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