Legal Aid Funding Is Not “Wasted Money”

starkeyby Carol A. Starkey

President’s Page

“No more wasted money,” is how President Trump has characterized his proposal to cut $54 billion from the federal budget. To get there, the administration has placed the Legal Service Corporation (LSC) and its approximate $366 million in federal appropriations on the chopping block. The President’s budget – released in March – eliminates this program entirely, a proposal that attempts to carve out the backbone of civil legal aid to the poor in this country.  The consequences of such a proposal would, at best, render those most vulnerable amongst us unable to properly access our courts for daily needs such as housing, health care or safety, and at worst, keep them from exercising their basic rights to survive in this country.

Last month, I once again had the privilege as your Bar Leader to travel to Washington, DC to meet with members of the Massachusetts delegation and advocate for the reinstatement of funds as part of a larger lobbying effort with the American Bar Association. Shortly after those visits, a deal was struck in Congress to fund LSC through October 1st. This is good news in the short term, but when it comes to access to justice, short term solutions are not nearly enough.

Quite simply, LSC provides necessary legal aid to low income individuals and families in Massachusetts and throughout this country at large.  The LSC is an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. LSC is a grant-making organization, distributing more than 93% of its federal appropriation to eligible nonprofits delivering civil legal aid. It is the largest single funder of civil legal aid in the country, including $5 million annually to Massachusetts-based legal services organizations.

The need for this essential service is undeniable. In the United States, 80 percent of qualified applicants – those who meet the income eligibility requirements and face serious legal problems – are turned away simply because there isn’t adequate funding to take them on as clients. This figure is unacceptably high. These are people, amongst others, who are our neighbors being wrongfully evicted from homes, women and children in our communities already made vulnerable by poverty trying to safely escape abusive partners, parents trying to advocate for a beloved child with special needs, and veterans, many of whom come home struggling with serious mental and physical health issues, trying to secure the benefits that are rightfully theirs, so as not to end up homeless.

This urgent need alone is enough to justify keeping this line item, which represents about one hundredth of one percent of the entire federal budget.  But what if Congress and the President also knew that preserving LSC would actually save taxpayer money and support the economy? That’s just what three independent economists conducting separate evaluations have found.

In 2014, the Boston Bar Association (BBA) released Investing in Justice, a report which showed that taking a preventive approach to legal issues would help families, save government funds and ensure fairness in our justice system. Simply put, investing in civil legal aid programs pays dividends by avoiding back-end costs.

The BBA report – representing the work and opinions of legislators, judges, business leaders, academics, and legal services representatives – is the result of 18 months of intensive research into the problems and unseen costs that arise when people do not have access to adequate legal assistance.

For example, in Massachusetts, when studying the impact on state expenditures of representation by a civil legal aid attorney in eviction and foreclosure cases, economists at The Analysis Group concluded that for every dollar spent on civil legal aid in eviction and foreclosure cases, the state stands to save $2.69 on the costs of other state services, such as emergency shelter, health care, foster care, and law enforcement.

In addition, the firm Alvarez & Marsal analyzed the costs of domestic violence and what savings could occur if additional civil legal aid representation was available in such cases.  They determined that every $1 spent on legal aid yields $2 in medical and mental health care savings, including $1 to the state and $1 to the federal government.

The Boston Bar Association has long argued that legal assistance is an essential service for those who are struggling to deal with the issues that go to the heart of their families and livelihoods, like housing and personal safety. But we can also make the case that it is the fiscally prudent thing to do.

Others can, too. We need our leaders – both in Washington and here at home – to understand that advocating for every American to have access to justice is not only a just cause, but a sound investment that is worth our resources.

As lawyers, you have a valuable perspective to bring to this issue, one that lawmakers will find substantive and relevant.  To that end, I’m pleased to share the Boston Bar Association’s podcast: How to Talk to Your Legislators About Civil Legal Aid, featuring an interview with Equal Justice Coalition Chair Louis Tompros of WilmerHale.

I hope you enjoy it, and then reach out to both your state representative and your senator in support of increased funding for legal aid.  Your voice is needed to tell legislators and others how much we care about legal aid funding, backed up by our findings that investing in civil legal aid actually saves money while improving people’s lives.

Carol A. Starkey is the president of the Boston Bar Association. She is a partner at Conn, Kavanaugh, Rosenthal, Peisch & Ford. 


Enhancing Families Through Literature: An Innovative Way To Decrease Conflict

fosterby Hon. Richard A. Simons

Voice of the Judiciary

As trial court judges, we sit in a unique position to place the litigants who appear before us on a path toward changing behaviors that have previously led to poor decision making.  For example, in the context of the Probate and Family Court, judges routinely issue orders to (a) coerce a recalcitrant parent to honor his/her financial obligations toward his/her children; (b) create incentives for a parent suffering from substance abuse disorder to obtain treatment by predicating access to children upon engaging in treatment; and (c) address issues of violence in the home by ordering enrollment in intimate partner violence prevention programs.  At times, these interventions have been successful in changing the trajectory of an entire family’s life.

A unique feature in the Probate and Family Court is that many of our cases go on for years.  While we may be successful in resolving the issues in a divorce or unmarried custody case, we often times see the parties again and again on subsequent complaints for modification or complaints for civil contempt.  Not only do these frequent case filings crowd our busy dockets and drain valuable court resources, but they also foment inter-parental conflict which adversely impacts their children’s emotional adjustment and development.  In my time on the bench, I have even begun to hear the disputes of grown children born of parents over whose custody cases I have presided.  The cycle of poor decision-making and ineffective conflict resolution continues unabated.

In the fall of 2013, my Chief Probation Officer, Amy Koenig, and I attended a Judicial Institute training program for courts considering starting a Changing Lives Through Literature (“CLTL”) program in their court.  We arrived curious yet somewhat skeptical.  A few hours later however, we left the program energized and inspired.  We heard from Judges Robert Kane, Rosalind Miller and Kathe Tuttman, who passionately shared their observations of how the study of literature was used as a tool by probationers to change their behavior.  College professors and probation officers joined the chorus of describing the success of this alternate sentencing program.

On the car ride back to the Berkshires, Chief Koenig and I began to brainstorm how we could make this program work in the Probate and Family Court.  We faced unique challenges in our court that those in other trial court departments did not have to confront.  We do not have litigants “on probation” in the Probate and Family Court.  How would we mandate attendance?  Who should attend the program?  Mothers? Fathers?  Should the parties attend together?  If they were to attend the program together, what child care coverage should be made available for their children?  What time of day could we have such a program when time is at such a premium for young working families?

These challenges provided opportunities to explore and create a meaningful program for young families who find themselves in the midst of a child custody dispute in the Probate and Family Court.  Holding onto the essential ingredients of the successful program of CLTL, we developed a twelve week intervention program called, Enhancing Families Through Literature (“EFTL”). The court issues an Order requiring the parties to attend the program along with their children.  Monetary sanctions (or community service orders for indigent litigants) are imposed for any non-compliance with the court’s Order.  Chief Koenig and I participate with the families in each of the sessions.

