a "unified front" when it comes to support for the judicial system. I am proud to say that several members have been working with the MBA to enhance bench/bar relations. This year we have already created and commenced regular bench/bar lunches with the Supreme Judicial Court and have scheduled educational programs and receptions co-sponsored by our Judicial Administration Section Council. The House of Delegates passed a resolution to update the Judicial Preference Guide, a useful tool to assist lawyers and judges alike in the everyday workings of the courts. We will spend more time with judges than ever, develop a deeper understanding of how lawyers and judges can support each other, and together recapture the public trust.

Creating a more visible presence will also pay dividends with our membership - the single most important consideration for any organization. I believe our membership efforts would skyrocket if we were to watch our leaders, not simply at MBA functions, but in major media as well. A public presence will have a synergistic effect on the MBA, and all of its initiatives, past, present and future. Immediate Past President Robert L. Holloway has worked tirelessly on membership, as has Vice President Christopher P. Sullivan, whom Holloway appointed to chair the Membership Committee. This year, Vice President Martha Rush O'Mara will contribute her considerable talents and co-chair the Membership Committee, as well. The work that Bob, Chris, Martha and others are doing is essential to the MBA, and can only be enhanced with increased visibility to non-members.

In addition to our Education and Membership committees, we have formed a Public Relations/Media Committee, which is led by a talented group of MBA leaders and staff. President-elect Marsha V. Kazarosian has agreed to contribute her superior skills as well. We have even included non-lawyers with media backgrounds. We will work to increase positive exposure in the media, while responding to unfair negative exposure. We will generate, initiate and promote positive story ideas, drawing from the wonderful and selfless activities of attorneys throughout the commonwealth which have, all too often, gone unrecognized. We will have a speaker's bureau, position papers, and media training. Treasurer Robert W. Harnais has been leading projects that protect the public regarding criminal law issues. Secretary Christopher A. Kenney has agreed to chair our new Consumer Advocacy Task Force. All of this work is bound to have a positive effect on the public.

But the real key to improving the public perception of lawyers is found through you, our members. You're the ones who are serving on community associations, working with the boards of nonprofit organizations, and donating your time and your money to help people. We need to get the word out about the positive contributions you make, day in and day out, and there's no time like the present.

October is Pro Bono Month, and, as I noted last month, Massachusetts lawyers give back roughly 1,000 years of pro bono each year. That's a lot of stories, and we ought to tell them. I encourage each of you to embrace Pro Bono Month by not only taking pro bono cases, but telling us about it, so we can spread the good word.

Through our staff, our leaders, our three initiatives and our committees, we have the infrastructure for an incredible year. And with your help we are going to improve our public image and regain the reputation for integrity once enjoyed by our great profession.