President's Message: Civics awareness ‘springs’ ahead

Thursday, June 6, 2019 By MBA President Christopher A. Kenney
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MBA President Christopher A. Kenney

In January, I previewed the Massachusetts Bar Association’s ambitious agenda of programs and initiatives aimed at improving civics awareness and education in the commonwealth. In true MBA fashion, we’ve exceeded expectations, thanks to the support of our MBA member community.

By now you’ve probably heard about the incredibly successful Civics Bee held at the MBA in February. Through this fun, trivia-themed fundraiser we were able to raise more than $15,000 for iCivics, a digital learning platform that is helping to implement the Massachusetts law passed last summer, which mandates improved civics education in public high schools by 2020.

And that was only the beginning. Since then, we’ve put together a spring to remember with civic-minded programs, providing both education and legal assistance to people across Massachusetts, from high school children and the elderly to immigrants and low-income litigants.

In early April, we held our first-ever Trial Academy training sessions to give newer litigators an opportunity to hone critical trial skills from a panel of proven courtroom veterans. While the two-day trainings were undoubtedly helpful, the Trial Academy’s built-in pro bono component is arguably where we will see the greatest impact.

By design, each Trial Academy participant has an opportunity to put his or her skills to work in an actual trial in District Court representing a litigant on a limited basis who otherwise would not have an attorney at trial. Coming up over the next few weeks, Trial Academy graduates will have a chance to attend a limited assistance representation (LAR) training and work with judges in their sessions to practice openings, closings and other skills they were taught in April. I am grateful to my colleague, MBA President-elect John J. Morrissey, for leading this effort.

Also in April, the MBA’s Civics Task Force, led by MBA Secretary Grace V.B. Garcia, hosted its successful Naturalization Disability Waiver Training in partnership with Project Citizenship. Through this program, attorneys were prepared to serve as pro bono counsel to eligible permanent residents seeking exemption from the English and civics testing requirement because of their disabilities. Attendees are already using their new skills and have volunteered to assist in one-hour naturalization interviews with disabled clients.

The Civics Task Force again shined in May, coordinating a Law Day initiative that sent volunteer MBA attorneys and judges to high school history and political science classes around the commonwealth to engage students on the American Bar Association’s Law Day theme: “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society.” Thank you to the nearly 100 MBA members who volunteered for this worthwhile effort.

The MBA also continued its long-standing Law Day Elder Law Education Program this year, where more than 120 MBA members traveled to senior centers throughout May (and into the summer) to inform elders of their rights. Under the leadership of Alex L. Moschella, chair of the MBA’s Elder Law Advisory Committee, we also updated and published the 10th Edition of the popular Elder Law Education Guide.

In addition to the activities I’ve already mentioned, my fellow officers remain busy working on timely issues affecting our profession in partnership with our friends in the judiciary. MBA Vice President Denise I. Murphy has done a fantastic job leading the MBA’s Wellness Initiative and representing our association on the SJC’s Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being. And MBA Treasurer Thomas M. Bond is continuing his important work at the helm of the MBA’s Judicial Diversity Task Force.

While we’re on the subject of accomplishments, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the outstanding achievements of the attorneys and judges recently honored at our sold-out Annual Dinner. In addition to an inspiring speech from DNA-evidence pioneer Barry Scheck, we got to celebrate the accomplishments of a respected judge, a valuable partner in the legislature and my immediate predecessor, former MBA President Christopher P. Sullivan. We also learned about the vital work being done by our Access to Justice Award winners and the bright future of our profession from our Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Scholarship winner. I want to thank all our sponsors and attendees who made this such a memorable evening. 

As you can see, we’ve had a lot to celebrate this year. The recent successes I’ve mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg. Ultimately, each of these has one thing in common, and that is the dedication and selflessness exhibited by MBA members across the spectrum, from new lawyers to veteran practitioners. I take my hat off to everyone involved in these incredible programs. Public service has always been a civic duty and hallmark of the MBA lawyer, and it’s clear that remains true today.