A year of unprecedented opportunity

Issue September 2014 By Marsha Kazarosian

As we turn the corner into the 2014-15 Massachusetts Bar Association membership year, we can look proudly upon an impressive record of accomplishment by Douglas K. Sheff, our immediate past president. He, like his predecessors, invested his time, resources, energy, blood, sweat and tears to maintain the MBA's position as the preeminent statewide bar association in the commonwealth. And I know that President Sheff would be the first to acknowledge that little could be accomplished without the dedication and leadership of our incomparable Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin Healy and our talented staff.

This is an incredible time for the MBA, and I am very excited about the upcoming year - not only because I have the privilege of serving you as MBA president, but because this year attorneys in Massachusetts, and particularly MBA members, will have opportunities that we've never had before.

To start, Massachusetts lawyers finally have the right to engage in jury voir dire, allowing us to join 39 other states with the same opportunity. Just last month Gov. Deval L. Patrick signed into law an MBA-backed bill (Chapter 254 of the Acts of 2014), that will permit attorneys to question jurors in civil and criminal trials throughout the Superior Court. The law also lets plaintiffs specify an amount for damages, which was previously unavailable.

The statute gives discretion to judges to impose reasonable limitations on the voir dire process, and details about implementation are still evolving. But these invaluable tools represent important steps toward ensuring access to justice and a fair trial, regardless of whether you represent a plaintiff or a defendant.

In recent years we've seen bits and pieces of how voir dire works, particularly as more judges have employed the practice by allowing limited attorney voir dire. Experienced trial lawyers know that information gleaned from even limited voir dire questioning reveals only the tip of the iceberg of potential bias. True attorney-conducted voir dire allows for a conversation between lawyers and potential jurors, allowing us to peek below the surface to weed out bias and preconceived notions.

Last month at the American Bar Association's Annual Meeting in Boston, I had the pleasure of serving on a panel with U.S. District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin (S.D.N.Y), who told a compelling story about a murder case over which she had presided. The first trial resulted in a hung jury when one holdout refused to join her fellow jurors in a guilty verdict. In the retrial with the same evidence, the new jury came back unanimous with an acquittal. The only variable that changed was that the voir dire questions were more thoroughly crafted to uncover juror bias.

Voir dire is all important, and I am so excited to see the improvements that attorney-conducted voir dire will bring to our trial system.

Another new development that is very important to me is that the MBA will be offering free educational programming to members this year, with the exception of conferences and the Practicing with Professionalism course. That is a tremendous member benefit, and an important resource for all. By offering free CLE and MBA On Demand, the MBA is taking an extraordinary stand in our commitment to the excellence of our profession.

I've always been a big proponent of learning by doing; that's largely how I got my own start as a trial lawyer. But in looking back, I would have greatly benefitted from everything that the MBA offers a new lawyer today. By providing free CLE to all of its members, the MBA has the opportunity to mentor the hundreds of new lawyers who choose to take advantage of this incredible benefit.

Of course, free CLE is not just for new lawyers. Even though Massachusetts is not a mandatory CLE state, the number of Massachusetts lawyers who participate in CLE is extraordinarily high, not because we have to, but because we want to be the best that we can be. We are motivated by the desire to practice law ethically, expertly and passionately, and the MBA's free CLE member benefit helps pave the way. With classes geared for every level of experience and area of practice, this is something we can all look forward to.

I can't speak about upcoming opportunities without mentioning the tremendous opportunity - or more accurately, responsibility - that I've been given as the new MBA president to make a positive difference in our profession. I've been inspired by the incredible work done by my predecessor and great friend, Douglas Sheff, and I hope to build on the legacy he and other great presidents have created for our association.

It's fortuitous that free CLE is happening this year, because supporting the MBA's ongoing commitment to promoting professional excellence through CLE is one of the areas I plan to focus on during my presidency. In fact, education is the foundation upon which many of my upcoming goals are built.

In the months ahead I will be emphasizing the importance of educating attorneys and the public about the importance of the Rule of Law, the need to maintain an independent judiciary and the invaluable role of lawyers in protecting and ensuring a democratic society. I'll have more to discuss about these important initiatives and others in the coming months as I immerse myself in this important role.

For now, I invite you to join me in the excitement of the coming year. I look forward to working with my fellow officers President-elect Robert Harnais, Vice President John Morrissey, Vice President Christopher Kenney, Treasurer Jeffrey Catalano, and Secretary Christopher Sullivan, and all MBA members as we continue our never-ending pursuit of excellence. With so many opportunities available today, there has never been a better time to be a lawyer, and in particular, a member of the MBA.