Lessons from a Pioneer

starkeyby Carol A. Starkey

President’s Page

On June 22nd, I had the honor of presenting Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Justice Geraldine S. Hines with the Boston Bar Association’s Haskell Cohn Award for Distinguished Judicial Service. In her heartfelt and compelling address to the more than 120 people in attendance, what came through clearly was Justice Hines’ honest desire to bring about positive change, her sense of what is just and fair, a deep respect for the law and the judiciary, and her acknowledgement that there is still work to be done, or as she gracefully put it “still a fight to be fought.”

This struck me as a powerful way to approach many things in life, be it a career or a one-time project. Enter with an honest intent to improve something, stay mindful of what’s just and right, and avoid complacency. In looking back on my tenure as President through this lens, I’m proud of the innovative changes and the principled positions that the Boston Bar Association has put forth this year.

Almost a year ago, when I stepped into the role of 95th president of the Boston Bar Association, I reflected on the changing natures of both the city of Boston and the practice of law. At the forefront of healthcare and education for decades, our city is now also leading the nation in the technology, life sciences, and venture capital sectors, to the extent that global companies like GE are deciding that Boston is where they need to be. These constantly-evolving industries bring new legal issues and challenges, demanding that lawyers in all practice areas become more technologically proficient and industry savvy to remain competitive in today’s global economy. I saw it as not only an opportunity, but essential that lawyers who practice in these fields stay connected with what’s happening on the front lines.

That’s why I was thrilled to be leading the charge as the BBA developed a series of industry-specific conferences, such as life sciences, venture capital, higher education and cybersecurity, among others. Nearly 1,000 BBA members attended these events, a remarkable turnout for the first year. As a result, we saw BBA sponsor organizations grow significantly, as we still continue to find success in meeting the needs of both national and local firms and organizations through holding these major conferences.  And I am deeply gratified to share the news that planning for the second annual Life Sciences Conference – to be held on October 3rd – is well underway.

But as delighted as I was to focus the BBA on connecting lawyers with industry through producing larger, inter-disciplinary conferences during my term as BBA President, the end of 2016 brought a new set of challenges for all of us.  Beginning in November, on both the state and national level, we faced an ever-increasing political climate of uncertainty, fraught with ever-changing events that created general unrest amidst our most vulnerable populations.  In order to answer the immediate concerns of our members and organizational stakeholders, as BBA President,  I weighed in on legal matters that, we felt, as the leadership of the BBA, were strongly in the public interest and squarely within the mission of our organization.

Recognizing that we as lawyers are at our best when we are dealing with well defined issues and actual cases and controversies, we remained vigilant in ensuring that individual and due process rights remain valued and protected in the implementation of our laws. Our Law Day in the Schools program focused on teaching Boston Public Schools students the value of due process under the law. The BBA also continued its ongoing work with community partners to present“Know Your Rights” programs.

As deportation of immigrants residing in our cities and towns became a potential collateral consequence of involvement with our judicial system, the BBA’s Amicus Committee also took action.  Submitting an amicus brief in October of 2016, the BBA advocated for the Supreme Judicial Court to bring long awaited closure  to nearly 20,000 people impacted by the actions of former drug-lab chemist Annie Dookhan.

As a result of their convictions, these individuals faced a wide array of collateral consequences, including asignificant portion at risk for deportation.  The BBA’s amicus brief – urged the Supreme Judicial Court to vacate all outstanding drug convictions in which Dookhan was the primary or secondary chemist. The brief argued that this course of action, more than five years after the scandal first came to light, was necessary to protect the fairness and integrity of our criminal justice system, and we were extremely gratified to see this outcome achieved.

At the national level, the BBA joined the ABA and other bar associations across the country to voice opposition to the January 2017 Executive Order issued by President Trump on immigration, which targeted inhabitants of seven different countries for disparate treatment. For decades, the BBA has worked to ensure that individual and due process rights remain valued and protected as bedrock principles in the implementation of our laws.  And we have a long history of strong opposition to proposals which would use national origin, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or other integral individual traits as the basis for discrimination in any form. This practice speaks to the heart of who we are as an organization of lawyers – to preserve access to justice for all of us – not just a few of us.

