Mark D Mason began his term as president of the Massachusetts Bar Association with an ambitious agenda and lofty ideas symbolized by his theme of "United in the Law."
His 2007-08 term began in September with a Sept. 7 reception amid the grandeur of the Museum of Fine Arts’ William I. Koch Gallery. From humble beginnings as a young attorney scraping by as a bar advocate in Western Massachusetts, Mason set out to unite the legal profession behind common principles and common causes. He launched his Civics in Education program and bolstered an already strong relationship between the MBA and the judiciary.
Civics in Education
As much as anything, Mason made Civics in Education a priority for his tenure, seeing the need to instill both respect for and interest in the law among the state’s students.
"We set off this year to enhance our law-related education offerings. We succeeded. In addition to a statewide Mock Trial competition which has long been successful, the MBA has developed significant programming in conjunction with the courts, which have brought civics in education to our schools," he said. "The MBA has the opportunity and the ability to make a difference."
Through the Public and Community Services Department, the MBA launched its Law-Related Education Working Group, which initiated a number of new programs to bring the law into the lives of students: the Choose Law Program, Lawyer-Teacher Partnership Program, a Law Day Survey and the Judicial Youth Corps program.
Mason, who has visited numerous school classrooms and coached and judged Mock Trial teams for the last two decades, has been a steadfast champion of working with students to the legal profession.
"Civics in education has been a passion of mine for many years. I respect the importance of ensuring the commonwealth’s youth understand and respect the rule of law," he said. "The power of civics in education became apparent to me when I served as one half of a lawyer-teacher partnership in a Springfield elementary school when I was a young attorney. The interest which the students demonstrated in learning about the law and the profession left an indelible mark on me."
Fair and impartial judiciary
The MBA already enjoyed a strong, cooperative relationship with the judiciary, but under Mason’s direction, that partnership improved even further. At the May 23 House of Delegates meeting, incoming President David W. White Jr. noted that the MBA has a better relationship with the judiciary now than it has in decades, calling Mason "a fantastic emissary."
On Nov. 30, the MBA held its first Bench-Bar Symposium at the John Adams Courthouse, featuring Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall’s Annual Address to the Legal Community and a panel of legal and media experts who focused on judicial independence. Previously, bench-bar forums had been an element of the Annual Conference, but were broken out this year to highlight them.
"We’ve been quite fortunate to enjoy a strengthening relationship with the judiciary," he said. "We have demonstrated the synergy between the bench and the bar in matters such as our Civics in Education program, developing diversity in the profession and working together in ensuring a fair and impartial judiciary. We as attorneys owe a duty to safeguard the independence of our judiciary."
The MBA also launched its Bench-Bar Breakfast forum, which allows attorneys and judges to discuss pressing issues about the courts in their county. The first was held in cooperation with the Hampden County Bar Association on May 30. The next one, on Aug. 16, will focus on Bristol County, with the other counties to host similar meetings during the year.
"The MBA has taken bench-bar discussions to the local level and will continue to do so," Mason said.
Also, the MBA’s Judicial Independence Task Force continued to respond to unfair criticism leveled at the judiciary, and the MBA continues to conduct statewide judicial evaluations.
As part of his theme of unity, Mason stressed the need to diversify the profession and welcoming lawyers of all races, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientation to be involved. Part of the MBA’s diversification mission has focused on encouraging junior high, high school and college students to learn about the law and consider legal careers by having ethnically diverse lawyers and judges speak with students about the opportunities the legal profession offers them.
"The MBA was founded nearly 100 years ago in an effort to ensure that all attorneys had a seat at the table. The MBA’s work in promoting diversity in the profession is a reflection of our charter. The MBA continued to develop a number of pipeline initiatives which promote the profession to an economically and ethnically diverse population, as well as diversity initiatives within the bar," Mason said. "The diversification of the profession is a task of enormous importance and diversity. While we continue to make strides, we have far to go in closing the gap."
