Lawyers Journal

Women Leaders of the MBA

In 1913, the Massachusetts Bar Association set a national precedent when it admitted its first female member, Mary A. Mahan. After this milestone, it would be quite some time for the MBA to appoint its first female president. However, when it did in 1986, each of the eight female leaders of the MBA blazed impressive, but distinct paths during their respective terms.

Collectively, they provided further strength to the organization's core principles of diversity and access to justice, while raising the level of legal education and professionalism in legal practice.

As the association embarked on celebrating its centennial anniversary earlier this year, the MBA made history once again when the presidency was handed from one woman to another. As she continues to lead the MBA through its most meaningful celebration to date, Denise Squillante has enjoyed standing on the shoulders of those women and men who have come before her.

In honor of National Women's History Month, Lawyers Journal spoke with each of the women leaders as they reflected upon their presidential terms.

The lightning rod

In 1986, the MBA elected it first female president, Alice E. Richmond.

At the time of her presidency, the Harvard Law and Cornell University graduate was a partner at Hemenway & Barnes in Boston.

"When I was coming through the ranks, there were at least a couple of women who I thought were able, but the first woman of everything becomes the lightning rod," said Richmond. "When you are first, you have to be more."

Richmond did her best to use her position as MBA president to change the industry's perception of female attorneys. At the same time, Richmond appreciated the sense of inclusiveness that the MBA offered, something she hadn't felt at other bar associations. When tapped as the president, she continued to carry on the MBA's inclusiveness.

"We threw the net out as widely as possible to engage as many lawyers as we possibly could," she said.

Richmond also focused her presidency on "making something better." The groundwork was laid for the future Massachusetts Bar Association's Insurance Agency. Richmond also worked to attract attorneys to the issue of homelessness in the commonwealth post-Vietnam, and the MBA took a strong stance on judicial conduct, when it appeared a few judges were becoming "difficult," as more female trial lawyers were entering courtrooms.

Richmond subsequently became the first female president of the Massachusetts Bar Foundation, the philanthropic partner of the MBA.

Richmond's public service work seemed to be some of her stronger recollections of her time as MBA president. Richmond's sense of service was evident early in her legal career, as she began as an assistant district attorney and later served as a special assistant to the attorney general.

Still residing in Boston today, she continues to make her mark on the national legal stage as treasurer of the American Bar Association.

To the courts

Despite growing up in the 1950s, Elaine Epstein, a daughter of a commercial Realtor and a homemaker, was taught that "girls can do anything." Her parents, along with other family members, were front and center in the audience during her installation reception for her presidency of the MBA in 1992.

Court reform was the hot issue during Epstein's term and that topic was something near and dear to this trial attorney, who began her career in a small practice in Brockton. Such reform was morphing the court system to follow more of a business model and court administrators began to be appointed.

"Court reform was something people felt strongly about," said Epstein. Like Richmond, Epstein mentioned that women were treated differently from their male counterparts in the courtroom. In the bar association world, however, Epstein felt quite the opposite.

"By the time I got there, it wasn't so special to be the second woman president of the bar association," said Epstein, who was appointed by MBA President William Bernstein to serve on the committee that nominated Richmond to serve as the MBA's first woman president.

Epstein explained her time as president preceded "glass ceiling" issues. "Let's just keep moving forward," she recalled. "It didn't feel like, 'Oh, wow, it's a female president of the MBA.'"

"I was still in the forefront, but the ship was moving in the right direction," she said. According to Epstein, inroads were already made by Richmond (as president) and other female lawyers were serving in key appointments in leadership beyond the officer ranks in the association.

A relentless champion for county bar associations, Epstein found attending engagements around the state one of the more memorable parts of her presidency. To this day, Epstein attends the Plymouth County Bar Association's Annual Meeting each year. She remains close to the Plymouth area colleagues with whom she made connections early in her career.

From all she learned during her tenure as president, she offers guidance to other women contemplating leadership roles. Epstein suggests "not to be daunted by the arena you're in." She also encourages women to "rely on thick skin, a sense of humor and always remember to reach back and treat more youthful attorneys the same."

Epstein's MBA presidency followed her time as the first president of the Women's Bar Association. Through both important experiences, her viewpoint of what issues could be addressed by attorneys was broadened.