Following this statement of opposition, I was moved and inspired by the hundreds of members who raised their hands to help by attending one (or more) of the numerous immigration pro bono trainings that the BBA planned and hosted over the last six months. We then followed up on these concerns by submitting an affidavit in support of the lawsuit filed against the President’s Executive Order in federal court, along with the Massachusetts Attorney General and so many other bar associations and organizations.  And I have continued to follow this issue, along with many of you, as it has made its way through our judicial system to the United States Supreme Court.  Throughout my term as BBA President, never have I felt it was more important for all lawyers, but in particular bar leaders, to speak out and educate others on the importance of our Constitutional democracy’s reliance on an independent judiciary as one of this country’s three equal branches of government, as well as our country’s unwavering commitment to the Rule of Law.

And finally, I have spent much of this year working on criminal justice reform issues, and to ensure that funding for civil legal aid remains a budget priority.  I was honored to address the crowd of more than 700 attorneys at Walk to the Hill in January, and proud to make the case that legal aid generates a return on investment in the editorial pages of the Boston Globe. This fight, however, is very much one still to be fought, long into the future.

Eliminating the Legal Services Corporation – which remains on this administration’s federal budget chopping block despite strong advocacy from our state’s delegation – would have dire consequences for our nation’s most vulnerable people, including at-risk children, victims of domestic violence, and veterans. It would also have negative consequences for our nation’s bottom line.

If you’re interested in learning about the state or federal budget process, or just looking for tips on how to speak to your legislators about legal aid, please listen to the BBA’s policy podcast, Issue Spot, on SoundCloud, iTunes, or GooglePlay.

As the year comes to a close, I want you all to know that it has been a joy, an honor, and a truly life changing experience to serve as your President of the Boston Bar Association, particularly  during this challenging time in our country’s history.  I am proud of all that we accomplished this year, despite those challenges, but there is still so much work left to do.

I look forward to watching this great organization continue to innovate the practice of law,  advocate for those requiring access to justice, and always, always speak out for our Constitution and the Rule of Law.  I have every confidence in the capable leadership of my friend and former colleague, Mark D. Smith.  I know that under Mark’s leadership, the BBA will carry on its important work with great compassion, integrity and practicality, just like the man at the helm.

So I will be soon saying my goodbyes, but to quote Justice Hines one last time, I promise to continue “The fight to be fought. Off I go!”

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

Advertisements

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. 


Harnessing Legal Talent in the “City of Innovation”

starkey_carolby Carol A. Starkey

President’s Page

As lawyers, even while in pursuit of professional excellence, we also need support and intellectual nourishment outside of our firms or organizations – to be, and remain, successful in this competitive industry.  And for me, those resources always have been found at the BBA. That is one of the reasons that makes me so proud that you have elected me become the 95th President of the Boston Bar Association.

In addition to the rich educational programming and the ability to develop a strong network, perhaps what is most exciting about this organization is its capacity to bring some of the brightest, most powerful people in the legal industry together, regardless of where they practice or how they identify themselves, in order to help solve problems affecting all of us.

Over my nearly three decades of practice and 16 years of involvement with the BBA, I have experienced how much we can do – as lawyers – when we step outside our own individual practice silos and work together on common issues in the profession.

Being a part of this Association – and having the opportunity over the years to both mentor and be mentored – has been so enriching for me. And it’s tremendously gratifying to be able give back to the BBA and the profession that has done so much for me.

But I think everyone has seen examples of how the practice of law has changed over the years. The legal profession itself is undergoing tremendous change, and much of that change is challenging.

There are plenty of industry statistics that tell us the ceiling for upward mobility is still too low for women and minorities; we have some law firms closing their doors, while others are merging into gigantic corporate structures at the cost of a shared collegiality or community in the office that gives so many of us joy in the profession.

But at the heart of all of this volatile change there is also opportunity: the opportunity for growth and collaborative development.

I’m really proud of the way the BBA has responded to some of these changes.  Last year, during her term as President, Lisa Arrowood implemented the very successful Friday Fundamentals program. We will continue with these important programs in the year ahead.