Young Lawyers Division
Mason and Past President Warren Fitzgerald began planning the conversion of the MBA’s Young Lawyers Section into the Young Lawyers Division. Mason had became active in the MBA at the start of his career through the Young Lawyers Division and wanted to see it return to playing a prominent role in the MBA.
"I was fortunate to benefit from the extraordinary enthusiasm and leadership of that group," he said. "Over the years, however, interest in the Young Lawyers Division waned."
He had a personal interest in seeing the group become re-energized, more active and play a larger role in the MBA’s present and future.
"Without question, the YLD is the future of the bar. We will continue to place principal importance on its work," Mason said, noting the progress the reformed group has made since HOD approved the change on Sept. 20. "The YLD has brought together an exceptional group of diverse attorneys. They’re energetic, dedicated and passionate about their work. The future of the YLD is a bright future, indeed. The YLD ran an impressive array of CLE, pro bono activities and outreach to its membership."
General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Section hangs its shingle
Another major organization change made this year saw the creation of the General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Section in recognition of the number of MBA members who are either solo practitioners or work in small firms.
"The majority of MBA members practice in smaller, solo settings, and their needs are significant," Mason said. "As the practice of law becomes increasingly complex, so too do the needs of solo and small firm practitioners increase. In order to respond to the needs of general practice, solo and small firm practitioners throughout the commonwealth, we were pleased to form the General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Section. Through the leadership of Vice President Denise Squillante and the section’s co chairs, Patrick Francomano and Susan Huettner, we heartily expect the section to grow rapidly."
Section councils do some heavy lifting
Mason also praised the work of the MBA’s approximately 30 section councils, committees and task forces for much of the association’s accomplishments this year.
"Each of them has engaged in an extraordinary level of activity, from legislative activities to CLEs, community service, amicus writings," he said. "The sections have truly demonstrated that they are the heart and soul of the MBA."
He also credited the sections with helping increase pro bono participation.
"This year, we asked each of our section councils to promote pro bono activities through their membership. They delivered. In doing so, we have seen an increased level of pro bono participation amongst MBA members," Mason said. "We are proud to continue in the delivery of legal services to those most in need. As attorneys, we are proud to give back to the community which we serve through pro bono participation."
Ending on a high note
At his last House of Delegates meeting on May 23, Mason presided over the unanimous vote supporting the principle of enacting a civil Gideon law in Massachusetts.
Despite numerous concerns about finding the funding for such a massive undertaking – including fears that a right to free counsel in civil cases might take away already limited funding for criminal defendants – HOD supported the measure.
"We were pleased to pass a resolution supporting the principle of a civil Gideon. In the United States, 80 percent of the legal needs of our poorest citizens go unmet. We must recognize the necessity that indigent individuals suffering a loss of sustenance are entitled to counsel. While the funding for a civil Gideon remains a complex matter, the Mass. Bar association is aboard the journey toward its implementation."
Finally, Mason will accept the 2007 Harrison Tweed Award from the American Bar Association at its Annual Meeting in San Francisco on Aug. 10. The MBA and the Boston Bar Association were awarded the prize for their longstanding collaborative effort in increasing access to civil legal services and criminal defense services for the indigent.
"The MBA’S collaborative activities with the BBA and other members of the Equal Justice Coalition have been longstanding. To receive the Harrison Tweed Award alongside our friends at the BBA is a terrific honor and a reminder of the exceptional work that both bar associations and the other members of the Equal Justice Coalition have performed over the years."
United in the law
It’s in that vein of cooperation that Mason said he’s pleased with the MBA’s accomplishments this year, from launching new programs aimed at students to strengthening its relationships with other the judiciary, other bar associations and law schools.
"We set out this year to identify our common interests and goals," he said. "We did so in a manner which brought important service to the bar, the courts and importantly, the community. We did so in a manner which made us all proud to be members of the legal profession and in a manner which exalts the rule of law. We shone as being truly united in the law."