Rewinding back a few decades, few of even the most prescient law
professionals around Boston would have expected the curious Quincy
kid nosing around the local courthouses to be, in August of 2016,
rounding off a successful year as president of the Massachusetts
But as that kid, Robert W. Harnais, would demonstrate to his
peers, going beyond what's merely expected is the first step to
becoming truly respected.
That's why Harnais has spent the last year traversing the four
corners of the commonwealth getting to intimately know its
countless communities, from the bay to the Berkshires. He has taken
steps to ease the impact of the current opioid crisis on those
communities and made bold strides to foster unity and camaraderie
in the legal profession.
Harnais is humble about the leadership role he has held at the
MBA and about the importance of the legal community in society.
"As lawyers, we provide a product, and that product is justice,"
he said. "The product is people's rights, and their protection. The
product is representing people to the utmost, all the time.
"Justice is like breathing," he added, quoting an old trial
adage. "You don't think about it until you don't have it - until
you really need it."
The winding road that brought Harnais to an MBA presidency began
when his Argentinean parents took the leap that countless
immigrants before them did in hopes of a more prosperous life, and
headed to the U.S.
Harnais said being a first-generation immigrant was never an
obstacle for him personally, but recalled feeling embarrassed and
even ashamed to be the son of non-native parents, only later
realizing the strength required of them to live that life.
"As you get older you're ashamed that you were ashamed," he
said. "I didn't see it as an obstacle, but I saw my parents
struggle with it more. As I look back I realize more what a brave
thing it was that they did, to come to the States. … They
struggled, for good or bad. They struggled for me."
Harnais has always made a point to stay loyal to his roots and
lobby for greater inclusion and diversity in regard to Latinos in
the law - something he noticed was lacking.
"It's the second biggest community in the state - and yet there
were only seven Hispanic judges in this whole state," he said,
referring to the time when he was president of the Massachusetts
Association of Hispanic Attorneys (MAHA) in the mid-2000s. "The
court's supposed to be reflective of the community."
As part of his MBA involvement, Harnais has served as the chair
of the MBA's Diversity Task Force, and as president of the
association he continued to lift up the Hispanic law community,
both at home and abroad. This year, the MBA was proud to host an
event with visiting Cuban law school deans.
Locally, for the lawyers of the commonwealth, Harnais is known
for his call for professional unity. During his presidency, he
established a Committee on Civility and Professionalism.
Harnais described his aim of dulling the "cutthroat" nature that
he has witnessed in lawyers toward lawyers, and towards
The harm that a bad lawyer can do was illustrated to Harnais
early on, when one of his first bosses consistently lied to a
client whose home was being foreclosed upon, assuring him he could
remain there. Finally realizing the manipulation, the client
barricaded himself in the house. It was left to Harnais to talk him
"He was desperate. He relied on a lawyer to help him, but he was
lied to," he said. Although the incident was an extreme one,
Harnais realized that it was a corruption of justice and moral
duty, and only added to the pop culture reputation of lawyers as
deceptive and manipulative.
Harnais expects his peers to make a living as best they can -
with a degree, office space and a respectable income - but he
believes that the public will come to admire the legal community
more when it treats these as the means rather than the end.
"All that's the business part of it; what people really respect
is when you do that extra step, and you care - you sincerely care.
You go above and beyond."
"That's what's respected of people in every profession," he
It's easy to talk about "community" as an abstract concept, but
in the practical sense it's composed of one main thing: people. For
the idea of community to function in a positive way, the people
must live in a state of general safety and wellbeing. In
Massachusetts, as in many communities around the nation, that
wellbeing is being threatened by drug and alcohol abuse.
During Harnais' presidency, a Section 35 Helpline was launched
to help those individuals seeking court-ordered inpatient treatment
for a family member or friend struggling with opioid and alcohol
As part of the Section 35 Helpline, lawyers involved in the free
legal service are available to provide moral support and guidance
to family members during court proceedings.
"The reality is, the lawyer doesn't do much when he or she is
there. But the parents will tell you that having the lawyer there
with you in court when you're doing this makes it a little bit
easier," he said. "It's never easy. But knowing there's somebody
next to me is a great feeling."
"Is this a cure to the problem? Absolutely not," Harnais said.
"But it's something we as lawyers can do to try and help people who
"In his year as president, Bob has been able to bring our legal
community closer together by drawing attention to civility within
our profession," said Martin W. Healy, MBA chief legal counsel and
chief operating officer. "His tireless work to launch our Section
35 Helpline has also addressed a strong need in our local
communities for families struggling with a loved one's drug and
Though a dedicated MBA officer, Harnais is looking forward to
spending more time with his family, including a newly arrived
granddaughter. In addition, he realizes he has to get back to work
(at Mahoney & Harnais in Quincy) because he has found out his
family thinks food is a necessity.
"The MBA has a great future," he said. "The team coming up, led
by president-elect Jeff Catalano, has great ideas and a lot of
For his part, Catalano doesn't intend on diverting too far from
the course on which Harnais and his predecessors have set the MBA.
He said he respects and has admired Harnais' style of leading from
"He doesn't impose," Catalano said. "He suggests ideas, he
invites feedback. He understands what it's like to be a
In particular, leadership is something that Catalano will focus
on building in the upcoming generation of lawyers, through programs
such as a Leadership Academy and enhanced interaction with the
city's incubator program run between several area law schools.
"So many people have to start on their own, and don't have
senior partners to look up to - we want to be that entity. That's
what we're there for. … We want to train people to have big vision,
and to be at the forefront of everything that matters in society,"
Catalano said, adding that the aim is ultimately to make the
profession "more enjoyable" for all.
Of his presidency, Harnais said, "We all have to deal with
serious issues in our lives, and as lawyers we deal with them all
the time, but when you have a moment to enjoy, enjoy it."