'Look back, step back and pull forward'

Issue September 2015 By Jason M. Scally


MBA's first Hispanic president aims to restore camaraderie

Massachusetts Bar Association President Robert W. Harnais has seen lawyers bring out the best and the worst in people -- including themselves.

Harnais saw one extreme early in his career when he was held hostage for several hours by a man who was angry that his lawyer (not Harnais) had lied to him.

"I've seen clients rely on lawyers to their own horrible detriment. That's the worst part of the profession," Harnais said. "But I've also seen lawyers work wonders for clients."

For Harnais, perhaps no one matched the description of an honorable lawyer better than attorney Peter Muse, one of his best friends, who died in 2012 after a courageous battle with brain cancer. Harnais calls Muse's death a "beautiful tragedy" -- tragic because a good man was taken away too soon, but beautiful in the outpouring of gratitude Muse received from clients in the years before and after his death. Calling Muse "a great mentor," Harnais said, "He helped me become the lawyer I am, the man I am, the father I am."

Muse was one of several like-minded lawyers in Quincy to whom Harnais was drawn in the early 1990s, including Daniel Bennett (now state secretary of public safety and security); Juvenile Judge James Torney; David Mahoney (his law partner); attorneys Daniel O'Malley, Jack Diamond, Steve Jones and John Cascarano; and in recent years Superior Court Judge Raffi Yessayan, Kevin Mullen, George Hardiman, Tom Cavanagh, Jack Greene, Dan Dilorati and Jack Garland. They practiced in the same courts, shared office space and developed a strong sense of camaraderie.

"It was what the practice of law should be. People got along," Harnais said. "Just a group of people practicing law - a great bunch of people to bounce things off. We worked hard, had fun doing it and enjoyed the work we did."

Now as MBA president -- the first Hispanic president in the association's history -- Harnais wants to restore that same feeling of camaraderie across the commonwealth. It's something he fears has gotten lost as the profession has become more of a business.

"We're not as civil as we used to be," Harnais said. "The profession is by nature adversarial. But some have turned it into a street fight and made it more personal."

Harnais has a saying -- "Look back, step back and pull forward." It's all about lifting someone up when he or she needs a hand. Harnais has been the beneficiary of such assistance in his own career, and he feels the MBA, as the statewide bar, should lead the way in pulling the bar forward. He hopes to spread a message, county by county across Massachusetts, that the MBA is the place where all members of the Massachusetts bar can reconnect with that sense of community again.

A community discovered

Growing up in Quincy, Harnais discovered his calling after high school when he saw the film "Breaker Morant," the 1980 Australian movie about a court martial.

"I walked out and wanted to be a lawyer," Harnais recalled. "It just turned me on to becoming a lawyer, fighting for people wrongly accused."

Not knowing any lawyers, Harnais became, in his words, a "courthouse groupie," and started hanging out at Quincy District Court between classes at University of Massachusetts Boston during the day, and his restaurant job at night. After several months of observing lawyers and court personnel, he got noticed and was offered a chance to volunteer at the clerk's office. Later, when Arthur Tobin became clerk magistrate, it turned into a paying job.

Working in the clerk's office was the beginning of a series of opportunities that exposed Harnais to the legal world even more. One of his most interesting experiences occurred when his transfer to the Probation Department at Quincy Court involved being a part of the state's first electronic monitoring program. As the first official test subject to wear one of the electronic bracelets, Harnais had "the most famous ankle at the time," he said, with officials visiting from other states to see how it worked.

With the support of his Quincy District Court colleagues, especially the help of a longtime friend and his daughter's godfather, Larry Falvey, Harnais attended law school in the evenings at New England School of Law (now New England Law | Boston). A subsequent job during law school working as a bilingual investigator for then-Middlesex District Attorney Scott Harshbarger further expanded his horizons.

It didn't take Harnais long after his admission to the bar in 1990 to see how much good he could accomplish as a lawyer. Harnais recalls that on one of his very first cases he represented a woman who was seeking to get her children back. While she couldn't afford to pay him, she sent him a thank-you card.

"The fact that she took time to thank me gave me a great sense of satisfaction -- a feeling [that] you can help someone," Harnais said.

"And that's what we should be doing," he added. "Making money is expected, but making a difference is respected."

However, Harnais feels his greatest accomplishment is his family. He and his wife Leslie have three children: Courtney, an RN and graduate of the University of Maine, where she played soccer all four years; Rob, a freshman at Ohio Wesleyan, where he was recruited out of Worcester Prep School to play football; and Josh, a junior at Archbishop Williams High School, where he plays on the basketball team. He also has a stepdaughter, Jackie. Despite his busy schedule, Harnais always makes it a point to attend his children's activities. He is very thankful for his wife's understanding about the commitment he has made to his profession and his clients.

The bar connection

Harnais spent the next decade building a general practice where helping people is a daily occurrence. It still is today. He handles both criminal and civil cases, including municipal work, and he also serves as general counsel to Norfolk County Sheriff Michael Bellotti, who gave Harnais an "incredible opportunity."

He has particularly enjoyed his criminal defense work, in part because of the close-knit nature of the criminal law bar.

"I really enjoy the camaraderie that there is in the courts among criminal attorneys," he said, "DAs and defense attorneys."

He has found a similar feeling at bar associations like the MBA and the Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys (MAHA), where he first became active in bar work. He credits attorney Julio Hernando for introducing him to MAHA, which was where he first realized the value of camaraderie and networking on a grander scale. He soon became very involved, and was ultimately elected president of MAHA.

"I'm in awe that MAHA let me be their president," said Harnais with deep appreciation. "MAHA gave me an incredible opportunity."

Part of that opportunity included representing MAHA on the MBA's House of Delegates. He said he was immediately impressed by the MBA's CLE and networking opportunities - and, most of all, the ability to interact with lawyers all over the state who did the same things he did.

"I looked around at the HOD and said, 'They're just like me,'" Harnais recalled. "I saw a lot of people I could connect with."

Now with many years of active MBA leadership under his belt, Harnais understands all the ways the MBA works for the bar and how user-friendly it is with its educational and networking opportunities. He also wants people to continue to look to the MBA as a powerful voice on issues of importance to the bar.

For example, Harnais said he will continue the MBA's advocacy on behalf of eliminating mandatory minimums for certain drug crimes. It's an issue he's particularly attuned to because of his practice. Not only has he defended people accused of drug crimes, but he's also seen through his work with the sheriff's office how valuable treatment options can be when they're available.

"What we're looking at is alternatives to mandatory sentences. Nobody is saying people should never go to jail. Jail has a place. But what happens when you let them out? Nothing," Harnais said. "We're talking about an epidemic of people dying, families being destroyed. We need to make sure there is some kind of treatment."

Harnais is also looking forward to continuing the MBA's strong relationship with the courts. "Everyone who walks in the courthouse door expects the system to work," he said." It's up to us -- lawyers and the courts -- to work together so that it won't fail."

Of course, Harnais also won't forget about what drew him to the bar in the first place -- a place where he could hang out with people just like him, unwind and even have some fun. The MBA has been a great place to help him escape, he said, "not from work, but from the pressures of work. We all need people to hang around with who know what we're going through and have the same pressures."

As president, Harnais is planning to visit with small groups of people around the state to hear what people have to say -- or even just to swap stories. In this small way, he hopes to return the "community" to our legal community, and restore the civil and professional nature that attracted so many people -- including him -- to the bar in the first place.

Jason M. Scally is the director of media and communications for the Massachusetts Bar Association.