The program takes place at our local library once per week for twelve weeks, from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.  The evening begins with parents enjoying a catered meal together with their children.  At 5:30, the parents retire to one area of the library, and the children go to a separate area.  For the first eight weeks, the parents participate in a traditional “CLTL” formatted program.  Our facilitator, Professor Matthew Müller, from Berkshire Community College, leads a discussion on assigned readings, including works by Raymond Carver, William Faulkner and Franz Kafka.  While the parents are studying literature, the children are participating in a program led by four certified Head Start Teachers called “Every Child Ready To Read Program” developed by the Association for Library Service to Children and the Public Library Association.

The final four weeks of the program consist of an interactive program among parents and children led by the early childhood educators.  They teach about the importance of the word in parenting.  Reading to children is modeled for parents.  Parents and children work on projects together.  At the conclusion of each of the twelve sessions, each child is given a book, so that by the end of the program the child’s library has increased by 12 books.

The program culminates in a graduation ceremony at the courthouse.  In addition to gifts of books awarded to all participants and children, Berkshire Community College issues a transcript to each parent documenting an earned college credit.  Participants speak and share what the program meant to them and their family.  One of the speakers at last years’ graduation proudly shared the following:

My time in the literature segment with Professor Müller gave me a chance to experience literature that I’ve never read before.  His approach, great personality brought the words of those stories to life.  Admittedly I couldn’t understand why our selected readings were so dark and almost never had the traditional “happy ending” or resolution.  Then it dawned on me recently; Perspective.  Perspective is everything, not only in literature but it applies to real life in many ways by giving us a dose of allegorical reality.  Never judge a book by its cover, and never judge a person too quickly or you might miss out on someone that could change your life forever.          

The study of literature within this magic framework of classes with a judge, probation officer and college professor challenges participants to see the world through different eyes. During class, participants hear differing views and interpretations of the same stories from classmates.  Imagining how each character in a story feels often leads to eye-opening discussions.  The discussions lead to listening.  Listening leads to tolerance.  Tolerance leads to acceptance.  Acceptance leads to communication.  Communication leads to better conflict resolution.

People share their thoughts, without judgment, and in doing so provide themselves and their co-parent with important insights and understanding.  One year, we were a discussing the short story, “Bodies” by Phil Klay, an American writer and Iraq veteran.  One of the participants was a man who was deployed several times to the Middle East and rarely displayed any emotions other than anger.  He began to open up and shared how his feelings toward deployments changed after the birth of his son.   What I did not realize at the time was that this statement broke the ice between him and his child’s mother.  She confided in the instructor that she never knew he prioritized his son in that fashion.  From that point, on they began to talk and compare notes about their son.

The benefits of this program continue to unfold.  Parents begin to see themselves as a team raising their child rather than adversaries in a courtroom.  In addition, the wonder of reading to children is spread to families that might not have experienced this joy before.  Parents experience how snuggling and reading with a child opens up communication between parent and child as well.  Most important, the overwhelming majority of these families resolve their pending cases by agreement as they begin the journey of resolving future conflicts through communication and negotiation.

As with other worthwhile programs offered in the Trial Court, Enhancing Families Through Literature empowers litigants to make lasting changes in their behavior, leading to better decisions for them and for their children.

Judge Simons is the First Justice of the Berkshire Division of the Probate and Family Court. In 2016, he and Chief Koenig were recognized by AFCC for innovation in a court-connected program. 


Can Judges Tweet? Judicial Ethics in the Social Media Age

fosterby Hon. Robert B. Foster

Voice of the Judiciary

The rise of social media has created questions for judges that would not have occurred to anyone ten or fifteen years ago. May a judge have a Facebook page? Must judges delete their Linked-In accounts after being appointed to the bench? Is it possible to use a Twitter account consistent with the Code of Judicial Conduct? These three questions are a modern twist on the dilemma judges have always faced: how does a judge maintain the integrity, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary without losing all contact with the world about which the judge is asked to pass judgment?

The answer to these questions starts with the Code, most recently revised effective January 1, 2016. The Committee on Judicial Ethics (CJE) is the SJC-appointed body charged with interpreting the Code and answering specific questions about the Code’s application. Much of its work consists of letter opinions, issued in response to judges’ questions. In 2016, the CJE issued letter opinions answering these three questions yes, no, and yes, but only under certain conditions that ensure that the judge acts online consistently with the Code.

The first letter opinion concerns judges’ use of Facebook. For the few people left who are unfamiliar with it, Facebook is an online social media platform. Participants create a page about themselves on which they can post news and personal information. Importantly, Facebook members “friend” other members, so that they can see their friends’ posts and their friends can see theirs, and can comment on or indicate they “like” others’ posts. In the letter opinion, the CJE set forth some of the provisions of the Code that use of Facebook implicates. These include Rule 1.2, requiring judges to “act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary” and to avoid even the appearance of impropriety; Rule 1.3, which bars the abuse of the judicial office to advance the personal or economic interests of the judge or others; Rule 2.3, barring bias, prejudice or harassment; Rule 2.4, requiring judges not to permit personal, financial, or political interests or relationships to influence or appear to influence their judgment; Rule 2.9 against ex parte communications; Rule 2.10 against judicial speech on pending matters; Rule 2.11 on disqualification; and Rule 4.1 prohibiting judges from participating in political and campaign activities. All these are swept up in Rule 3.1, “which provides that a judge must conduct all extrajudicial activities in a manner that does not interfere with Code principles and provisions.”

Applying these provisions, the CJE found that judges could use Facebook, even identifying themselves as judges, so long as they do not do things like comment on pending matters, make political or commercial endorsements or comments, do anything that looks like an ex parte communication or suggests that anyone is in a position to influence the judge, or post anything that conflicts with the dignity of judicial office. Moreover, a judge must not “friend” any attorney who might appear before the judge. In short, the CJE reminded judges that Facebook is public, and any comment, and even any “like” of another person’s post, is a public communication that must be made within the strictures of the Code.

The next letter opinion concerned a judge’s use of Linked In. Linked In is a kind of professional Facebook, a “business-oriented social networking site.” Applying the principles set forth in its Facebook letter opinion, the CJE stated that the Code allows the use of Linked In so long as the judge is “not . . . connected with any attorney who is reasonably likely to appear before the judge.” The judge must not only avoid connecting with such attorneys, but must also disconnect with any attorneys with whom the judge is currently connected.

The last of the three letter opinions concerns a judge’s use of Twitter. As the CJE quite cogently explains, Twitter is a social network that permits users to post “tweets” of up to 140 characters, plus images or videos. “Twitter is meant to be shared; users follow selected other users.” A user’s homepage includes a “feed” that displays tweets from the Twitter accounts the user is following. A user can post selected tweets from the feed, a practice known as “retweeting.” Importantly, “[u]nless the user indicates otherwise, the act of retweeting generally suggests that the user endorses the views expressed.” A user’s tweets and retweets show up on the feeds of the user’s followers, and are also publicly available to anyone who visits twitter.com.

