Three initiatives to restore the public trust

Issue September 2013 By Douglas K. Sheff

Improving the public perception of lawyers hinges on the successful implementation of three related Massachusetts Bar Association-driven initiatives that incorporate three of the most popular words in the English language:  family, consumer and justice. Each of these initiatives -- the "Working Families Initiative," the "Consumer Advocacy Initiative," and the "Justice For All Initiative" -- is designed to assist critical elements of our society, while advancing the image of attorneys and the MBA.

Working Families Initiative

The "Working Families Initiative" is well underway and has already made a substantial difference in our communities. Three years ago, the MBA created the Workplace Safety Task Force for the purposes of reducing injuries and deaths in the workplace. Since its inception, the Task Force has studied trends throughout the state and made educational presentations about workplace safety in working-class communities.

With representatives from law, business, labor, medicine, academia, and other professions, the Task Force's cross-industry composition demonstrates the reality that attorneys are often bridge builders. Our message of inclusivity has even affected lawmakers on Beacon Hill, most recently with the passage of a bill in our Legislature supporting fair pay and appropriate safety measures for workers. The MBA has created a powerful message -- its attorneys work hard to protect working families throughout the commonwealth.

The concept of working families also encompasses businesses, often run by families, sometimes for generations. It includes parents struggling to pay exorbitant tuition, without a significant tax break, as well as families who are victims of predatory lending, struggling to keep their homes. The Working Families Initiative will address these sorts of concerns by using the same effective principles and models utilized by the Workplace Safety Task Force.

Consumer Advocacy Initiative

The "Consumer Advocacy Initiative" has the potential to have a tremendous positive effect on the Massachusetts public. Every moment of the day, each of us is a consumer. We are constantly in contact with some type of product or service. In my capacity as MBA president, I intend to appoint a Consumer Advocacy Task Force in an effort to emphasize existing and much-needed consumer rights protections. Our newest officer, Secretary Christopher A. Kenney, will chair the Task Force. We will study areas where the MBA could recognize and acknowledge consumer-friendly businesses within the commonwealth. Conversely, the Task Force will serve as a clearinghouse for consumers seeking information about their rights when entities behave irresponsibly, exposing the public to inadequate or negligent services or defective products.

Justice for All Initiative

Finally, the "Justice for All Initiative" will formalize the MBA's longstanding history of support for the underprivileged and disenfranchised. The spirit of the initiative and its very title are embodied in our nation's "Pledge of Allegiance." The goal of the initiative is to encourage and highlight our pro bono and charity work for the less advantaged.

We will support and amplify good deeds performed by attorneys, such as those who serve on our Access to Justice Section Council, Massachusetts Bar Foundation, Dial-A-Lawyer Program, Tiered Community Mentoring Committee, Lawyer Referral Service, and the MBA's Marathon Bombing Legal Assistance Program.

The "Justice for All Initiative" will also create extensive public awareness of our support for due process, exemplified by our Crime Lab Task Force, led by Treasurer Robert W. Harnais and Chief Legal Counsel Martin W. Healy, who have worked tirelessly to ensure fairness in cases affected by potentially tainted evidence. We will continue our efforts to support those underrepresented in our society, most recently victims of traumatic brain injury.

We will issue a challenge for public acts of random kindness, and publicize these in a way that will inspire lawyers of all sorts and lay people, young and old. It is imperative that we convey our message in a manner that is meaningful, interesting and in a manner that resonates with the public. It's a difficult task, but our job will be to make positive stories as appealing and newsworthy as the negative ones.

I firmly believe that if we are successful, the public and the media will respond favorably and ultimately see lawyers in a more positive light.

Douglas K. Sheff is president of the MBA.