Throughout his boyhood, Joe Vrabel accepted his Red Sox loyalties as a birthright. As a collegian in Illinois, he became enamored with the Cubs, whose long-struggling nature soothed his homesickness. Today, shackled with a dual rooting interest he calls, “the worst of all possible worlds,” Vrabel remains unequivocally guilty of backing the wrong baseball horse. In both leagues. Fortunately, he’s in a league of his own in his fitness to serve as the MBA’s new president.
He’s only 54, but Vrabel’s been around so long his term as president will complete a tour of service in every MBA officer’s position. Vrabel was even involved in the negotiation for the MBA’s purchase of its current West Street offices a generation ago. The Sox and Cubbies have shredded millions of hearts since then. And Vrabel has grown plenty as an attorney.
“As best I can tell, I’ll be the first MBA president who (comes to the office in) a general counsel role,” he says. “Every other president has been a private practitioner. It’s going to be interesting.
“I’ve learned a lot from serving in every single office at the MBA. Working with [outgoing president] Carol DiMento this past year has been a real privilege. I’m jumping in with both feet.”
Vrabel’s approach to his presidency will encompass three non-negotiable platforms. First, he wants the broadest possible input from membership on the broad-stroke initiatives. Next, he will prioritize a community-education public-outreach component. Lastly, he is insisting the MBA take a good, hard look in the mirror vis-à-vis internal policy and self-governance.
A football and baseball player at Framingham High and still a competitive tournament tennis player, Vrabel’s executive philosophy is one of inclusion. He will quarterback rather than ball-hog.
“I don’t hold myself as being the smartest person in the world, but I believe in surrounding myself with smart people,” he says. “I try very much to be a team guy. The team approach to governance is the way I prefer, rather than governing by ego. I think (the MBA) has always gone out of our way to celebrate lawyers, because we’re a little bit concerned about our image. I take a different approach: We need a year where the focus is education and outreach to the public.
“It’s important that we talk to people, particularly kids in schools, about what lawyers do and the role law and lawyers play in today’s society,” Vrabel continues. “I’m not as concerned with talking up lawyers as I am with getting people to understand what we do. I want the public to know that, instead of being shysters or courtroom grandstanders, we serve a valuable purpose.”
That may be a tough sell considering the general public’s increasing discomfort with and mistrust of corporate culture. Vrabel understands that’s a culture with which attorneys are often contextually associated, and he’s prepared for that hurdle.
“I think the sad part about companies like Enron, WorldCom and Global Crossing is that you look at executives in a much more skeptical light, and lawyers have played a role (of culpability) in some of those (scandals),” he admits. “But more interesting is the role lawyers are playing in uncovering those problems. Lawyers are now being retained by companies to ferret out the irregularities. In many respects, the legal training a lawyer goes through puts them in a position to spot corporate irregularities. The whistle blower in the Enron case was a lawyer. Things don’t look good in some of our larger corporations, but the people exposing and prosecuting these things are lawyers.”
Vrabel’s training and instincts tell him capturing and keeping the moral and ethical high ground demands vigilance in the battle against self-exemption. In other words, be your own worst critic.
“We’re putting together a new MBA standing committee named ‘policy and governance’,” he explains. “We’ve governed ourselves in the same way for many years and maybe it’s time we look at our own practices and procedures. Really take a good, hard look at how we govern ourselves, how we develop policy, and examine our charter and bylaws. After all, if we play that role outside, we have to have our own house in order.”
Bob Longden, managing partner at Bowditch & Dewey, is one colleague who believes Vrabel will make the multitasking mission of his presidency seem seamless.
“His overall abilities and capabilities are tailor-made for the job,” says Longden. “He’s a very dynamic guy. He’s very bright. He’s a superb lawyer, first and foremost. His reputation and standing within the legal community is exceptional, but he’s also got great leadership ability. He’s forward thinking. He’s got good political instincts and very good personal skills. He understands this business is all about providing good service for the client.
“As a lawyer, he’s a problem-solver,” Longden adds. “He’s got good practical judgment. An excellent adviser – very efficient and effective. He views himself as someone who’s there to get things done.”
For his part, Vrabel attributes much of his cover-all-the-bases bent to an early mentor – Robert Cope of the Worcester firm Cope & Wilson, P.C. Cope was Vrabel’s first boss, when he was 31, highly impressionable and just out of law school.
“He’s pretty much a gentleman farmer up in New Hampshire now, but he taught me things that law school didn’t teach me,” recalls Vrabel, “how to think critically, how to be helpful, how to be careful, how to be civil in the practice of law, to write well, to pay attention to every single situation. I will never forget the lessons he taught me and, but for that, I don’t think I would be where I am now. His counsel allowed me to become a problem solver instead of a technician just generating paper.”
Let the record reflect, the Red Sox are still looking for a new GM.
A closer look at … Joseph P.J. Vrabel
Born: Feb. 8, 1948, Adams, Mass.
Admitted to Practice: Massachusetts and New York
Education: Harvard Law School (Mediator Certification, 1997), Boston College (JD, 1977), Lake Forest College, Ill. (BA, 1970); Framingham North High (Diploma, 1966)
Specialty: Business law; mergers and acquisitions, commercial finance
Family: Sons, Christopher, 24, Nicholas, 23 and Tyler, 19.
Professional Experience: Vice president and general counsel, Capital Risk Management, Inc., 2001 to present; senior partner, Bowditch & Dewey, 1984 – 2001; shareholder attorney, Cope & Wilson, P.C., 1979-1984
MBA: Fellow; president elect (2001-2002); treasurer (2000-2001); vice president (1999-2000); secretary (1998-1999); member, Budget & Finance Committee (1992 - Present); chairman, Building & Operations Committee (Member, 1988-Present); MBA Executive Committee (1995-Present); member, MBA Governance Task Force (1996 - 1998); member, Policy Review Committee (1997-present); chairman: Dues Restructuring Task Force (1999-2000), MBA By-Law Committee (2001-2002)
Bar Memberships: Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts United States District Court, District of Massachusetts
Bar Associations: Board of Directors, New England Bar Association; New York Bar Association; American Bar Association; Boston Bar Association; South Middlesex County Bar Association; Worcester County Bar Association
Community Activities: Founder, Crossroads Community Foundation; trustee, Framingham State College; treasurer and trustee, Longfellow’s Wayside Inn; former chairman, United Way of MetroWest; Maynard Town Counsel; trustee, MCLE; director, John J. Tobin Foundation; director, Maynard Food Pantry, Inc.; steering committee, Equal Justice Coalition; former president, Massachusetts City Solicitors & Town Counsel Association; adjunct professor of business law, Babson College Graduate-MBA Program; former regional director, American Cancer Society.