Morrissey's steady hand leads MBA during unprecedented time

Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 By Cameron Woodcock
Article Picture
2019-20 MBA President John J. Morrissey

When the March arrival of COVID-19 forced the Massachusetts Bar Association to indefinitely suspend all in-person programming, outgoing President John J. Morrissey largely set aside his own agenda to focus on supporting members during the pandemic. Thanks to his leadership in the ensuing months of the 2019-20 year, the MBA became a source of timely updates on the Massachusetts court system and an online hub for attorneys seeking guidance on legal practice and mental wellness.

In the days following Gov. Charlie Baker’s state of emergency declaration, Morrissey formed the COVID-19 Response Task Force to develop a plan for member outreach and communicate the needs of practitioners to court leaders. With direction from the task force, the MBA launched a COVID-19 News and Information page containing up-to-date announcements on court services and operations, newly recorded CLE programs related to COVID-19, and links to helpful resources for attorneys and law firms. In addition to the website content, which is free for anyone to access, Morrissey sent out daily membership emails listing all updates recently posted by individual departments in the Massachusetts state and federal court systems. 

After Morrissey opened his presidency by pledging to help improve the state of lawyer well-being in the commonwealth, that issue came to the forefront as COVID-19 compounded the already high-stress nature of the profession. Morrissey established the MBA’s Attorney Well-Being Working Group near the start of the pandemic in March, appointing MBA Treasurer Grace V.B. Garcia and Marianne C. LeBlanc as co-chairs. The group subsequently created a Health and Well-Being page to serve as a one-stop resource for those experiencing heightened anxiety or stress, substance issues and other personal challenges brought on by the COVID crisis. 

"John is a natural leader and methodical thinker who cares deeply about our membership, which came through in his daily interactions with people from across the organization," said MBA Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin W. Healy. "No one could have predicted what was going to take place during the association year, but John provided a steady hand at the bar in very trying times. I truly appreciate the solid support he gave this year."

The task force also provided the MBA with a direct line to the judiciary, through which association leaders could raise specific issues facing members in their practices to help shape the courts’ response to COVID-19. Morrissey said the task force benefited from a strong leadership base composed of MBA officers and attorneys representing different practice areas and geographic regions, as well as a receptive administration at the Supreme Judicial Court. 

"The court and Chief Justice [Ralph D.] Gants in particular have worked tirelessly to anticipate and address issues before they arise,” said Morrissey, whose presidency concludes on Aug. 31. "Chief Justice Gants has reached out frequently over the last several months looking for feedback on what the courts are doing right and what they’re doing wrong. We’re very fortunate to have a court system that is so responsive to our membership."

Gants, in turn, said he relied heavily on Morrissey’s input to account for the needs of attorneys and maintain the effective operation of the legal system during an unprecedented health emergency.

"From the beginning of the pandemic, I sought John's guidance as to what the SJC could do to help the bar in keeping the wheels of justice spinning and in adjusting to a legal world that had suddenly turned almost entirely virtual," Gants said. "His advice and insight was invaluable in helping us to identify problems and craft solutions to address them. John was also a key partner in the courts' efforts to keep the bar informed about the many orders and guidance that we have issued in recent months."

Morrissey noted that COVID-19 has placed an immense burden on small-firm practitioners, himself included, but said many such attorneys have reported feeling more supported and informed since the MBA began publishing real-time court updates. For Morrissey, one of the few positive takeaways from the pandemic is the knowledge that the MBA continues to serve a vital purpose in amplifying the voice of the courts to reach lawyers across the commonwealth.

"Ironically, the pandemic provided an opportunity to demonstrate the resource that the MBA is in both good times and bad for members of the legal profession," Morrissey said.

Even in a shortened year, Morrissey believes that the MBA made real progress toward his initial goal of increasing civility and diversity in the Massachusetts legal community. At two roundtable discussions held in 2019, Morrissey and his fellow officers heard from leaders of affinity bar associations about concrete steps that the MBA should take to foster a more welcoming and inclusive environment for attorneys from diverse backgrounds. Morrissey is hopeful that these efforts, along with a canceled statewide series of bench-bar forums centered on civility and professionalism in courtroom settings, will continue in some form moving forward.

In recent months, the MBA also passed a resolution through its House of Delegates calling for expanded voting options and increased safety measures in the upcoming elections, and issued statements to mark the passing of Congressman John Lewis and condemn the killing of George Floyd. According to Morrissey, all three actions reflect the MBA’s moral and foundational obligation to weigh in on social justice issues of current importance to the country.

Along with the professional challenges of the past year, Morrissey experienced great loss in his family life, as described by his brother and law partner, Francis C. Morrissey. "It was a very challenging year for John personally and professionally," Francis Morrissey said. "We lost our dad in September and our sister Donna in May to COVID. We were extraordinarily fortunate that our dad lived to see John sworn in as president of the MBA. The whole family is very proud of John."

In light of the circumstances surrounding his term in office, Morrissey displayed "great growth, extraordinary courage, and initiative," said MBA President-elect Denise I. Murphy, a longtime friend. "He also was decisive and took immediate, concrete action to create an MBA resource during COVID that was available to all the attorneys in the commonwealth."

Acknowledging the weight of the personal hardships he endured during his time as president, Morrissey said he found solace in the support he received from MBA officers and staff. 

"As a lawyer practicing at a small suburban firm, never mind some of the personal challenges I faced this year, I just couldn’t have done it without such a great team."