President's Message: Transitioning toward progress

Thursday, June 10, 2021 By MBA President Denise I. Murphy
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MBA President Denise I. Murphy

As we emerge from the pandemic into an evolving social and workplace landscape, it would be oh so much easier to return to the long-held norms, beliefs and practices in our profession. To slip back into the traditions developed over the years in our legal culture simply because “it is the way things are done” is tempting, because they are familiar, and there is comfort in the familiar. The turmoil we’ve endured over the past year and a half because of the public health crisis, the social reform movement, and a politically divisive country left us mentally and physically exhausted. Ruminate on that for a moment and then accept it, because it is time to move forward.

We are on the brink of a new world with the opportunity to gather value from the lessons learned about ourselves, our colleagues and our institutions.

Our Internal Efforts

At the Massachusetts Bar Association, we are seizing this opportunity to make systemic changes by delving deeply into our structure, our culture and the work that we accomplish. We know that we need to make our structure and culture more diverse, inclusive and equitable, especially among our leaders and in our membership. This is work that we must undertake ourselves, and that is exactly what we are doing.

At the leadership level, we engaged in some very difficult discussions among ourselves and with others to challenge our own perspectives and understand the perspectives of others. Introspection isn’t easy, but it can be illuminating — sometimes painfully so. We are so grateful for the members of the legal community who have been willing to share their lived experiences with us and others. We’ve listened and heard their voices, and we are working to make systemic changes. We know it’s a process that takes time, but it's work that we are willing to undertake. Thank you for working with us.

As president, I’ve made it quite clear that I find little value in simply talking about changes, because I believe that the power to effectuate change lies in actions, not just in words. To that end, these are the actions the MBA initiated and is now undertaking:

We’ve opened up speaking opportunities at our panels and conferences to all qualified legal professionals, not just members, ensuring that our programs include a broad range of perspectives, insights and expertise. And all MBA speaking engagements and panel opportunities are required to be diverse, thereby better reflecting the communities we serve.

Every section council now has liaisons to both the MBA’s Committee on Lawyer Well-Being and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Standing Committee. The task of each of these committees is to work from within the MBA section councils to ensure that our goals are met. 

In response to suggestions from our DEI Committee to examine our organizational structure, including our governance procedures, I have appointed a Governance Committee tasked with evaluating those suggestions and our procedures through a DEI lens. The members are: Hon. Robert Harnais (co-chair of the MBA’s DEI Committee), Hon. Thomas Barbar, attorney Terrence Parker, Hon. Bonnie MacLeod (ret.) and attorney Marc Moccia. Not only are each of these individuals deeply invested in creating a more diverse culture in our profession, they are willing to undertake the hard work that this requires. We are so grateful for their commitment.

Recognizing the value of an outside perspective, the MBA engaged the services of a consultant to help us move forward with initiatives designed to ensure continuing inclusivity through systemic changes. Each member of leadership and staff will undergo DEI training to ensure that we understand and respond to implicit and explicit bias and microaggressions.

These are our initial steps toward internal changes, and we affirmatively acknowledge that this will be an ongoing effort. Fortunately, we have many dedicated volunteers and staff who are committed to working with the MBA to achieve our goals.

Our External Efforts

In addition to our ongoing commitment to improving the MBA’s internal systems, we must also acknowledge the important work we’ve been able to accomplish externally. The work that we do and have committed to continuing in order to ensure equity and overcome barriers to inclusion is without peer. For the efforts of each and every one of those who contributed to the MBA’s goal of overcoming systemic bias in our legal systems and amplifying the voices of historically underrepresented populations — please know that we appreciate your hard work and your compassionate hearts. Our most recent and ongoing initiatives are the following:

The Tiered Community Mentoring program provides a pipeline of opportunity and exposure for students from high school through law school and beyond in the greater Boston and Worcester areas. As we emerge from the pandemic, we hope to expand this program into other parts of the commonwealth.

The Judicial Youth Corps is an ongoing effort to introduce high school students from underrepresented communities to career opportunities in the legal system. Through this effort, students have the opportunity to observe and work within the court system throughout Massachusetts.

In this past year, the MBA, working with stakeholders, issued the Conviction Integrity Working Group Report, found here.

Continuing its commitment to effectuating real change in the criminal justice system, the MBA issued the 2021 Clemency Report, seeking reforms to the process for pardons and commutations in the commonwealth.

The MBA was at the forefront of police reform and, fueled by the social justice movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and so many other people of color, we passed a comprehensive police reform resolution through the House of Delegates. That resolution thrust us into important discussions on police reform. As a result, the MBA has a seat at the table and a voice on each of the following commissions: The Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, the Facial Recognition Commission, the Commission Studying Qualified Immunity, the Commission Examining Civil Service Law, and the Commission on Training Protocols for State and County Corrections Officers and Juvenile Detention Officers.

These are just some of the MBA’s initiatives to achieve actual, systemic change, and to break down barriers to equality, inclusivity and diversity within our legal system. Our work, not only in the past year but over our history, demonstrates that while we have work to do to make our organization more inclusive, we remain at the forefront of advocacy for the unheard, the unseen, and the underrepresented populations of the commonwealth.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the value of the insights offered by our own DEI Committee this year. We have reaped the benefit of their dedication to ensuring diversity, equity and inclusivity at the MBA and value their perspective and the efforts they have made in advancing our goals. I am also especially pleased to acknowledge the fact that now that they are engaged with each section council, they are even more able to advance our goals and help us better understand the life experiences of every member of the legal profession, which in turn will improve us all.

I’d like to emphasize one final point. The MBA is a non-profit agency supported by the membership fees from members like you. Because you contributed to this organization, not one MBA staff member lost their job during the pandemic, and each and every one of the initiatives I have listed was successful. Thank you for your continued and considerable support.

I began this message musing about transitions, and I will end it with my closing thoughts on that topic. Over the next few months, I will be transitioning the presidency of the MBA to President-elect Tom Bond. The MBA’s commitment to effectuating change, both internally and externally, will continue, not just through Tom’s tenure, but through each and every year thereafter. All of the officers agree: This is our collective commitment, and we will ensure that this important work continues.