More than words: MBA embraces change, growth under Murphy’s leadership

Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021
Article Picture
2020-21 MBA President Denise I. Murphy

Denise I. Murphy’s presidency at the Massachusetts Bar Association began, and will end, in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic. But that’s not necessarily what she, nor the MBA as an organization, will remember most. 

Thanks to Murphy’s strong leadership, the MBA was able to adapt and turn some of its greatest challenges into opportunities to expand member participation and, in turn, become an even more valuable resource and welcoming home for all lawyers in the commonwealth. 

As MBA President-elect Thomas M. Bond, who will ascend to the presidency on Sept. 1, noted: "The MBA’s in-person meetings were virtually eliminated, and some of the most popular events, the ones we all look forward to, such as the Annual Dinner and the President’s Reception, were either cancelled or severely limited. Yet she always maintained her composure and was always available to lead us through this pandemic and make the right decisions."

Murphy (left) presents an MBA Community Service award to Maria Rivera-Cotto of Worcester in Spring 2021.
With the loss of personal, face-to-face interactions, Murphy embraced other opportunities to make connections through virtual events and by reaching out to leaders at other organizations around the commonwealth to get to know them better. The virtual nature of many events was, in some ways, a silver lining that allowed Murphy to meet more people and represent the MBA in more places than she would have in a more typical year. 

Leading a statewide organization in a global health crisis is difficult enough. But as systemic inequities locally and nationally, including in the legal profession, came to the forefront before the start of her presidential term, Murphy said it “shook me to my core” and caused her to reevaluate who she is and what she could do to help provide access to justice for all.

After "lots of reading, lots of listening — really listening," Murphy committed to making the MBA "an ally to people of diverse backgrounds," and sought improvements at the MBA to encourage a more diverse membership with programs and panels that were more representative of the community at large.

Building on her experience as co-chair of the Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, she normalized conversations about wellness at every opportunity and, through the work of the MBA’s own Lawyer Well-Being Committee, also positioned the MBA as a leading resource for lawyers who struggle with mental health challenges and substance use disorders. 

Bond credited Murphy for her strong leadership under challenging circumstances, in particular calling her efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion at the MBA and across the legal community "outstanding."

Martin W. Healy, the MBA’s chief legal counsel and chief operating officer who worked closely with Murphy all year long, added: "Denise did not miss a beat during these challenging times. Her collaborative style coupled with her sharp instincts brought a lot of tools to the position of president. We were very fortunate to have Denise as the leader of the statewide bar."

A Catalyst for Change

Murphy, a partner at Boston-based Rubin and Rudman LLP and co-chair of its Labor and Employment Department, started her presidency with a promise to work toward making systemic changes to legal processes that adversely impacted historically underrepresented people in the legal community. Meaningful change, she insisted, needed more than words; it needed action. And for Murphy, change needed to start at the MBA itself.

After some introspective reflection with fellow MBA leaders and important conversations with allies in the legal community, Murphy put into action plans to enhance the association’s longstanding mission to provide a welcoming, supportive environment where people with differing viewpoints could come together for thoughtful discourse. She reinvigorated the MBA’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Standing Committee ("DEI Standing Committee"), which included a liaison from every section council, and tasked the committee with exploring ways the MBA could become more attentive to the needs and concerns of lawyers of color and others who traditionally lacked an equal voice in the profession. 

As a result of the DEI Committee’s suggestions, the MBA is reviewing its governance procedures and doing more to welcome underrepresented lawyers into its membership by encouraging participation in leadership positions, so that the association better embodies the diversity of its full constituency. In addition, each member of MBA leadership and staff is taking DEI training to better understand and combat instances of implicit and explicit bias and microaggressions.

The MBA has also opened up speaking opportunities at its panels and conferences to all qualified legal professionals, not just members, ensuring that MBA programs include a broad range of perspectives, insights and expertise. All MBA speaking engagements and panel opportunities are required to be diverse, thereby better reflecting the communities the association serves. These changes were evident in several of the programs the MBA hosted this year, including a series on Challenging Implicit Bias in the Probate and Family Court and a webinar on Representing and Respecting Transgender and Non-binary Clients and People in the Courts.

"At its core, the MBA is an organization that strives to improve itself, and the way we improved this year is extraordinary," Murphy said, noting that the positive member response showed that the changes were embraced wholeheartedly.

JYC Zoom block 2021
Murphy, top right, virtually celebrates this year's Supreme Judicial Court's Judicial Youth Corps program.

