President's View: United we stand as lawyers

Issue January/February 2018 By Christopher P. Sullivan

Now is the time for “we, the lawyers” to focus on what unites all of us as attorneys and as citizens. Legal giants, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Louis Brandeis and Moorfield Story, founded the Massachusetts Bar Association more than 100 years ago. Ever since its founding, the MBA has been an inclusive organization, embracing lawyers of all faiths and creeds and all ethnicities and races. All lawyers are welcome to become MBA members.

Today, the MBA remains the only bar association in Massachusetts where every lawyer in the state can feel at home, no matter who you are, where you live, what kind of law you practice or in whatever setting you practice in: government, a corporation or non-profit, a private practice, a large firm, a solo practitioner, or anything in between. The MBA welcomes you. This is your bar association.

Today, we live in a time of change. Familiar norms and standards are being challenged almost daily, and some are being swept away. Many in our profession are fearful. Others feel a sense of unease as they watch unusual events unfold before their eyes. They wonder how they should think about the change that is upon us. They look for guidance and grounding.

When times are difficult, the best course is to return to basic values and fundamental beliefs. As attorneys, we know our core principle is the “rule of law,” where no man or woman — no matter how high his or her position — is above the law. This concept is the foundation of our government with its framework of divided power among three co-equal branches. We must embrace our historic bedrock legal principles: separation of powers, due process and equal access to justice for all. Any lawyer who cannot subscribe to these core principals violates his or her oath of office as an attorney. Those lawyers should consider leaving the profession.

We lawyers should be proud of our noble profession. And we need to express pride in all the good our profession does. No other profession so freely donates such large amounts of its talent and treasure for the public good as the legal profession. 

Some of the greatest leaders in world history were lawyers. Abraham Lincoln, who ended slavery and preserved the union, was a trial lawyer in rural Illinois. Mohandas Gandhi (also known as Mahatma Gandi), who led the non-violent revolution that freed India from the yoke of colonialism and created the world’s largest democracy, was a lawyer. So was Nelson Mandela, whose movement not only ended apartheid in South Africa, but who became the president of his country, uniting it without vengeance or violence through his “Peace and Reconciliation Commission.”

Most of us are not giants like Lincoln, Gandhi or Mandela. We are just ordinary people living ordinary lives. So what can we do? The simple truth is that ordinary people working together for a common cause can accomplish extraordinary things. As the MBA’s immediate past President Jeff Catalano often reminds us of his favorite saying, “When we dream alone it is only a dream, but when many dream together it is the beginning of a new reality.”

We cannot be mere spectators, for democracy is not a spectator sport. As the first woman to be elected to both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine said, “Our freedoms today are not so much in danger because people are consciously trying to take them away from us as they are in danger because we forget to use them. Freedom unexercised may be freedom forfeited. The preservation of freedom is in the hands of the people themselves — not of the government.”

Our rights are not self-executing. We must exercise our freedoms or they will wither and die. The inescapable conclusion is that we attorneys must also be citizens involved in our democracy. As Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Today, the MBA is at the forefront of protecting our freedoms. The MBA is leading the bar and society on the vital and important issues of the day, such as making sure that our judiciary and our system of justice remain independent and adequately funded, and that immigration enforcement is conducted in accordance with our constitution and our values. We must work to reform the criminal justice system in our commonwealth so that the punishments appropriately fit the crimes committed, so offenders may have a real chance for rehabilitation and so our communities are made safer in the process. I ask you not to stand on the sidelines, but rather join with the MBA in its efforts to improve our system of justice, our noble profession and our society as a whole. If you do, I promise you will make a difference in our world. You will feel better about our challenging times and, maybe, about yourself.