But as we look forward, we cannot focus only on those lawyers who are just starting out, because the changes we are experiencing don’t just affect new lawyers; they affect us all. Even those who are at the peak of our practices grapple with them. From the demands of clients to the flood of new technology, the legal profession is being reshaped by the global economy, and some of us are in danger of being left behind unless we have a plan in place to adapt.

That’s why my goal this year is to harness the expertise and talent of BBA members at large, from all different practice areas, to implement bigger and broader professional development programming: Programming that connects lawyers not only across practice areas, but also with a cross section of industry. And programming that explores common tools of innovation that can be accessible to all lawyers.

We’re in the right place to do this. Boston has always been a city of innovation; we have been at the forefront of healthcare and education for decades, and now we’re leading the nation in the technology, life sciences, and venture capital sectors as well, to the extent that global companies like GE are deciding that Boston is where they need to be.

These constantly-evolving industries bring new legal issues and challenges. It’s essential that lawyers who practice in these fields stay connected with what’s happening on the front lines.

That’s why I’m thrilled to be leading the charge as the BBA develops a series of conferences – such as the BBA Life Sciences Conference on November 10th – which will explore the interplay between the life sciences sector and the law, and bring lawyers and industry together, from biotech startups to pharmaceutical companies.

We’re planning this in other areas, too – like Venture Capital, Higher Education, and Privacy. This is one of the greatest strengths of the BBA: the ability to provide these unique opportunities for practitioners to meet and exchange ideas with industry leaders.

As a Bar Association, we can empower lawyers from all walks of life to be who they are, to innovate and do significant for their own practice, and for the profession at large. And the only way we can continue to do that now is if we are together, see the value in one another, and learn from one another.  If we do that, we can turn some of these real challenges in our profession into real opportunities.

I hope you share my enthusiasm for all that’s ahead, and I look forward to seeing all of you there along the way.


“Racing In the Right Direction:” Specialty Courts in Massachusetts

Burroughs_Allisonby BBA President Lisa Arrowood

President’s Page

It was a graduation, but no one was wearing a cap or gown. Judge Serge Georges’ robes were the only ceremonial garb in the courtroom at the Dorchester Division of Boston Municipal Court on a recent Thursday, where a young woman was about to graduate from the Drug Court Program.

Judge Georges spoke of the “butterfly effect,” a scientific theory which says that even small occurrences can result in big changes. Each participant in the program, he said, is a butterfly. They create change in each other’s lives, and in the lives of their loved ones. The graduate echoed Georges’ sentiment; she spoke of finding the will to stay clean through acts of support, big and small, by the program’s staff and fellow participants.

The session was the first of four visits I would make to the Commonwealth’s specialty courts: Drug Court, Veterans Court, Homeless Court and Mental Health Court.

As a non-criminal lawyer, I had never had the occasion to see or take part in any of the specialty courts. I knew of them, of course; I knew they had a reputation for getting to the root cause of criminal behavior, and for taking a sensible approach towards treating that cause rather than sending the offenders off to prison. And while visiting these courts was something that I was looking forward to doing during my term as BBA President, I wasn’t prepared for how moved, impressed and inspired I would be by the time I had visited the fourth.

The very fact that entire teams of professionals – judges, probation officers, substance abuse and mental health clinicians, public defenders, and assistant district attorneys – are working collaboratively for the betterment of our most vulnerable citizens was a powerful thing to witness. So powerful, in fact, that when my visits had concluded, I knew that I had to find a way to recognize their invaluable contributions to our system of justice.

In that regard, I’m very pleased to announce that I will be awarding the four Specialty Courts with the BBA’s President’s Award at our Law Day Dinner on May 12th.  I can’t think of a more fitting team of recipients to honor on a day that’s set aside to reflect on the role of law and its importance for society.

I think part of what makes these courts so effective is how each judge – in his or her own unique way – establishes an authentic connection with program participants. Judge Georges, for example, grew up in the Dorchester community where he currently serves. And he makes each graduation a community event, inviting other Drug Court participants to attend, and even recruiting his father to supply home cooked dishes for the post-ceremony celebration.

