Lawyers Journal

From medical malpractice to mountain climbing, President David W. White Jr. strikes a balance

Dressed in hiking sneakers and sipping a cup of Starbucks coffee, incoming MBA President David W. White Jr. seemed relaxed and refreshed having just returned from a fishing trip in Maine with friends. He poked fun at his own fishing abilities, but remarked excitedly that he was going to cook up one of his catches for dinner that night. White's casual demeanor belies the fact that he is the litigator of one of the largest medical malpractice settlements in Massachusetts history, a father of two, a mountain climber and Pan-Mass Challenge veteran, the sewer commissioner of his town and a newlywed.

Honing his interest in the law

White was actively engaged in the world around him and concerned about justice at a very young age. He spoke extensively about the way his family - especially his parents - shaped his values and professional goals. Born in Boston and raised on Long Island, White is the oldest of four children. His mother was an editor, and his father a book publisher.

White cited the Vietnam War and his mother's political activity as two of the most significant influences on his growing up. He described attending a 1968 book publishing convention in Atlantic City and being struck by the number of young veterans who were missing arms and legs. Although he was too young to be drafted, his uncle was drafted. "My mother was very politically active, and we had a very liberal household," White explained. "I was leading protests when I was a junior in high school."

His consciousness of politics developed as he grew older and attended college at the University of Vermont. White was an environmental studies major at UVM and spent much of his college career continuing to protest Vietnam, and also volunteering for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group to organize events and petition drives on campus.

White said that he wasn't sure he wanted to be a lawyer at that point, but upon his college graduation in 1978, he decided to take his LSATs and acquired a position as a staff member for VPIRG. "The entire budget for three staff people for an entire year was $40,000," White remembered.

After several years of working for VPIRG on issues such as utility and anti-nuclear regulation, he decided to put his LSATs to use and apply to law school. "At hearings, non-lawyers seemed like amateurs," White recalled. "I realized that lawyers simply have more keys to the process."

At Northeastern University Law School, White worked at a variety of legal offices, ranging from a small firm in Jamaica Plain to a public defender's office to the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. White also joined and eventually led Northeastern Law School's Cooperative Income Sharing Program, a student-run and student-managed organization dedicated to increasing student participation in public interest law. It was through CISP that White met Marc Breakstone, who would eventually become his law partner.

Forging ahead as a small firm practitioner

After completing law school, White quickly discovered that there were not many legal positions available for those with an interest in conservation law. Instead, after law school, he clerked in Superior Court for a year, and worked at Boston's Sugarman & Sugarman for six years before opening his own firm with Breakstone, his former law school classmate.

Although running a small firm presents many challenges, White noted that, "Being at a small firm has given me the time to do volunteer work." In fact, one of the first cases that White took on at his small firm inspired him to ride in the Pan-Mass Challenge - a statewide bike-a-thon that raises millions of dollars for the Jimmy Fund - which he has participated in for nearly 15 years.

"It was a medical malpractice case," White explained. "My client had breast cancer and had the wrong lump removed from the wrong portion of her breast." Sadly, the cancer metastasized, and his client, who was only in her mid 40s, passed away. The next year, White began riding the 83-mile route from Wellesley to Bourne. Since he began riding, he's raised more than $30,000 for cancer research.

"Professionally, it's rewarding to get great results for clients, but on a personal level, volunteer work is most satisfying," White said. With his law practice focused primarily on personal injury, business litigation and medical malpractice, White is able to work toward his environmental goals on a volunteer basis.

For example, after moving to Westwood in 1995, White quickly became involved in land preservation projects. He established OPEN - the Organization for the Preservation of Environment and Nature - and also sits on the board of directors of the Westwood Land Trust. White also was recently re-elected to another term as Westwood Sewer Commissioner. "When I first ran in 2002, it was the only contested town election. I won by 26 votes," White laughed.

White also has played an important role in the investigation of the abusive medical experiments performed on children during the 1950s at the Fernald School in Waltham. White served on the Fernald State School Human Rights Committee, was appointed to the governor's Task Force on Human Subject Research and was the principal author of the task force's findings and conclusions. Three years ago, White also filed a petition on behalf of six former Fernald residents, seeking an apology from the state, redress for the labor the residents were forced to perform and the correction of medical records. Unfortunately, his clients are still waiting for their apologies.

Over the years, White has also been a frequent volunteer for the MBA, especially as a lecturer in the MBA's CLE courses, including one of the most popular courses of the year, "How to Start and Run Your Own Small Firm."

"I really enjoy teaching 'How to Start and Run,'" said White. "It's so much fun seeing former attendees four or five years later and having students back to share their success stories." White's own firm has been successful, but he noted, "The demands on a small practitioner are very high. Work/life balance is always a challenge."

Finding a balance

The MBA has played an important role in White's pursuit of a healthy balance between his work life and his personal life. "It's critical for young lawyers to be involved with local activities early. It's impossible to operate in a vacuum," he explained.

White is a staunch advocate of networking programs, and hopes to build more bridges between MBA member lawyers from varied backgrounds and fields through the association's mentor programs. "Young lawyers need backup, like mentors and other attorneys to refer clients to," he said. It's difficult for lawyers to learn what cases to take and what cases to refuse, he said. "We need to learn to handle what we can. It's a prescription for disaster to take on too much."

Through the MBA, White found a mentor in Leo Boyle, a Boston attorney and MBA past president. "Leo will always drop what he's doing to help you out. He's a model of what a lawyer can be. I try to be like that, too," he said.

White also met his wife, fellow attorney Denise Murphy, through the MBA. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a happier couple. She's my soul mate," White said, smiling. He and Murphy married this past Memorial Day weekend. "She's lots of fun, even if her jokes are bad," he laughed. White has two children from his first marriage: 21-year-old Amanda and 18-year-old Danny. His marriage to Murphy also brought him two stepsons: Billy, 16, and Scott, 13.

Looking ahead to, in all likelihood, his busiest year at the MBA yet, White remains focused on his family and on keeping his life in perspective. When he's not at the office, he enjoys checking off his list of 115 4,000-foot New England mountains that he's trying to hike. "I'm up to 81 mountains now, and I started the list two summers ago," he said. White also likes to snowshoe, bicycle and rock climb.

"If you're happy in your personal life, you'll have a greater strength to go out and take chances, even if you fail," he explained. "I'm a very happy man."

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