Solace Chapter Unites Massachusetts Legal Community

Issue February 2014 By Mike Vigneux

Four years ago a medical school graduate in Louisiana embarked on the trip of a lifetime with her brother. As a graduation present, their father took them to the World Cup in South Africa, the global soccer championship which takes place every four years. But what started as the trip of a lifetime suddenly turned tragic.

The two siblings were unfortunately the victims of a terrible hit-and-run accident. The med school student was killed in the crash and her brother slipped into a coma. Estimates put the cost of bringing the deceased sister and her brother home at $300,000.

Back home in Louisiana, the sister of the med school student was a lawyer in Baton Rouge. As word of the tragedy spread, the legal community pitched in to help through the SOLACE program, an email-based network of legal professionals interested in helping other members of the legal "family."

A message was sent out to SOLACE members asking if anyone had any contacts in the medical evacuation or transportation industry that could assist the family. Just 18 minutes later an email response came from a law school professor who had a brother that was the head of medical evacuations at Ochsner Hospital in New Orleans.

Free of charge, the hospital dispatched a team of five doctors to South Africa who brought the med school student and her brother home to Louisiana. Amidst a horrific situation, the family finally had some sense of relief and it was the local legal community that helped make it happen.

The SOLACE program was co-founded 12 years ago in 2002 by U.S. District Judge Jay C. Zainey of Louisiana and Mark Surprenant, a New Orleans attorney. SOLACE (Support of Lawyers/Legal Personnel - All Concern Encouraged) was born from a simple, yet important question: what can members of the legal community do to help each other in various times of need?

The program, which began in Louisiana, has now been implemented in 15 states and Puerto Rico. Massachusetts came on board to the SOLACE program this past fall. SOLACE participants include lawyers, paralegals, legal assistants and legal staff, court personnel, and anyone who works in the legal profession. It harnesses the personal networks of its volunteer members to provide critical assistance, especially when there has been a death in the family, illness or other catastrophic loss.

The process is simple yet effective. Members notify a program coordinator by email when someone from within the legal "family" needs assistance due to tragedy or some other unfortunate circumstance. The program administrator then sends out a short, confidential email to the SOLACE network in a given state chapter. SOLACE members who might be able to help can reply and ultimately be put in touch with the requester. There is never any pressure to offer assistance and participation is purely voluntary. The identity of the requester is kept confidential in the initial email blast from the administrator.

SOLACE has flourished thanks to the power of the Internet and instant communication. According to Zainey, the Louisiana SOLACE chapter has approximately 8,800 volunteer members. If each of those members has 10 friends, family members or neighbors in different careers, there are potentially 88,000 people who can address a request for help. By using email, the power of such a vast network can be leveraged quickly and effectively.

"In 11 years we've never had to tell anyone we couldn't help them. It's amazing," said Zainey. "If the message reaches 88,000 people, eventually somebody is going to know somebody who's going to know somebody."

"It's a pretty easy, low maintenance way of connecting people who need help with people who can provide help," said Patrick Curran, an executive committee member of the Massachusetts Chapter of the Federal Bar Association (FBA) who will serve as the SOLACE program coordinator in Massachusetts.

Zainey noted that the Louisiana chapter receives more than 100 requests for help in a year, averaging about five to 10 per month. The mantra of the program is: "Nothing too big. Nothing too small."

"It's amazing what people will do for total strangers - the common bond or link being they're all members of the legal community helping each other during a time of need," added Zainey.

SOLACE will never ask for cash donations from participants. The program facilitates an opportunity to offer clothing, housing, transportation, medical community contacts and a myriad of other services when someone in the legal community faces a dire need.

MBA Vice President Christopher Sullivan first learned of the SOLACE program when he attended a convention in New Orleans as president-elect of the Massachusetts Chapter of the FBA. Sullivan heard Zainey speak about SOLACE at a luncheon and took the idea back to the FBA chapter in Massachusetts.

In June 2013, Zainey came to Massachusetts as part of the FBA's annual judicial reception. In a meeting with several bar associations, including the MBA, Zainey described the SOLACE program and the success it had enjoyed in Louisiana. Also represented at the meeting was the Association for Legal Administrators - Boston chapter, the Boston Bar Association, the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association as well as other legal industry organizations.

The MBA's Massachusetts chapter of SOLACE has already attracted more than 100 members to date.

"We're thrilled that we've received such a positive response to this," noted Sullivan. "We think it's going to be a real benefit to MBA members, their staffs and others we work with in the court system, corporations and public agencies. What we're trying to do is really harness the contacts and clout of the entire Massachusetts legal community so that everyone benefits."