Lawyers Journal

Boston attorney takes legal issues international

Mike DolanMike Donlan retains vivid memories of his Uncle Herbert - mostly recollections of family holiday gatherings, where Herbert Kenny would pop through the door with a kiss for Donlan's grandmother and a bottle for the table. Kenny, a former Boston Globe editor and noted author, who died last year, wasn't an easily forgettable fellow.

But what resonated with Donlan was the passion for Ireland and Irish literature that Kenny instilled - a passion for Yeats and Joyce and a packed pub's worth of poets. And the white heat of that passion fueled Donlan's devotion to making Ireland a better place, which, in turn, has made the Boston attorney something of a magnate in the realm of humanitarian causes and international law.

Working closely with 1998 Nobel Peace Prize winner and Derry political moderate John Hume, Donlan played a groundbreaking supporting role in toppling Irish ideological barriers throughout the 1980s and '90s. He logged thousands of kilometers interfacing with influential players in a burgeoning Irish economy (soon to earn the nickname Celtic Tiger) and became an ad-hoc liaison for fostering new business partnerships between Northern Ireland moderates and hard-liners. Those unlikely economic bedfellows helped forge bipartisan alliances in the North. It was behind-the-scenes diplomacy that helped paved the way for Ireland's Good Friday accords of 1998, which established a power-sharing Assembly

These days, Donlan, 64, has turned his attention to ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction. This stuff isn't exactly like petitioning the zoning board for a variance. When this guy picks a fight, it's a biggie.

"If you want to do something significant (in this realm), it's stunningly easy because no one else is trying," says Donlan, president of the Boston-based Lawyers Alliance for World Security (LAWS), with a healthy measure of self-deprecation. "In truth, it's hard to bring people's attention to long-term issues and even harder when it comes to international or broader geopolitical issues. Furthermore, most people are unaware there's been a stunning evolution in international law over the last generation. Hence, they're unaware of the opportunities that could, should and must be pursued."

Inside the office of:
Attorney: Mike Donlan
Years in practice: 36

Born: 1938 (Boston, Mass.)

Current location: Boston, 99 Chauncy St., Suite 801

Firm: Self

Law School: Harvard Law School (J.D., 1966)

Undergraduate Studies: College of Holy Cross (B.S., 1960, Physics/Economics)

Diploma: St. Sebastian's Country Day School (Newton)

Specialty: Corporate, Real Estate Development, Regulatory Law

Family: Wife, Susan; Children: Maura, 37; Michael, 33; Edmond, 31; Catherine, 20.

Work History: Rich, May, Biloldeau and Flaherty; Finnegan, Hickey, Dinsmoor and Johnson; Boston Coordinator of the Michael Dukakis gubernatorial campaign

Chief on Donlan's current list of pursuits is the movement to "leash" the stockpiles and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. To that end, he continues to stage biannual LAWS conferences at the Kennedy Library on the matter and unwaveringly lobbies the folks capable of making a legislative or legal impact.

On Oct. 3, LAWS issued a position paper on Iraqi disarmament to be considered for endorsement by the American, Massachusetts and Boston bar associations. The paper advocates that UN resolutions demanding inspection and destruction be re-implemented and augmented by multinational forces acting under Security Council authorization.

"For the last decade, we've been reaching out to opinion leaders and decision makers to prioritize the need to leash (such weapons) through the vehicle of international law," says Donlan. "LAWS is well located in Boston: We've been able to attract national figures and senior academics and political leaders to raise awareness. Now that Cold War is over, our nation can be successfully proactive in reducing these weapons and taking a leadership role in the process. It's a burden at the same time because if our generation fails in this task, we'll be forever plagued by the remaining arsenal of the Cold War."

Donlan repeatedly emphasizes that international law is finally gaining the teeth to take a meaningful bite out of heretofore-gristly conundrums. The new world order is owed to what Donlan calls a "series of salutary developments" anchored by one in particular: The Permanent International Criminal Court.

For more than a decade, the UN has worked toward establishment of a permanent international criminal court. The idea is more than a half-century old, but at last became reality with the 1998 Treaty of Rome accord (signed by President Clinton 24 hours before he left office in 2001). Boasting ratification by more than 60 nations as of this past June, the court will become a functioning entity in June 2003.

"It's a benchmark evolution in the development of international law," says Donlan, who also attributes much of his global perspective to his father, Edmond, a Depression-era state representative and attorney. "The Bush administration effort to fishtail out of it will bear little fruit. The way the treaty is structured, the United States will probably be encompassed by it (over time), like it or not."

Similarly, Donlan points to advisory opinion issued by the World Court (sought by the UN General Assembly in 1996) as a linchpin to disarmament. The court essentially adjudicated the possession and threat of use of weapons of mass destruction as illegal. The opinion, which Donlan labels "a matter of legal brilliance," drew upon 150 years of treaties regarding weapons of mass cruelty and ruled that such weapons should not unduly affect innocents and neutrals, making nuclear weapons illegal excepting extreme circumstances.

The opinion has represented a thorn in the side of those slow to embrace unilateral or even joint disarmament, including the current presidential administration.

"We are dealing with a Texas mentality right now," says Donlan. "It sees things in black and white. And in the short term. It has a hard time seeing the critical value of rule law over the long term. But administrations come and go and if they can be shown to be maladroit, then the ethos of civilization benefits and grows."

Donlan's passion on issues spans his legal career, according to Vin McCarthy, Hale and Dorr LLP senior partner who also is the founding director for Lawyers Clearinghouse on Affordable Housing and Homelessness and chairperson of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth.

"Massachusetts lawyers dating back to the American Revolution have participated in the great events of their times," McCarthy says. "Mike has continued that tradition throughout his legal career, participating in the effort to end the Vietnam War, via his participation in (LAWS) and constituting one of the most active members of the Committee for a New Ireland.

"Now, in an effort to inject some sanity in the debate on a preemptive attack against Iraq, he is again proving himself one of our great citizen lawyers."

Of all his pro bono pursuits, Donlan still holds his efforts in Ireland nearest and dearest. His work with the Boston-based Committee for a New Ireland helped lay the foundation for adoption of the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985. His subsequent efforts with Boston-Ireland Ventures, which became a model for successful economic ventures between Northern Ireland moderates and hard-liners, helped forge bipartisan alliances in the North.

"Those efforts are among the most satisfying achievements of my legal career because of the volume of legal acumen I was able to bring to the task," says Donlan. "And I was stunned to learn in traveling the North of Ireland [serving as de facto envoy] that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. People were so burdened by polarity they couldn't see where they had much in common. Sometimes concepts can be exceedingly profound by being exceedingly simple."

Not unlike Uncle Herbert's passion for Irish literature.

©2017 Massachusetts Bar Association