Douglas K. Sheff is a drummer, but no one could ever accuse him
of just marking time.
"I do everything double," says Sheff, whose style of drumming
involves hitting twice on the down stroke. "I can get two for the
price of one and create a fuller sound."
Sheff, the new president of the Massachusetts Bar Association,
has taken a similar approach to his profession, combining his deep
commitment to client service with his strong dedication to the bar
to forge a fuller -- and more fulfilling -- career as a lawyer.
A senior partner at Sheff Law, Sheff is nationally renowned in
the areas of personal injury, wrongful death, construction site,
trucking and brain injury litigation. For nearly 30 years, he has
forcefully advocated for working families through his own personal
injury practice, using the civil justice system to recover millions
of dollars for injured clients and improve public safety.
With a majority of his cases received through attorney
referrals, Sheff's results for his clients have often come with a
two-fold benefit. "The best checks I write are those to referral
counsel," he says. "I regard it not only as an investment in my
firm, but a reinvestment in the legal community."
Sheff is committed to being "the trusted lawyer of the trusted
lawyer," and he has frequently embraced the call from fellow
lawyers to serve as an advocate for the profession, as well as the
justice system. He is the first attorney in Massachusetts to serve
as president of the MBA, president of the Massachusetts Academy of
Trial Attorneys (MATA), governor of the American Association of
Justice (AAJ) and trustee of the AAJ's National College of
Sheff has enjoyed many successes, but he is most proud of the
ones that have brought the most bang for the buck, especially those
that led to improvements in public safety. In one case, Sheff's $7
million recovery for a family of a worker killed in an explosion
led Exxon, which was not a party in the case, to make safety
improvements to its facilities worldwide. Through his bar work,
Sheff founded the MBA's Workplace Safety Task Force, which, along
with a coalition, just last year successfully spearheaded a new
worker safety law that provides essential protections to more than
100,000 temporary workers in the commonwealth each year.
As Sheff often says, "We do the most good as lawyers when we
help those whom we do not represent."
MBA members can expect Sheff to approach his year as MBA
president with the same up-tempo rhythm that has driven him
throughout his career, as he focuses on three initiatives: the
Working Families Initiative, Consumer Law Initiative, and Justice
for All Initiative. And, like his drumming, Sheff expects to
deliver something twice as nice - providing service to the
community while also showcasing the positive work that lawyers do
"I can't think of a better ambassador to deliver the ambitious
programs aimed at serving the public and promoting the positive
image of lawyers," says MBA Chief Legal Counsel Martin W. Healy.
"Always leading by example, Doug Sheff shows the value that lawyers
bring to our communities every day."
Looking back on his career, Sheff says becoming a trial lawyer
was, in many ways, a natural progression from his love of the
drums, which began at age 4. He learned early on that there was
gratification from being heard and seen by other people. "I got
addicted to that, and I like to perform," he says. "Every trial
lawyer has a little of that in them."
Sheff says the lessons learned as a percussionist still guide
many aspects of his work each day. "Drumming has a rhythm and a
cadence to it that I find helpful in the course of a presentation,
a talk or an argument," he says.
The same can be said about Sheff's other outside interests in
language, writing and sports competitions. Sheff is also an avid
martial artist and practitioner of Tai Chi, which he'll use even on
breaks when he's in court. "It gets me centered," he says. And
being an accomplished traveler who has been to more than 50
countries "definitely helps me understand the cultures of
witnesses, or how to relate to a client's family," he says.
Having a life outside the profession provides an important
contrast, says Sheff. "You can't be a great trial lawyer if you
don't have experiences somewhere else," he says. "When you go into
a courtroom, you have so much more you can represent a client with
if you're well rounded."