By the time Epstein entered her MBA presidency, she found the culture in the legal community to be supportive of women moving into leadership positions. Likewise, she felt that support and was met with a sense of encouragement during her travels around the commonwealth.

An impact on education and diversity

In 1994, Kay H. Hodge became the first labor lawyer, minority woman and Asian-American president of the MBA. Focused on the status of minority lawyers in the practice, Hodge also took a special interest in civic education.

During Hodge's presidency, the MBA established Saturday workshops to both encourage minority law students to stay in Massachusetts after law school and help them become successful in their respective areas of practice.

"I think the need still exists to include in the bar -- lawyers of color," said Hodge.

In addition, for young people in the community, Hodge worked to create a newsletter for kids, "It's Your Law," and an "On Your Own" booklet, to give guidance to young people in the community.

"Nothing provided young people this kind of information," said Hodge, of the "On Your Own" Booklet. "While I was rising up in the leadership of the MBA, I was getting involved with the American Bar Association … I learned that other states had done things like 'On Your Own' and you [coud] borrow their ideas."

Since becoming involved in the bar early in her career, Hodge has valued the relationships she's gained.

"My most meaningful moment globally is the people I have met and the relationships I have made at the bar," said Hodge, who strived during her presidency to balance both her MBA and firm commitments.

"I had to balance so that I had a practice to return to … it is a time-consuming process to be president," said Hodge.

Professionalism in the practice

When Marylin A. Beck became MBA president in September 1997, she took the helm as the first sole practitioner in many years to lead the bar.

"I was interested in making the legal system work better for all -- judges, lawyers, litigants and the public in general," said Beck of the highlights of her presidential year. "The Court Facilities Bond Bill was passed, we supported professional management of the courts and we started the process of judicial review."

During Beck's year, the MBA's 20 West St. headquarters were undergoing major reconstruction and the MBA launched its own insurance agency, one of the first of its kind in the country, after the groundwork had been laid in prior years.

Invited to chair the Civil Litigation's Legislation Committee by Past President Richard Hoffman, Beck's presidency was influenced by Hoffman's view of the role of a bar association.

"Hoffman set a high standard of professionalism and saw the MBA as an organization to help its members strengthen and improve the legal system," said Beck. "I strongly agree and focused my presidency on doing the same."

Looking back on her year as MBA president, in which Beck strived to make sure all committee and section council chairs and members "were inspired to make positive contributions to their practice areas," Beck would have changed one aspect of her presidency.

"I think I underestimated how important it is to bring along future leaders of the organization," said Beck, who values honesty, even-handedness and commitment to organizational objectives in fellow MBA leaders.

A public duty

On Sept. 1, 2001, Carol A.G. DiMento took over the presidential office at the MBA. Ten days later, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack in American history.

"9/11 had a significant impact on me," said DiMento. "As president of the MBA, I had to put aside my own agenda and [find a way for lawyers to do] what lawyers do best and represent those who needed us."

DiMento moved quickly after the tragedy to create a task force to help survivors. The Presidential Task Force on the Preservation of Rights, Liberties and Access to Justice worked to set up numerous programs, including a free Dial-a-Lawyer program for families of the victims, in which volunteer attorneys provided legal advice on probate, family and tax-related issues. DiMento, who views the task force and its work as one of her greatest accomplishments as president, remembers "to this day the commitment that the Mass Bar lawyers had to the association, the bar and the public."

A former teacher, DiMento became involved with the MBA when she was the first female president of the Essex County Bar Association. Invited to attend the MBA's Board of Delegates meeting, DiMento decided then that she wanted to pursue an officer position.

"You really need to prove yourself if you are moving through the chairs of a bar association," said DiMento.

DiMento credits fellow MBA President Kay Hodge and Margaret Xifaras, who was on the Nominating Committee that appointed DiMento, for their impact on her presidency.

"One of the roles I took very strongly was that we [as a bar association] had to look at diversity and support diversity," said DiMento. "You have to be committed to your principles, and that is very important to me."

A testament to volunteers

Involved in the MBA for as long as she can remember, Kathleen M. O'Donnell is the second female MBA president to come from a solo practice.

"I think what I was able to do is put good people in place, who then did some terrific work," said O'Donnell of her achievements as MBA president.

During O'Donnell's 2004-05 term, she appointed Roy A. Bourgeois to an MBA Task Force on Lawyer Discipline, which successfully evaluated the Board of Bar Overseers and made 22 recommendations, making the process of lawyer discipline system better for attorneys across the state.