When I visited a Veterans Court graduation, I saw the same caring and supportive process played out in a different way. Judge Eleanor Sinnott – a veteran herself – spoke of courage, perseverance, and camaraderie as the things that carried one veteran successfully through the program at the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse in Boston.

“You’re a platoon,” she told the veterans in attendance. “And I’m your commanding officer.” It was this environment of support that helped the graduate – despite a temporary relapse – secure a job and complete the terms of his agreement with the court.

At Homeless Court – which is designed to resolve misdemeanor offenses, non-violent felonies, and outstanding warrants for homeless individuals with support and dignity – seven cases were considered. Judge Kathleen Coffey asked all defendants to share their stories of how they became homeless and what aspect of life on the streets was most challenging.  Her genuine warmth and interest in each person’s circumstances empowered the defendants to describe the difficult, and varied, life circumstances that led to hitting rock-bottom. They also shared their motivations for self-improvement, which included the knowledge that they could do better, the need to escape the isolation and constant turmoil of homelessness, and in several instances, a strong desire to make their young children proud.

Judge Coffey encouraged positive progress, telling one defendant they were “racing in the right direction,” and District Attorney Christina Miller did the same, telling another defendant that she was “amazed and encouraged” by their progress.

For many of these people, it was the first time something good was happening to them in a courtroom. I looked around and thought that this is what they need – support, not incarceration.

In Judge Coffey’s words, Homeless Court “is based upon the premise that there is room for treatment, compassion and for recovery within the court system.  It recognizes that homelessness presents a complicated challenge to the courts demanding alternative approaches in the administration of justice. The court seeks to make the justice system more accessible, accountable and responsive to the needs and challenges faced by this most vulnerable population.”

Judge Coffey also presides over Mental Health Court – or Recovery with Justice (RwJ) – which began in Massachusetts nearly a decade ago out of a recognition that an estimated 70 percent of men and women in the criminal justice system suffer from mental illness.

Working with a mental health clinician from the Boston Medical Center, the probation officer assigned to the Mental Health session identifies the particular mental health and social needs of each participant, and creates a service plan which includes referrals to mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment when appropriate, as well as housing, educational and employment opportunities. National studies place recidivism rates for mental health courts in the high teens (17-20%), less than half of the rate for traditional courts.

Like the other specialty courts, Mental Health sessions are largely focused on support and guidance.  When one RwJ participant told of a recent relapse, Judge Coffey recognized the slip-up but told the individual she was proud of the progress made since then, explaining that the Court was interested in providing options for success without overburdening the participants.  Her words hit home, prompting the individual to announce to the courtroom, “See all the people here who care about me?  It’s great.”

Having experienced these courts at work firsthand, I am especially gratified to know that Specialty Courts are accessible nearly statewide and that the Trial Court is committed to their expansion and continued improvement.  To help make that a reality, the BBA is advocating in the Legislature for more funding. Despite the Judiciary being a co-equal branch of government, funding for the Trial Court has grown only 7.9% from FY08 to FY16, while the overall state budget has increased 43.3% in that same time period.  I urge lawmakers to decrease this gap.

I am grateful to Judges Kathleen Coffey, Serge Georges and Eleanor Sinnott for welcoming me to their courtrooms. After sitting in on the sessions, I am inspired not only by the profound impact the programs had on the lives of the graduates, but on its potential to meaningfully tackle complex issues underlying criminal behavior.

Having witnessed firsthand the dedication, excellence and impact that these amazing teams are having across Massachusetts; I am thrilled that our Law Day Dinner program is honoring them. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating their work.

You can read about the history of specialty courts, as well as more compelling stories from Drug Court and Homeless Court in earlier issues of the Boston Bar Journal.

Lisa is a founding partner of Arrowood Peters LLP, whose practice concentrates on business litigation, employment disputes, medical malpractice, personal injury, and legal malpractice. At the BBA, Lisa has served as the President-Elect, Vice President, and Secretary of the Council, the Co-Chair of the BBA Torts Committee, and a member of the Executive Committee, as well as various other committees. She is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers (ACTL), a Fellow of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and immediate past Chair of the ACTL Massachusetts State Committee as well as a member of the Boston Bar Foundation’s Society of Fellows. 