The letter opinion addresses how a current judge uses Twitter. It begins by reiterating the Code provisions implicated by the use of social media that the CJE discussed in its Facebook opinion. It repeats that judges are not barred from using social media, so long as that use is consistent with the Code. It goes on to note, however, that use of Twitter raises some particular issues. The Twitter account in question identifies the user as a judge, and “when a judge is posting publicly as a judge, the judge must be exceptionally cautious” because “the public may perceive the judge’s communications to have the imprimatur of the courts.” Therefore, in general “a public, unrestricted Twitter account of an identified judge may be used only for informational and educational purposes.” Specifically, a judge may share upcoming and past bar events and news of general interest to the bar, report on case decisions of the SJC or other courts, and advise lawyers on trial practice. The judge must be careful, however, not to do so in ways that appear to compromise the judge’s impartiality or demonstrate a personal bias or opinion for or against a person or a political issue. The letter opinion also reminds judges that these considerations also apply to retweets, and to the list of other Twitter accounts that a judge follows, as all of these are public.

As the CJE recognizes, it does no good for a judge to withdraw completely from society. Judges must maintain contact with the world that they are asked to judge; they must have some understanding of the social circumstances of the people who appear before them. Thus, judges are entitled to have friends, to have conversations at parties, to attend public and social events. The caveat is that they must do so within the confines and requirements of the Code and in a way that does not call into question their fairness and impartiality or that of the judiciary. Social media in their various forms are an amplification of the direct social contacts and interactions of a judge. Social media make it possible for a judge to interact with friends over a far wider range than in person. The big difference is that these interactions are far more public than a conversation at a dinner party. The simple rule for judges who use social media is to keep this in mind and not to say anything on Facebook or Twitter that they could or would not say in any other public setting.

Hon. Robert B. Foster is an Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Land Court.  Before his 2011 appointment, he practiced with Rackemann, Sawyer & Brewster, P.C.  He is a graduate of Haverford College and Harvard Law School.


Virtually There: e-Filing Becomes a Reality in the Massachusetts State Courts

doylekenneallystantonwright

by Hon. Maura S. Doyle, Francis V. Kenneally, Joseph Stanton and Kim J. Wright

Voices of the Judiciary

In the spring of 2014, the Massachusetts Judicial Branch contracted with Tyler Technologies, Inc., to pilot e-filing through Tyler’s Odyssey File and Serve platform.  Although the Federal PACER system is well established, it is not available to states, necessitating that Massachusetts develop its own system.  Three departments of the Trial Court, and each of the appellate courts, designated certain case types – and in the case of the Trial Court departments, pilot locations – for their respective e-filing pilots.  Over the next 18 months, pilot court personnel teamed with the Courts’ Judicial Information Services Department and Tyler Technologies to establish both a general e-filing system for the Judicial Branch and specific systems tailored to each pilot court’s particular filing requirements.  After extensive testing and training of volunteer attorneys for each pilot court, attorneys who regularly filed pilot case types in those pilot courts were invited to e-file.  The e-filing system allows a user registered with Tyler to remotely upload a pdf for a court filing in a specific case, select the appropriate court description of the filing from a dropdown menu, electronically serve it on other parties, and file it electronically with the court, generating an appropriate entry on the docket and a link to the pdf in the court’s document management system, without any paper original or duplicate being filed.  Tyler charges a modest convenience fee for civil filings that the courts can waive for indigent parties and government filers.

Beginning in the fall of 2015 and continuing through the spring of 2016, the various pilots were conducted on a phased basis.  In June 2016, participants conducted an assessment of the pilots, toward a decision whether to proceed with Tyler beyond the pilots to full implementation.  Attorneys were asked specifically for input on the registration process, the value of any assistance received from the vendor and specific questions about the e-filing process, including adding service contacts, serving documents through the Odyssey File and Serve, uploading pdfs and making payments.

Overall, responses to the survey were positive.  The overwhelming majority of attorneys indicated that they did not encounter problems in registering as a filer, found filing cases to be “easy” or “moderately easy,” had little difficulty uploading PDF documents, and did not encounter problems with making a credit card payment.  Comparatively modest concerns were identified for adjustment and improvement during continued implementation.  Based on the positive results of the assessment, the Supreme Judicial Court, the Appeals Court and the Trial Court decided to move forward with Tyler Technologies and expand e-filing.

A Closer Look

Appellate Courts

Before describing the current – and future – state of e-filing in the Appellate Courts it is worth taking a brief look back at the foundation the Courts built over the past decade, in preparation for e-filing.  During that time, the Courts have adopted a number of paperless practices, including:  scanning decision-related documents (e.g., briefs, transcripts, and record appendices); coordinating with the Trial Court for production of transcripts in PDF; adopting standing orders for court notices and filings by e-mail; permitting electronic signatures and service; encouraging Judges and court personnel to utilize PDFs and electronic editing features in their daily work, and equipping them with the necessary software and hardware to do so; storing PDFs in the Courts’ document management system for access by all court personnel; electronic distribution of, and remote access to, case documents by Justices; and, within the Appeals Court, reducing the number of required paper copies from 7 to 4.  Briefs in non-impounded cases scheduled for argument are made available to the public on the Courts’ website.  For the past year or two, the overwhelming majority of judges on the Appeals Court, and a majority of the Justices on the SJC, have prepared for, and participated in, oral argument working exclusively from PDFs on an iPad, and iPads also are used by staff attorneys and other personnel to assist in their paperless practice.  The Reporter of Decisions electronically edits and publishes the Courts’ opinions, and has transitioned to a completely paperless release of advance sheets.

In addition, the SJC for the Commonwealth has transmitted briefs and transcripts to the U.S. Supreme Court via cloud-based technology.  Within the SJC for Suffolk County, more than 3,000 annual petitions for admission to the bar are scanned and electronically stored, before being digitally reviewed by the Board of Bar Examiners, single justice decisions are electronically transmitted upon request, and most written communication between counsel and the clerk’s office occurs by email.  More than 4,000 annual filings of required bar admission data from law schools and the National Conference of Bar Examiners, formerly in hard paper copies, now are filed in digital format and are stored in the court’s case management system, and partial electronic processing has led to a reduction by more than fifty percent in hard copy paper filings incident to requests for Certificates of Admission and Good Standing.  Finally, the Appeals Court stored over 17,000 pdfs of court filings in 2016.

In sum, the paperless foundation and experience developed over the past decade has prepared the Appellate Courts for the advent of electronic filing.