'Chick' off the old block
A lot of who Sheff is as a lawyer can be traced to his father,
Irving "Chick" Sheff. A well-respected, tenacious advocate who was
passionate about representing working families, Chick was also
widely regarded as one of the classiest and best-dressed lawyers in
Chick founded his own firm more than 60 years ago, and worked
with his son up until he passed away in 2007. Through his own work
representing union and non-union workers, Sheff continues to build
upon his father's legacy of protecting the workplace. "He was a
mentor and a father, and my best friend," says Sheff. "I miss
Sheff drew much inspiration from his father, but perhaps Chick's
greatest gift was allowing his son to find his own way. As Sheff
told Trial magazine in 1997: "He always allowed me choice,
autonomy and respect. I'll always be grateful for that and
recommend a similar approach to any parent of an aspiring
Those closest to Sheff see many similarities between father and
son, but also how Sheff has forged his own impressive identity.
"Doug is a Chick off the old block, an utter
gentleman," says MBA President-elect Marsha V. Kazarosian with pun
intended. "He's very much like, yet still very much different from,
his father. Both are superb lawyers, but they have different
Kazarosian says "committed," "ingenious" and "perfectionist" are
some of the first words that come to mind when she thinks of Sheff,
who is also a close friend. "He has to have every single angle
considered and covered," she says.
"When he's in, he's all in," Kazarosian adds." He'll give you
the shirt off his back and you wouldn't even have to ask for it. If
he's representing you, he's the kind of person you want."
Donald Grady, Sheff's longtime law partner who worked with both
father and son, makes similar observations. He adds: "Chick could
really see an issue, and Doug inherited that. But Doug takes that
to another level. He is able to see through or around an issue
probably better than anybody I know."
Sheff's abilities as a trial lawyer are an inevitable by-product
of the meticulous and innovative approach he brings to his work.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in his work on behalf of victims
of traumatic brain injury (TBI). A nationally recognized authority
on TBI, Sheff has been a pioneer in developing methods of
demonstrating traumatic brain injury, integrating cutting edge
medical resources, the latest technology and renowned experts from
around the country to help clients and educate attorneys and the
public. Sheff is passionate advocate for those with "invisible
Sheff also has deep experience on product liability cases, where
his latest focus has been in the field of mass tort. Representing
consumers from around the country, it's an area that allows Sheff's
firm to help many victims of a defective product or drug through a
Like he does in his practice, Sheff brings an almost
scientific-approach to people, as well. He is a staunch believer in
the value of focus groups as a way to understand juries- especially
in the absence of voir dire. Sheff is often asked to run other
lawyers' focus groups, Grady says, adding that Sheff is good at
using them to determine not only how one person might react to a
situation, but also how a collective group of people might react to
Sheff is particularly gifted at connecting with his clients,
many of whom come to Sheff in pain or in tough situations. "Our
clients come from all walks of life and different backgrounds,"
says Grady. "He's good at knowing when they need hand-holding and
when they need to be guided."
Sheff's passion for helping working families is not surprising
given the importance of family in his own life, even beyond his
father. The middle of three children, Sheff shares a special
connection with his siblings, his older sister, Jody, an
Emmy-winning film producer in New York. and his younger brother,
Tom, who hosts his own cable TV show and is an ardent supporter of
In addition to the influence of his father, close friends see a
lot of Sheff's mother, Maxine, in him. "They're a lot alike," says
Grady, who has known the Sheff family for more than 20 years. "Some
of Doug's mental toughness comes from his mom. Both are very
dedicated. They see a path and want it to happen."
Loyalty is another trait Sheff shares with his mother, and it
may be the most important reason so many of the organizations Sheff
belongs to have chosen him to lead. "He stands behind the people he
works with and those who work for him," says Grady. "That's really
important in any partnership to know he's got your back."
There is no closer partnership than family, and, having grown up
in the law, Sheff says lawyers are almost like extended relatives.
"I'm at home when I'm with lawyers," says Sheff. "Lawyers are the
finest people I know, and I do relate to them as family."
Sheff's high regard for lawyers is why he has been so compelled
to give back through active leadership in the bar. As MBA
president, he expects to do even more -- double, he might say -- as
he works to improve the public image of lawyers as part of his
ambitious agenda. It's a tall task, but close friends and
colleagues say Sheff is more than up to it.
"The amount of energy Doug brings is tremendous," says Grady.
"Most people want to go home after a day's work. He's ready to
start a second day."