Helping to Create the “Practice Ready” Lawyer

Burroughs_Allisonby BBA President Lisa Arrowood

President’s Page

In late 2015, I had the honor of speaking at one of the several swearing in ceremonies for new lawyers in Faneuil Hall. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about being an officer of the Boston Bar Association.   It was so nice to speak to a group of enthusiastic young lawyers, as well as their proud family members.

As I welcomed them to the profession – a profession which, I think, is one of the best in the world – I knew that many of them had not yet found jobs that required a J.D. degree and that some of them never would.

There are so many challenges affecting lawyers today that it’s hard to list them all, but I think for many of the people who recently graduated law school the most significant challenge is the reduction in the number of jobs available for new lawyers.

I have always had a great deal of sympathy for anybody who put themselves through the three years of rigorous study that law school requires – not to mention the cost – who then get out and don’t get jobs.  As a hiring partner at two separate firms, I have received countless resumes from incredibly impressive recent graduates for whom we had no openings. It breaks my heart to see people work very hard to do well both in college and law school, and then be unable to find employment.   This is such a contrast to the situation not so very long ago when there were well-paying jobs galore.

Compounding this issue is the fact that these recent graduates don’t yet know how to do much legal work.  For those who will never get hired, they need to learn how to do the cases ordinary people will hire a solo practitioner to do handling a divorce case, drafting a will or handling an eviction.

And so a big part of what I’m focusing on as President of the BBA is finding ways to help those people. Can we get them all jobs? No. But what we can do is help them become “practice ready.” We can help them build practical skills so they can represent regular people with regular legal needs. These are the clients who aren’t eligible for legal aid, but who still can’t afford most lawyers out there.

To that end, I’m so pleased to announce that in January we launched “Friday Fundamentals,” which is a series of short, “how-to” trainings on specific legal issues. These sessions are designed to give new attorneys the practical and technical skills required to represent clients, as well as add some additional knowledge and expertise to their resume.

The BBA is also working hard to ensure that new lawyers who want to go solo are getting top-notch guidance and support.  Later this year, we will offer a comprehensive, hands-on workshop on how to launch a successful solo practice. This, in addition to our existing resources – from offering a place to meet with clients in our new member space rooms to discounts on professional liability insurance through USI Affinity – should help new graduates start their own practices and begin representing clients who now have no legal representation and who are part of the pro se litigant crisis troubling our courts.

With its well-established Professional Development program structure, the BBA is incredibly well suited to teach these skills. When I first learned about the BBA’s brown bag lunches, I went to a few of them.  In 90 minutes over lunch, a young lawyer can learn from the stars of the bar – for free!

Friday Fundamentals is building off this very successful model. From now until June, each of the BBA’s 24 sections – covering all areas of law – will offer CLEs or brown bag lunch programs designed for beginners. I’m thrilled and proud of the effort that these Section leaders have put in toward training the next generation of lawyers.  To those of you with new associates in your ranks: encourage them to take advantage of this series.  For those young lawyers out there: these programs are for you.  Take advantage of them!

Are we going to fix this in a year? No. But it’s a wonderful place to start.

Lisa is a founding partner of Arrowood Peters LLP, whose practice concentrates on business litigation, employment disputes, medical malpractice, personal injury, and legal malpractice. At the BBA, Lisa has served as the President-Elect, Vice President, and Secretary of the Council, the Co-Chair of the BBA Torts Committee, and a member of the Executive Committee, as well as various other committees. She is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers (ACTL), a Fellow of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and immediate past Chair of the ACTL Massachusetts State Committee as well as a member of the Boston Bar Foundation’s Society of Fellows. 