The Supreme Judicial Court for the Commonwealth launched its e-filing pilot on November 2, 2015.  For the first time, attorneys e-filed applications for direct and further appellate review, a significant departure from past practice where the appellate rules require 18 paper copies – on average over 1000 pages per application. The build-up to the launch required extensive planning by the clerk’s office and assistance from attorneys, civil and criminal alike, who beta-tested and provided critical feedback that led to improvements in the e-filing system.  On  October 14, 2015, Clerk Kenneally conducted a free e-filing seminar sponsored by MCLE and attended by hundreds online and in Boston.  MCLE continues to offer the archived program free of charge on its website. Perhaps the most telling statistic to illustrate the success of e-filing to date is the high rate of attorney participation particularly in light of national averages where e-filing is not mandatory.  Tyler Technologies, the project’s e-filing vendor, estimates that participation rates in states where e-filing is not mandatory is about 15%.  The clerk’s office for the Commonwealth presently has an estimated 80% participation rate that has led to substantial savings in time and money for attorneys who no longer have to worry about the burden of printing paper, delivering applications, and rushing to the courthouse by closing time.  For the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court, accustomed to reviewing over 100 paper applications monthly, e-filed versions are now loaded onto iPads that provide portability and ease of use.  At present, expansion from applications to briefs and appendices in full court cases is under review and the clerk’s office hopes to offer further relief from paper production in the future.

In January, 2016, the Supreme Judicial Court for the County of Suffolk initiated its e-filing pilot, encompassing all bar docket cases filed on and after January 1, 2016.  This required extensive training of the staff at the Clerk’s Office, Office of Bar Counsel and the Board of Bar Overseers (BBO).  Because bar discipline actions are initiated by only two entities, the Office of Bar Counsel and the BBO, all such actions are now filed electronically.  Any responsive pleadings that are not e-filed are scanned by the County Clerk’s Office, thereby making all pleadings entered in any bar docket cases filed on or after January 1, 2016, entirely electronically available.  In 2017, Clerk Doyle will be implementing the e-filing of petitions for admission to the bar on motion and, thereafter, petitions for admission to the bar by examination.

Among all the Courts, e-filing is perhaps furthest along at the Appeals Court.  The Appeals Court launched its e-filing pilot in March 2016, allowing attorneys to initiate and file most documents electronically in civil, non-impounded panel appeals, without any paper original or duplicate filing.  The court has since expanded its program to include criminal appeals, self-represented litigants (SRLs), andimminently, the single justice (“J”) docket (e.g., interlocutory petitions).  The Appeals Court now accepts electronic filing of nearly every type of document from attorneys and SRLs in all non-impounded cases, with no paper required.  Thus, briefs, record appendices, transcripts, motions, status reports, and payment of entry fees may be filed electronically.

Attorneys and SRLs are enthusiastic and e-filing at high percentages, with participation tripling over the winter as several hundred e-filings are submitted monthly.  E-filed briefs already exceed the number of paper briefs filed each month and the parties–including CPCS and government filers–are saving significant costs by not providing multiple paper copies of record appendices.  To file and serve electronically, filers first need to become familiar with new procedures and software programs.  Creating a PDF with optical character recognition, merging a word-processed brief with a scanned addendum into a single PDF, or creating an e-filing account and identifying service contacts for each submission involve new steps–but once completed are easily reproduced the next time.  The Appeals Court’s website provides detailed e-filing explanations and user guides about the court’s procedure and format requirements.

Upon entry of every new case in all three appellate courts, the clerk’s office notifies the parties in writing about the availability of e-filing and includes information on how to become a registered user and to view information on e-filing, including court rules and training videos, through Tyler Technologies.   The Clerk’s Offices in all three appellate courts also provide daily telephone assistance to e-filers and have held several public training seminars.

The Appellate Courts’ e-filing programs have increased access to justice by providing SRLs the opportunity to e-file and substantially reducing their copying and shipping costs.  Further, indigent parties may obtain waiver of e-filing related costs.  Additionally, the Clerks’ Offices provide a public computer with a scanner where any litigant or attorney can scan and e-file documents.  In addition, the Appeals Court has launched a pilot program allowing Trial Courts to electronically transmit the assembly of record on appeal, and the SJC and Appeals Court send electronic notices of orders and decisions to lower court clerks, judges and counsel (in the case of the SJC for Suffolk County, Bar Discipline orders and decisions similarly are sent electronically to the Board of Bar Overseers, the Office of Bar Counsel, respondent, and counsel).

Trial Court

The Trial Court piloted the program at three separate courts – Worcester District Court in September 2015, the Brighton Division of the Boston Municipal Court (BMC), and the Essex Division of the Probate and Family Court in early 2016.  The Quincy District Court became an additional site in March 2016.  In the District and Boston Municipal Courts, the pilots included civil case types, while the Probate and Family Court designated Estate Cases to be e-filed.

For the past several months all Trial Court departments have been actively engaged in planning expansion and implementation, with the pilot court departments taking the lead.  In those departments, the expansion includes additional case types and locations.  Over the next six months, the District Court and BMC will work to provide e-filing for all civil cases, including small claims and supplementary process in all locations.  The Probate and Family Court will expand to all locations and will increase available case types from the designated Estate Matters to Divorce complaints filed pursuant to G. L  c. 208, § 1B, and adult  guardianship matters.

The expansion of e-filing in these departments will be done through a series of phases beginning in the spring and continuing throughout the year until the opportunities for e-filing are available at all of those court locations throughout the state.  The expansion is being planned by geographical regions in order to provide attorneys with the opportunity to use the electronic filing in the various courts they frequent.  In March, Probate and Family Court locations in Bristol, Norfolk and Duke Counties and District Courts in Fall River, Attleboro, Taunton, New Bedford, Edgartown Brookline, Dedham, Stoughton and Wrentham all went live.  The second phase, scheduled for early May, will bring e-filing to Probate and Family Courts in Plymouth, Barnstable and Nantucket, and District Courts in Barnstable, Falmouth, Orleans, Nantucket, Wareham, Brockton, Hingham, Plymouth, Milford and Uxbridge.

Plans are also underway to expand e-filing to the Land, Housing and Superior Court Departments.  Implementation teams are meeting and plans for intricate code set up and integration and testing are in place.  A comprehensive effort to train employees across the state is planned and Tyler Technologies will provide materials and free training opportunities for the bar.

The Superior Court pilot will offer e-filing for all tort actions.  The Superior Court will begin by piloting the process in Middlesex and Barnstable Counties and then expand to the remaining County locations.

The Housing Court pilot will make e-filing available in Small Claims and Summary Process matters.  The initial pilot site will be the Boston Housing Court.

The Land Court is in the early planning stage but its singular location will ensure a quick roll out once set up, testing and training is completed.

Tyler Technologies has also provided the Trial Court with access to its online guided interview tool, Odyssey Guide and File, for self-represented litigants.  The Guide and File technology provides the opportunity for the Trial Court to improve Access to Justice for self-represented litigants through the creation of on line interviews that populate the court form that will eventually be e-filed into the system.  The first such interview technology has been designed for use in Small Claims actions.  The Trial Court also plans to use this tool to develop a similar instrument for Summary Process matters, another case type of interest to a large percentage of self-represented litigants.

