President's View

Issue September 2013 By Douglas K. Sheff

When Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis founded the Massachusetts Bar Association more than 100 years ago, the law was believed to be the noblest of professions. Many years later, my first impression of the law was one of respect for lawyers. My dad was a trial lawyer, and wherever he went, people asked for his opinion as a trusted expert on just about everything. It was a time when lawyers and judges enjoyed a public image of honor and integrity. Unfortunately, over the last 40 years our profession's reputable standing has been severely eroded in the eyes of the public.

Today, our image is stigmatized as elitist, greedy and deceitful. Lawyers are often demonized by the media. This also reflects poorly on our clients, whether they may be individuals or businesses. But I am optimistic. Now is the time to purge this negative stereotype from our profession. It's not too late to recapture the public's trust and to restore our honorable image.

The negative connotations plaguing our profession emanate from an impression that lawyers are uncaring, self-centered and exclusionary. The public views us as takers. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. The finest people I have known have been attorneys. Some of the most selfless acts I have witnessed were those of attorneys. Many such attorneys are members of the MBA. The majority of these good deeds are recognized and revered by the legal community, yet never seen or appreciated by the general public.

According to a 2013 report by the American Bar Association, 80 percent of practicing attorneys perform an average of 56 hours of pro bono work each year. Applying that metric to the roughly 60,000 lawyers in Massachusetts, it means our legal community is giving back over 1,000 years of free legal service each year to people who can't afford a lawyer. I cannot think of another profession that does as much pro bono and charitable work as lawyers.

Clearly, to restore our profession's honorable posture, we must mend this discernible disconnect. We must demonstrate that we are not takers, but rather caretakers. To foster this undertaking, we must reach out and deliver our message, not only to attorneys, but to the public at large. We need to serve the public as only the statewide bar association can, and to celebrate our contributions throughout the commonwealth. If we can serve the public while earning its gratitude, we will have turned the corner.

I have taken the first step toward regaining the public's trust by implementing three initiatives - the "Working Families Initiative," the "Consumer Advocacy Initiative," and the "Justice For All Initiative." (See related story, page 3.) If we can succeed in these new initiatives, they will have a powerfully positive influence on existing ones.

It is an honor and privilege to assume the role of the president of the MBA. I know that my fellow MBA officers feel similarly honored, and I look forward to working with President-elect Marsha V. Kazarosian, Vice President Martha Rush O'Mara, Vice President Christopher P. Sullivan, Treasurer Robert W. Harnais and Secretary Christopher A. Kenney.

Inspired by your trust, we will make vast strides in vital areas for our organization and our communities. Such strides can only be made with your participation and support. I challenge each of you to think of one way to contribute to the cause through an initiative, project, committee, program or other means, and do it to your best ability. It is time to recapture that positive public image possessed by Holmes, Brandeis and the many MBA members who followed.