Introducing the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts

by J.D. Smeallie

President’s Page

Smeallie_J.DAt a dinner last March, I sat next to the Editor in Chief of American Lawyer.  I told him that I would soon be the president of the Boston Bar Association and that one of the perks was the opportunity to create an initiative for my year as president.  I then ran by him some of the initiatives I was considering.  When I got to the topic of civil legal aid, he stopped me and said there is nothing more important that a bar association can do than to fight for civil legal aid for those in need.  His passion on this point resonated with me, and I knew then that the advancement of civil legal aid would be my cause during my upcoming term as president.

Shortly thereafter, the Chief Judge of the State of New York gave a speech at Harvard.  He spoke of a task force that he had created to expand civil legal aid.  The task force was comprised of a statewide group of lawyers, judges, business leaders, academics, union leaders and legal aid attorneys.  What struck me most about their effort was how they demonstrated that increased state funding for civil legal aid actually saved the state money, while bringing in increased federal aid.  The New York task force’s report was so persuasive in this regard that the state legislature there agreed to increase legal aid funding from $200 million to $300 million over a four year period.

For the past several months, I have visited with state legislators, bar leaders, legal aid attorneys, business leaders and other stakeholders to discuss the creation of a similar statewide initiative in Massachusetts.  Without exception, those with whom I met acknowledged the problem.  With federal funding of the Legal Services Corporation constantly shrinking, and IOLTA funding all but drying up, overall funding for civil legal aid has been on the decline in Massachusetts for years.  At the same time, the need for representation in matters involving basic human needs like housing, prevention of domestic violence, and health care has been on the rise.  In 2012, fully half of the people eligible for civil legal aid in Massachusetts had to be turned away because staffing at legal aid agencies had been slashed.  As a result, poor people have to navigate our judicial system without the benefit of counsel.  The situations in our Housing Courts and Probate and Family Courts are particular bleak.  95% of those who appear in the Housing Court are unrepresented.  The percentage is not much better in the Probate and Family Courts.  There, 80% of the litigants do not have a lawyer.

All of those with whom I have met agree that a statewide initiative to examine the unmet need for civil legal aid across the state and to determine the most cost effective way to meet that need is a good idea.  We are lucky to have the benefit of the good work already undertaken by our Access to Justice Commission, and we do not intend to repeat their efforts to provide help to unrepresented litigants.  We do expect to follow the lead of the New York task force and examine whether increased funding for civil legal aid can save the state money in the costs of homelessness, domestic violence prevention and various forms of aid which can be replaced by federal benefits, as was found to be the case there.

So, a BBA task force, named the Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, is now taking shape.  Among those who have agreed to serve on the task force are the general counsels of five major Massachusetts based companies, a former president of one of our major universities, our Attorney General, the Governor’s Chief Legal Counsel, the managing partner of one of our largest law firms, and the current President of the Massachusetts Bar Association.  We anticipate adding leaders from the legal aid community, state Representatives and Senators, and a union representative.  We expect to complete our work and present a report in the spring of 2014.

Our system of justice is measured by how we treat those most in need, but we are not measuring up at the moment.  If the experience in New York is indicative of what we may find and recommend here, the hope is that we can to reverse the trend and to begin to expand civil legal aid for our state’s poorest citizens, while saving the state money in the process.


Kids Speak and Lawyers Listen, Thanks to Boston Debate League Partnership with Boston Bar

By J.D. Smeallie, President, Boston Bar Association

President’s Page

Smeallie_J.DWhen Tarae Howell, then a public high school student in Newark, New Jersey, signed up for the Jersey Urban Debate League, becoming a lawyer was the furthest thing from his mind. Despite winning fourteen debate titles over a two-year span, he had no idea he would one day be a third-year litigation associate at Nixon Peabody, much less a debate judge for a very similar program for Boston high school students. This fall, Tarae judged two Saturday morning debate competitions for the Boston Debate League (BDL). Afterwards, students plied him with questions about what it’s like to be a lawyer and his path to success.