In addition, O'Donnell worked with the Hon. John Fenton, who chaired the Middlesex County Courthouse Committee, which was charged with investigating alleged public safety concerns at the Edward Sullivan Courthouse in Cambridge. O'Donnell believes that the courthouse committee came to a quick resolution because of Fenton's hard work.

However, looking back on her presidency, O'Donnell wishes she had had more time to enjoy the experience.

Still an active bar member, O'Donnell advises young members of the profession to get involved with the bar to get "face-to-face time with people."

"Every time I go to an MBA event and reconnect with people, it reminds me of the great things lawyers are doing for their communities across the state," said O'Donnell.

As the MBA celebrates its centennial year, O'Donnell believes this is an opportunity for the profession to reflect on all that has come and everything to come in the future. As for women in the profession, O'Donnell knows there is still work to do.

"I personally think we [as women] still have a long way to go and women need to remember that, help each other along, and remember those before us," said O'Donnell.

Technology and the future of the bar

At the May 2010 Massachusetts Bar Association's House of Delegates meeting, Valerie A. Yarashus' ceremonial "passing of the gavel" to President-elect Denise Squillante marked the first time the MBA's top leadership position passed from one woman to another.

"It felt extremely significant," said Yarashus.

Yarashus, who focused her association year on finding ways the MBA could use technology to benefit its membership, is credited with launching MBA On Demand, an innovative approach to the association's offerings that allows members to virtually participate in educational programming; she also oversaw a significant upgrade of the MBA's website. In addition to providing members with new technological benefits, Yarashus' year was highlighted by the creation of several new task forces, which had significant impact within the legal industry.

The Diversity Task Force launched its Tiered Mentoring program, and the Crisis in Court Funding Task Force released a report which received considerable media attention. She said, "Our Governance Committee achieved a substantial goal of revising our internal governance, including the creation of a new position of chief operating officer/chief legal counsel, and our high-profile Peremptory Challenge Task Force launched its efforts to examine and make recommendations concerning the use of peremptory challenges."

During her presidency, Yarashus was mindful of inspiring members of the founding principles of the association.

"I think it is important for people to realize we can't take snapshots and think of membership issues in isolation. We need to think of people in terms of leadership, in terms of pipeline issues and the people that we are bringing into the profession," she said. "I see all three as interconnected and as high priorities for bar associations."

In working with fellow leaders of the bar, Yarashus admires others who have an ability to listen and get input from multiple sources, those who can envision a future that is different, and leaders who can bring people together to work for change.

The Centennial Leader

Currently, Denise Squillante, a "main street lawyer" from southeastern Massachusetts, is leading the MBA through its centennial year and celebration. Well into her presidency now, Squillante, like those women leaders before her, is busy moving forward the mission of the MBA, creating a strong legacy and serving as an example to those who will assume the presidency in the future.

"Each year, MBA leadership builds on the work of those who have walked before us," she said.

On the milestone of her assuming the presidency from another female president for the first time, "I think of it as one of those crossroads for the bar association," Squillante said. "It was one of those moments that you realize some gender barriers were broken."

As one of only a few women to hang her own shingle in southeastern Massachusetts in the early 80s, Squillante believes the "worst thing you can do is work in isolation," and urges young women entering the profession to join a bar association to "find senior lawyers, network with male colleagues and meet practitioners in similar situations."

In the future, Squillante hopes that women continue to excel in bar leadership and that they achieve a work-life balance. To do this, Squillante believes young practitioners should partner with senior attorneys early in their careers, with every senior female lawyer having a "responsibility to pull someone up." In addition, Squillante urges young attorneys to "find a practice area you are passionate about" and "control your schedule and calendar."

Squillante continues to be heavily involved in the MBA's Lawyers In Transition efforts, to which she was influential in getting off the ground. Such efforts focus on providing guidance to those either transitioning into or out of conventional practice.

"The struggle for women in every profession is the thought that they can't do it all," said Squillante. "Women still feel they can't juggle family, the practice and the profession. I hope in the future that notion is broken."

The examples set by Squillante, Yarashus, O'Donnell, DiMento, Beck, Hodge, Epstein and Richmond do plenty to weaken that notion and inspire those women and men who aim to follow in their footsteps of bar leadership.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association