Interim Electronic Filing Rules for Pilot Courts were approved by the Supreme Judicial Court in February 2015 with accompanying Standing Orders in each of the pilot court departments.  As the courts move ahead with the expansion of e-filing, proposed amendments to the interim rules, and adoption of Rules of Electronic Filing Procedure, are posted for public comment until May 31, 2017, and thereafter will be submitted to the SJC for approval.

The Trial and Appellate Courts have established a listserv to provide updates and information as e-filing progresses.  If you would like to receive periodic updates on e-Filing as they become available, you are welcome to join the e-filing news list serve.  To join, just send an email to efilenews-join@jud.state.ma.us

The e-filing pilot courts appreciate the efforts of the court personnel, the Judicial Information Services Department, Tyler Technologies, and participating attorneys in establishing the e-filing system.  The Judicial Branch welcomes the commencement of electronic filing in the Massachusetts state courts, and invites you to begin e-filing at efilema.com.

The Honorable Maura S. Doyle is the elected Clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court for the County of Suffolk, an attorney and a member of the Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Advisory Committee on Civil and Appellate Rules, Information Technology Steering Committee for the Appellate Courts, and Standing Advisory Committee on Professionalism.

Francis V. Kenneally is clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court for the Commonwealth and is an attorney admitted to practice in Massachusetts, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Joseph Stanton is Clerk of the Massachusetts Appeals Court.  He serves on numerous Trial Court and Supreme Judicial Court committees, including as co-chair of the e-filing rules subcommittee.

Kim J. Wright is the Senior Assistant for Judicial Policy in the Executive Office of the Trial Court working closely with the Chief Justice of the Trial Court and the Court Administrator to ensure the integration and coordination of judicial policy planning and initiatives. She is a graduate of Suffolk Law School.


SJC Remakes Search-and-Seizure Law to Keep Pace with Modern Realities of Smartphone Technology and Race Relations

omeararangavizby Ruth O’Meara-Costello and David Rangaviz

Legal Analysis

In recent decisions, the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) has cast an increasingly skeptical eye on law enforcement activities in two areas of perennial controversy:  the search and seizure of cell phones and electronic data, and police encounters with young black men.  The SJC’s review of search and seizure matters has been stringent, as the court has demanded a specific evidentiary basis for searches in both the digital and physical realms. These cases implement in practice the principles that absent reasonable suspicion, an individual may voluntarily terminate a police encounter; before obtaining a warrant, the police must have a particularized reason to believe that evidence will be found in a place to be searched (including a specific folder within an electronic device); and officers need individualized suspicion of a suspect’s involvement in a crime before stopping and seizing the individual. In a series of cases, the court has breathed new life into these oft-stated and staid legal rules, particularly in the context of digital searches.

The court has also explicitly addressed the role of race in interactions between the police and the minority residents of the communities they serve. In doing so, the court has recognized the reality in which many black targets of police investigations live. The SJC has forced the criminal justice system – and the overwhelmingly-white players within it – to imagine what it is to be African-American in an over-policed and underrepresented community.  By analyzing what probable cause means in the context of digital searches and relying on social science to understand interactions between police and African-American suspects, the court has brought an added degree of rigor in applying Fourth Amendment principles to the realities of modern American life.

Digital Searches

First, in Commonwealth v. Dorelas, 473 Mass. 496 (2016), the SJC reviewed whether a warrant to search an iPhone was supported by probable cause.  Police had reason to suspect the defendant was involved in a shooting, and that his iPhone might contain incriminating evidence because the victim had been receiving threatening calls and texts.  But the warrant did not authorize a search of just call and text history; it allowed officers to search all of the phone’s other contents, including photographs. Executing the warrant, officers found a photo of the defendant holding a gun and wearing clothing similar to that of the alleged shooter. The defendant sought to suppress the photograph, arguing that there was no probable cause to support the search of the photographs (as opposed to call or text history) and that the warrant did not identify the items to be seized or places to be searched with sufficient “particularity.”

The SJC rejected both arguments in a 4-3 decision, but announced a more demanding standard for searches of the digital contents of a smartphone.[i]  The majority noted that given the vast “volume, variety, and sensitivity” of information stored in or accessed through a smartphone, permitting a digital search to extend anywhere targeted information could be found is a “limitation without consequence” in the digital world, because “data possibly could be found anywhere within an electronic device.” In light of those “properties that render an iPhone distinct from the closed containers regularly seen in the physical world,” searches of such electronic data require “special care” and must satisfy a “more narrow and demanding standard” than physical searches. But the majority reasoned that the search into the phone’s stored photographs met that standard because threatening photos received or sent via text could have been stored separately from the texts themselves.

The dissent argued that the potential connection to a threat did not justify a search of the phone’s photographs.  It emphasized a forensic examiner’s testimony that extraction of call and text history would have retrieved photographs attached to messages, eliminating any need to search all photographs separately stored on the device.  The dissent also argued that the warrant failed to satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s “particularity” requirement because it authorized a general search of the entire iPhone.  Given the expansive capacity of today’s smartphones, the dissent likened this to “limiting a search to the entire city.”  The dissent thus fully rejected the traditional “container” analogy that generally permits a search of any “container” or file that is capable of containing the evidence sought.

Dorelas reflects a closely-divided court struggling over how to translate analog constitutional rules to modern digital reality. Both the majority and dissenting opinions appreciated the need for a heightened standard on cell phone searches, though they took different approaches when considering the obligation to limit the search’s intrusiveness.

A few months later, in Commonwealth v. Broom, 474 Mass. 486 (2016), the SJC provided further guidance on the kind of evidence needed to justify a cell phone search.  The defendant in Broom was charged with the first-degree murder and rape of his former neighbor. His statements to police put at issue his whereabouts the night before the murder.  A search of “cellular site location information” (CSLI) – location data associated with the defendant’s cell phone – undercut the defendant’s claims about that night.  A search of the contents of his cell phone call log and text messages yielded a crude text message from the defendant to his fiancé suggesting that he was sexually frustrated.  On appeal, the defendant challenged admission of both the CSLI and the text message.