A vocal supporter of the MBA’s community-focused programs, Murphy also touted the MBA’s Tiered Community Mentoring Program, which pairs high school, college and law school students with a practicing attorney, and the SJC’s Judicial Youth Corps program, where the MBA administers the Worcester and Springfield programs that give high school students exposure to real-world professionals and jobs in the court system. Both programs give students an opportunity to interact with role models from similar backgrounds while learning about and experiencing the legal world. "The idea is to create a viable pipeline to show students that they can do that, too," she said. "I would love to see that expand."

The commitment to meaningful change also applied to the MBA’s external efforts, as Murphy and the MBA continued to publicly weigh in on important social justice issues, including those affecting access to justice. During Murphy’s presidency, for example, the House of Delegates acknowledged that "Black lives matter" and also voted to endorse the Report and Resolution of the MBA's Police Reform Working Group (PRWG) on Systemic Police Reform. The MBA emerged as one of the most respected voices on accountability in law enforcement.

"Denise had a number of important MBA projects come to fruition during her tenure," noted Healy. "We were involved heavily in the legislative debate regarding statewide police reform, and we successfully lobbied the legislature to include the MBA on a number of important commissions formed to implement the new law."

Additionally, the Massachusetts Conviction Integrity Working Group, a coalition of criminal justice leaders and stakeholders first convened by the MBA in 2018, published a comprehensive guide to help prosecutors’ offices in the commonwealth establish or enhance conviction integrity programs to prevent and remedy wrongful convictions and other miscarriages of justice. Members of the MBA’s Clemency Task Force also released an important report, endorsed by the House of Delegates, which calls for long-overdue changes to the clemency process in Massachusetts. 

"It’s one thing to talk about social justice reform. It’s another to actually do something that effectuates it. And that’s what we did," Murphy said. "I’m so proud."

A Focus on Well-Being

One of the most important accomplishments of the past year, and perhaps the most personal for Murphy, was cementing the MBA’s role as a wellness resource for all attorneys in the commonwealth. 

Murphy tasked the MBA’s Lawyer Well-Being Committee with implementing wellness programs and exploring ways to help members of the legal community attend to their own emotional and physical well-being. The MBA’s committee, co-chaired by MBA Vice President Grace V.B. Garcia and attorney Marianne C. LeBlanc, worked closely with the SJC’s committee to further their mutual goals.

This past year, the MBA’s Lawyer Well-Being Committee published, “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: A Toolkit for Bar Associations in Massachusetts,” which provides extensive resources for individuals, employers and organizations within the legal community to help them attain greater success in achieving a healthy, positive and productive balance of work, personal life and wellness, including resources to cope with stress, anxiety, depression, substance use disorder and other mental health challenges.

"Well-being is my passion," she said. "I wanted to make sure attorneys have the wherewithal to safely talk about what they’re going through with peers, colleagues and the court system [and] to let them know there are resources so they don’t have to bear the cost of illness."

The MBA’s Lawyer Well-Being Committee also presented two more physically focused wellness challenges – Jump into January and Step into Summer -- which provided articles and other helpful resources to motivate participating MBA members to commit to making positive lifestyle changes. The challenges, which encouraged MBA members to share their progress on social media, also helped to instill a sense of community and provide a respite from the isolation many have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Home Away From Home

Murphy and her husband, former MBA President David White.
Murphy may be wrapping up her term as president, but she won’t be stepping away from the MBA. Not when the association has literally become family. This year, in particular, she credits the contacts she’s made at the MBA for inspiring and supporting her each step of the way. 

"The MBA has always been home to me, and I’ve created some of the best relationships — including my husband, former MBA President David White," Murphy said. "Without his support, I wouldn’t have made it through this year. There was no precedent for this year, and his experience was key."

Murphy said she was particularly grateful for her fellow officers, each of whom embraced her initiatives and worked so hard to keep the association moving forward. "I’m honored to have served with them," she said. "Knowing they are the gatekeepers [of the MBA] makes me happy."

Bond, her successor, said Murphy will remain a key ally, resource and colleague as he prepares to lead the MBA during its 2021-22 association year. "It has been a pleasure working with her this past year, and we formed a great friendship as well as a professional relationship," Bond said. "I will continue to reach out to her for her advice, judgment and wisdom throughout my presidency."

Murphy also thanked Healy, her old law school classmate, and the MBA staff for embracing change and encouraging growth at the MBA. Calling Healy "the ultimate diplomat," Murphy said his advocacy was instrumental in getting the legislative traction needed to have MBA priorities heard on Beacon Hill.

For Healy, the respect is mutual. "I was personally thrilled to be closely working with her as Chief Operating Officer since we go back to Suffolk Law School where we knew each other as classmates," Healy said. "The same dedication Denise brought to her studies and as a member of the Law Review, was still evident throughout the association year. She will be handing off the baton to incoming President Tom Bond in very good shape."

This profile was compiled by the MBA Communications Director Jason Scally and intern Jessica Vigliotta.