Earlier this year, the BDL approached the Boston Bar Association to see if we would partner with them by providing judges and mentors. We liked what we saw. Not only did such a partnership provide a wonderful opportunity for public service within the Boston Public Schools, but it held the promise of advancing diversity efforts at the BBA. Too few students of color are entering law school. As a result, too few lawyers of color enter the practice each year. By mixing BBA lawyers with students from Boston’s high schools with large minority student populations, we hoped that the interest in law exhibited by Tarae’s debaters would be sparked as well many times over in other students. Perhaps the germ of a legal career would be planted, and the pipeline of students of color could be expanded. The hope is that some of the students we encounter in the course of volunteering as debate judges or mentors will one day return as lawyers in our community.

The metrics suggest this could very well happen. According to the BDL, debaters are three times less likely to drop out of school than non-debaters, and African-American males who debate, in particular, are seventy percent more likely to graduate from high school than those who don’t. Debate assists students in gaining entrance to college but, more importantly, it gives them the necessary skills to succeed and thrive once they get there.

In this regard, the BDL reports that urban debaters improved both their Reading and English ACT scores by fifteen percent and are thirty-four percent more likely to achieve the English college readiness benchmark, and seventy-four percent more likely to achieve the Reading benchmark, after just two years in debate.

The BDL does not require its volunteers to be lawyers. Yet BBA members participating in the program firmly believe that in addition to being extremely worthwhile, this particular volunteer opportunity is a great fit for members of the legal profession. As Tarae puts it, “[a]s lawyers, we have to be zealous advocates for our clients. Therefore, as a judge and a lawyer, I’m able to determine whether a debater has been an effective advocate for her position. It helps me give the student better feedback.”

Stories such as Tarae’s make all of us feel good about helping Boston’s young people develop the reading, critical thinking and advocacy skills associated with debating. Vickie Henry, a Senior Staff Attorney at GLAD, who as a high school student won a state debate championship in her home state of Michigan, says: “[y]ou look right in the faces of the youth getting your feedback and you can see it’s making a difference.”

Bill Fitzpatrick, Associate General Counsel for Litigation at the MBTA, says that what he found appealing about this particular volunteer opportunity is that debating offers Boston youth an opportunity for competition involving academics. “Life is not all about whether you can hit the free throw or hit the ball out of the park,” he said. “Debating gives the students a great outlet for skills that will serve them better in the long run.”

More than a few volunteers have marveled at the support students who are native English speakers gave to students for whom English is a second language, especially during those portions of the debate tournament requiring that they read aloud. They also commented on how heartwarming it is to see students improve dramatically from one tournament to the next.

Both Jessica Bloch of Bloch & Roos and Stephanie Hoeplinger, a solo practitioner, serve as mentors, which means that they’ve committed to spending between sixty and ninety minutes in the classroom every week between October and March, helping teachers and BDL staff prep the students for the tournaments.

“Good for these students for going to this afterschool program and pushing through,” says Jessica. “This experience is challenging but very rewarding.”

Though not required to attend the debates, Stephanie was deeply moved to see the looks on two of her students’ faces when she stopped by on a Saturday morning to see them perform: “Their faces just lit up; they looked so happy that someone not paid to be there really cares. They look up to you as a lawyer.”

“We are just so thrilled to have so many members of the BBA come out, judge at our tournaments, and work with our kids,” Steve Stein, Executive Director of the Boston Debate League, told us. “It is great to have such wonderful role models be there for our students, many of whom are aspiring attorneys. Our students love that for ninety minutes, they speak and adults listen. When the debate is over, the adults talk for maybe five minutes to provide feedback. That kind of power dynamic doesn’t exist anywhere else in their lives. BBA members are participating in an activity that is changing the lives of youth throughout Boston.”

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a morning at Boston’s Josiah Quincy Upper School. What struck me was how genuinely enthusiastic the co-headmasters were in the face of poor facilities, budget constraints and a talent drain to the exam schools. One of the bright spots they described was their students’ participation in the Boston Debate League, and the very impressive fact that each and every one of the debaters on the Josiah Quincy team have gone on to college.

The BBA’s partnership with the BDL is a public service opportunity that truly hits the trifecta for the BBA — meaningful service to the Boston community, where our lawyering skills provide a special benefit, and with the prospect of expanding the diversity pipeline. I hope more BBA members will consider volunteering for this incredibly rewarding experience.