The court concluded that probable cause did not exist to search the cell phone.[ii] The court emphasized the heightened Dorelas standard, and concluded that the affidavit in support of the search warrant failed to describe “particularized evidence” that the defendant’s phone would contain evidence relating to the crime. The court completely discounted the detective’s statement that, in his training and experience, cell phones “store vast amounts of electronic data” and thus “there is probable cause”, explaining that such a “general, conclusory statement adds nothing to the probable cause calculus.” While the court found the error in Broom to be harmless, its decision put lower courts on notice that they cannot authorize digital searches merely based on an officer’s training and experience without the kind of specific supporting information present in Dorelas.[iii]

In Commonwealth v. White, 475 Mass. 583 (2016), the court made explicit what it had implied in Broom: “Probable cause to search or seize a person’s cellular telephone may not be based solely on an officer’s opinion that the device is likely to contain evidence of the crime under investigation.”  The search warrant affidavit’s factual basis for the request to search the cell phone in White amounted to two things:  (a) there was evidence that the defendant had participated with others in a robbery-homicide, and (b) the officer’s “training and experience” suggested that cell phones generally contain incriminating evidence of communications in multi-defendant cases.  The court found this basis insufficient, emphasizing that the existence of probable cause to arrest does not necessarily provide probable cause to search a suspect’s cell phone; the latter requires particularized evidence that the phone was reasonably likely to contain evidence related to the crime.  Absent such particularized evidence, a suspect’s cell phone cannot be searched.

Police Encounters

The court has also recently taken on the challenge of applying Fourth Amendment rules to the reality of modern racial dynamics. In Commonwealth v. Warren, 475 Mass. 530 (2016), the unanimous court held that an African-American defendant’s flight from the police does not give rise to probable cause for a subsequent search. The SJC emphasized reasons other than consciousness of guilt that an African-American might flee a police encounter: “Such an individual, when approached by the police, might just as easily be motivated by the desire to avoid the recurring indignity of being racially profiled as by the desire to hide criminal activity.” Citing an ACLU of Massachusetts report about the disproportionate impact of police stops on African-Americans, the court held that flight “add[s] nothing to the reasonable suspicion calculus.”  (That study, examining the Boston Police Department’s “stop and frisk” activity, concluded that 63% of Boston police-civilian encounters from 2007 to 2010 targeted African-Americans, who are less than 25% of the city’s population. The Department itself acknowledged that “[t]he study did show some racial disparities that must be addressed.”)

The Warren opinion recognizes the importance of perspective in applying legal doctrine.  It attempts to defeat stereotypes that only guilty people flee police encounters, and reconciles the justice system with the reality that black men in Boston have an innocent and legitimate reason to flee the police.

The court’s analytical approach is also noteworthy. As the foregoing cases make clear, the court has not hesitated to change the law to keep pace with changes in technology.[iv] Similarly, the SJC’s opinion in Warren suggests its willingness to alter criminal practice and procedure based on emerging social science research. This forward-thinking perspective is unusual – appellate practitioners are trained to rely upon legal sources: statutes, legislative history, constitutional provisions, and precedent.  Indeed, the defense attorney litigating Warren never cited the report about racially-biased police stops in his brief to the Appeals Court and SJC – justices of the Appeals Court cited the study in dissent, and the SJC relied on it to effect a sweeping change in doctrine.[v]  The court’s recent receptiveness to this type of outside-the-record social science information is worth noting by appellate advocates.[vi]

Finally, in Commonwealth v. Meneus, 476 Mass. 231 (2017), the court held that a search of a group of young black men who happened to be located near a crime scene was unconstitutional.  After gunshots struck a woman’s car, she described having seen a group of young black men run away. The SJC held that such a vague description – “a group of young black males” – falls far short of justifying a search of all people fitting that description. In the court’s words: “[T]he mere presence of a nondescript group of young black males standing near the scene of a reported shooting did not, standing alone, sufficiently narrow the range of possible suspects to include this group of individuals.”[vii] As in Warren, the court refused to rely on the defendant’s flight to find reasonable suspicion. Ultimately, despite the seriousness of the crime under investigation, the court’s decision in Meneus was a rebuke to the conduct of the police. In its emphasis on the need for specific evidence to support suspicion and rejection of the importance of proximity to a crime or presence in a high-crime neighborhood, Meneus complements Warren and emphasizes the court’s determination to stringently uphold constitutional protections for minority groups who may be unfairly targeted by law enforcement.

The complex legal issues posed by digital searches, and the reality of racial profiling, will undoubtedly continue to confront the criminal justice system in Massachusetts and elsewhere.  With a quartet of new members, and an additional seat to be filled in the near future, it remains to be seen how the SJC’s search and seizure jurisprudence will grapple with these questions going forward.

[i] The Majority opinion was written by Justice Cordy, and joined by Chief Justice Gants and Justices Spina and Botsford; Justice Lenk wrote the dissent, joined by Justices Duffly and Hines. The defendant was represented by an attorney in the CPCS Public Defender Division Appeals Unit. David Rangaviz, co-author of this piece, had no involvement in the case.

[ii] As to the CSLI, the SJC had previously ruled that the Commonwealth may obtain CSLI only pursuant to a warrant. Commonwealth v. Augustine, 467 Mass. 230 (2014). The Broom court held that the Commonwealth should have sought a warrant for the defendant’s CSLI, but that the error did not require reversal. The SJC found no prejudice in the evidence’s admission because (1) the CSLI was only for the day of and day before the murder, and (2) in light of the defendant’s DNA on the victim police had sufficient probable cause to retrieve his CSLI for those two days anyway. The court thus seemed to suggest that there was no prejudice because a warrant would have issued if sought. (The court has, however, previously rejected the notion that “an illegal warrantless search could be cured by proof that a search warrant, if sought, would have been issued and the evidence inevitably discovered.”  Commonwealth v. O’Connor, 406 Mass. 112, 115 (1989).)

[iii] The admission of the contents of the defendant’s cell phone was thus error, but the court upheld the conviction based on the strength of other evidence against the defendant, coupled with the fact that only a single text message was erroneously admitted.

[iv] Another recent opinion follows this trend. In Commonwealth v. Martinez, 476 Mass. 410 (2017), the court held that probable cause that the user of a certain IP address possesses child pornography is generally sufficient to justify a search of the residence assigned that IP address. The court nonetheless recognized that its holding may not “always” hold true as future technology “may further erode the connection between an IP address and a physical address” and “analysis hinges on fluid and rapidly changing technologies.” The court has recently heard argument in Commonwealth v. Keown (SJC-10593), in which the defendant argues that a warrant to search his laptop was insufficiently particularized, and therefore is likely to weigh in again on this issue in the near future.

[v] Justices Peter Agnes and Peter Rubin first cited the study in their dissenting Appeals Court opinions.  After their views did not carry the day – a three-justice majority of Chief Justice Rapoza and Justices Cypher and Green disagreed – a unanimous SJC embraced the dissenters’ opinion and rationale.

[vi] The SJC’s interest in evidence-based rulemaking is also apparent in recent decisions (all written by Chief Justice Ralph Gants) regarding eyewitness identification. In Commonwealth v. Crayton, 470 Mass. 228 (2014) and Commonwealth v. Collins, 470 Mass. 255 (2014), the court cited social science to limit the admissibility of in-court identifications. In Commonwealth v. Gomes, 470 Mass. 352 (2015), the court changed its model jury instruction regarding eyewitness identification to incorporate updated research, while “acknowledg[ing] the possibility that, as the science evolves, we may need to revise our new model instruction[] . . .”. Similarly, in Commonwealth v. Silva-Santiago, 453 Mass. 782 (2009), the SJC described a protocol, designed to decrease the risk of misidentification, for police to use before providing an eyewitness with a photographic array of potential suspects. The court recently reaffirmed this protocol’s importance in Commonwealth v. Thomas, 476 Mass. 451 (2017). The court will determine whether to extend Crayton and Collins in Commonwealth v. Dew (SJC-12225), currently pending.

[vii] The court also discounted the relevance of a police claim that the events occurred in a “high-crime area” and reiterated calls for caution regarding that claim in a reasonable suspicion analysis.

David Rangaviz is a staff attorney in the Appeals Unit of the Public Counsel Division of CPCS.

Ruth O’Meara-Costello is a partner at Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein LLP. Her practice focuses on criminal defense and student disciplinary matters


We Are Family: Partanen v. Gallagher Applies Chapter 209C to Protect Children of Never-Married LGBTQ Families

mehta_tejalby Patience Crozier

Case Focus

Nothing is more important in the life of a child than the security of their parental relationship.  The parent-child relationship is foundational and the source of love, emotional and material support.  The recent Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) case Partanen v. Gallagher­, 475 Mass. 632 (2016), addressed the security of a previously vulnerable class of children – the children of never-married non-biological parents – and clarified that the Massachusetts parentage statutes ensure their equal access to legal parentage.

The facts of the case were representative of those many families in the Commonwealth and beyond.  Two women, Karen Partanen and Julie Gallagher, were in a committed relationship.  They planned together to have children and, with mutual involvement and consent, Ms. Gallagher conceived via assisted reproduction using donor sperm and gave birth to two children.  Ms. Partanen was present at both births, and together the couple cared for the children, made mutual decisions to further their well-being, and held themselves out to family, friends and institutions such as schools and health care providers as a family.  The couple did not marry or complete co-parent adoptions.  Shortly after they moved back to the Commonwealth from Florida, the couple’s relationship ended. Ms. Partanen filed two actions to secure the children’s rights to continue their relationships with her, one to establish de facto parentage, and later, another to establish full legal parentage under G. L. c. 209C, arguing that Ms. Partanen is a presumed parent under the statute.  The trial court dismissed the legal parentage action, holding that Ms. Partanen could not seek parentage under Chapter 209C because of her lack of biological connection to the children. Ms. Partenen appealed and the SJC took the case on direct appellate review.

Section 6(a)(4) of Chapter 209C provides that “a man is presumed to be the father of a child” if “he, jointly with the mother, received the child into their home and openly held out the child as their child.”  To establish herself as a presumed parent under that provision, Ms.  Partanen first had to allege that the children were born to parents who are not married to each other and, second, that she satisfied the “holding out” provision of the statute, which requires proof that she, jointly with the birth mother, received the children into their home and openly held them out as their own.  Ms. Gallagher maintained that Ms. Partanen could not be a presumed parent because she had no biological connection to the children.  Ms. Partanen disagreed, arguing that her complaint sufficiently alleged that she was a presumed parent under the statute.

The SJC closely examined the plain language of G.L. c. 209C, § 6(a)(4).    The main question was whether Ms. Partanen could establish herself as a presumed parent without any biological relationship to the children.  In analyzing § 6(a)(4), the SJC reiterated the familiar rule that statutes must be read in gender-neutral terms. The Court concluded that the statute’s plain language applies to children born to same-sex couples who lack biological ties with their children.  Because no statutory language required a biological connection between parent and child, the Court declined to read into the statute such a requirement, particularly when doing so would undermine the statute’s purpose by making this class of children more vulnerable.  The SJC further noted that insofar as a father may validly execute a voluntary acknowledgment of parentage absent a biological relationship, same-sex parents must be able to do the same. The Court reasoned that lack of a genetic tie cannot rebut the presumption of parentage when the parentage claim is not based on a genetic tie.  Numerous other state courts have interpreted similar statutory provisions to allow the establishment of parentage in similar circumstances, including California, Colorado, New Hampshire and New Mexico.

Turning to the facts of this case, the Court concluded that Ms. Partanen adequately alleged parentage under the statute.  The SJC held that she met the two-step test articulated in § 6(a)(4) because she and Ms. Gallagher created a family together with shared involvement, consent and intention, satisfying the requirement that the children were “born to” them.  Ms. Partanen also adequately alleged that she “received the child into their home and openly held out the child as their child” in her assertions that they lived as a family, actively cared and made decisions together for the children, and represented themselves to others as their parents.

The implications of Partanen are far-ranging. It is now clear that non-marital same-sex couples can execute voluntary acknowledgments of parentage in the hospital at birth, the key administrative route for establishing a non-marital parent-child relationship and one that saves families the expense and delay of establishing parentage through the court system.  Further, these parents can also seek an adjudication of parentage in the courts under G. L. c. 209C, § 6(a)(4), a clear and established means of asserting parentage that is more affordable, accessible and reflective of the family’s reality than de facto parent litigation. Finally, never-married, non-biological parents may now be able to receive counsel and participate in child welfare and juvenile court proceedings regarding their children.  A class of parents previously cut out of involvement and decision-making in their children’s lives can now access the full range of protections of legal parentage.  Partanen also further highlights the great diversity of families in the Commonwealth, where legal parentage can arise from marriage, adoption, genetic ties and through conduct.  Partanen represents a major step forward in ensuring security and equality for all children.

Patience Crozier served on the team of appellate attorneys for Karen Partanen along with co-counsel Mary L. Bonauto, Elizabeth Roberts and Teresa Harkins La Vita.  Amici in support of Ms. Partanen’s legal arguments indicate the depth and breadth of support for her position.  Amici included the Attorney General of Massachusetts, Greater Boston Legal Services, Children’s Law Center, Massachusetts LGBTQ Bar Association, Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts, Community Legal Aid, Carolyn Famiglietti, Maureen McBrien, Massachusetts Bar Association, American Academy of Assisted Reproductive Technology Attorneys, Boston IVF, Fenway Health, IVF New England, New England Fertility Society, Path2Parenthood, Resolve: The National Infertility Association, Resolve New England, and Forty-two Law Professors.


Go Solo, You (Probably) Won’t Starve!

mehta_tejalby Tejal Mehta

The Profession

You may have a great boss. You may have a lucrative job. You may work at a law firm or a public agency, with job security and benefits. You may have all of the above. But haven’t you ever wondered how great life would be if you could call your own shots? Your. Own. Firm.

Of course it is daunting. You will ask yourself, “What will be my  niche?” “How will I find clients?” “What if my clients become unhappy and sue me?” “Will a home office do?” “Who will buy my paperclips?”

Relax and take a deep breath. Thanks to countless new websites, online products and phone applications, hanging out a shingle is easier, safer, and even more rewarding than was possible even a few years ago. If you are even considering taking the leap, read on.

Budget

One lesson learned the hard way by many new solo practitioners is that you don’t want to start off by spending too much money. Because you will be on your own, you will probably have a few lean months in the beginning. Your necessary expenses will include marketing, malpractice insurance, bar dues, a post office box, office supplies, travel and parking. Create a startup business operating budget of $5,000-$10,000 for your first year, and stick to it.

Your Business Plan

You will already have thought about this, in the course of deciding to go solo. But while you are working through your startup list, keep thinking critically about your niche. What do you like to do? What are you good at? And where do you want to practice? If you want to practice criminal defense and be in court regularly, perhaps apply to be a bar advocate. Starting up a civil practice may be a little more challenging, but that is where marketing comes in.

Your Marketing Plan

Network, network, network. A professional support system is crucial. Start by drawing upon the colleagues and connections you already have. Join the local bar association of the geographic area where you plan to practice, and attend events as regularly as you can. Call your colleagues from your prior firm or from law school, and let them know they can send you cases and you will give them a portion as a referral fee. You will start building your practice and your reputation.

As you continue to network, you will likely meet attorneys who are willing to send you their overflow cases. Do not be afraid to ask for this, and for general advice. Before I launched my solo practice, I scheduled a dinner meeting with a solo practitioner colleague who walked me through his startup, informed me how he handled his billing and taxes, and provided me sample fee agreements and boilerplate motions for court.

Join the Massachusetts Bar Association or the Boston Bar Association and attend events or section meetings. The Massachusetts Bar Association has a valuable “Lawyer Referral Service” through which you can receive case referrals for your legal specialty.

Is there a legal topic you know well enough to teach to others? Write a letter to the MCLE programming coordinators and explain that you would like to volunteer your time, by chairing a panel or speaking as a panelist, on that particular topic. This will make you more visible in the legal community.

Websites such as Avvo.com are gaining popularity among attorneys. You can create a basic profile, with your photo, for free. They also have services to make you highly visible online and help you stand out in your desired geographic area and practice niche. This can be more of an investment, so do your research on these sites before diving in. Another widely used networking tool is LinkedIn.com, which allows you to create an online profile for free and connect with lawyers and other professionals who are on this platform.

Do you have a Facebook account? Make your Facebook page your business page! Use your logo and bio, provide details of your expertise, and broadcast your new venture to the network you have already established. It is free advertising, and even if it brings in one new client it will be worthwhile in your first six months. Keep it professional and you can use it along with your business website to reach out to Facebook users. I would suggest using it in addition to, not in lieu of, your business website, as the audience you connect with on Facebook may be different from the audience you would reach through a customary website.

The Nuts and Bolts of Your Actual Startup – In Order

Plan your start date for 30 to 60 days out. Then set the wheels in motion.

Contact information. Set up a free Google voice number or use a similar service, as your work line on your existing phone. Use caution when giving out your personal cell phone number. Clients will call you at all hours of the day and night. Also set up a work email – a professional name on a gmail account will work. Courthouses still send and receive faxes, so it may be worthwhile to set up an efax on your computer at some point.

Firm name. This is a personal choice. You can be creative, or just use your last name, e.g., Smith Law Offices.

Office/Post Office Box. Having a physical office can be expensive and is not really necessary in the beginning. Wait and see what your needs are. You will need a space where you can meet clients, so in the meantime, you can meet them in a courthouse conference space or in public establishments such as coffee houses or the library. To keep your relationships professional, do not meet clients at your home or theirs. Also, you can ask a colleague to lend you a conference room and pay them for that day. Or, you could pay to have use of a virtual office and conference space, on an as-needed basis. You can list it on your business cards and thus have a mailing address at a professional building. If you do not initially rent an office or use a virtual office, you will still need a mailing address. Rent a post office box in a convenient location. The small or medium sized post office boxes offered should suffice, and will cost about $100-$160 annually.

Bank Account. Go to the bank of your choice. Take your checkbook. There will be a minimum balance requirement, likely at least $1,500, to set up the business account. Inform the bank you need a small business checking account and an Iolta account with a low minimum balance and no fees. The bank will need your firm name. If you have not incorporated, then you can call your firm a “dba” (“doing business as”), e.g., John Smith dba Smith Law Offices.

Do you need to incorporate your business? Not immediately. Many attorneys do it, but not all. The key question to answer is, what assets do you want to protect? The purpose of incorporating is to shield your business from liability in the event of a lawsuit. If you have very little to protect, you may not need to incorporate right away. It costs approximately $500 to $1000 to incorporate with the Secretary of State. You can defer that cost at the onset of your new practice. You may also seek to obtain a higher liability insurance policy initially, while deciding whether to incorporate.

Malpractice Insurance. Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly contains liability insurance recommendations. Or, you can ask a colleague for a recommendation. Do not be afraid to shop around. You should purchase a minimum of $100k/$300k coverage.  A basic policy should cost approximately $600 for your first year. It will rise after that.

Business cards.  Look at colleagues’ cards for ideas. Create a simple design – logo optional – and limit the text. Use an easily legible font. A business card that is handsome and easily readable is an asset – one that is too busy or uses type too small to read is useless. You can find economical printing options at Staples or Costco. You can print 500 cards for as little as $15.

Letterhead. Again, look at your colleagues’ letterhead for ideas. You can easily tailor yours and print it from your own computer.

Website. The vast majority of potential clients look for their attorneys online, or, if they have been referred to an attorney, they Google that attorney to see what they can learn about him or her. Get a professional headshot. Or, take a friend to a law library, stand in front of the reporters, and have the friend take your photo. Then create a website and post your photo on it. A site such as WordPress will construct a basic website for $100. As time goes on, you may want to make it more expansive, with client testimonials, information about cases you have handled, and even a blog. Some of my colleagues use professional website companies that engineer the site to put them at the top of the list in online search engines. I nearly fell over when I found these services cost upwards of $15,000 per year. This type of cost can be deferred until later.

Essential items. You will need a computer, printer, office supplies, and a datebook or online calendar to keep track of appointments and payment dates. You will need access to a scanner and a fax machine, either in your home or at a place such as Staples. You may also wish to purchase a credit card reader from a service such as Lawpay, in the future. Make sure to save all of your receipts for tax time.

The Rest Is History

Starting your own law practice takes guts, and the beginning may be a bit rocky. But if you set up your firm with care, have a vision of your practice, and plug away at networking, you will begin to enjoy success. Before you know it, your name will be out there and new attorneys will be asking you for advice on how to launch. Good luck!

Note:  this article reflects the author’s personal opinions and experiences, and is not to be construed as an endorsement of any specific services or companies set forth herein.  If you have any specific questions relating to starting your own practice, please feel free to email the author at tmehta.law@gmail.com.

Tejal Mehta, a trial attorney, has worked at civil litigation firms and the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, and now operates a thriving solo practice.  She is a former member of the Boston Bar Association.