Teamwork, enthusiasm marked Vrabel's tenure as MBA president

Issue August 2003 By Krista Zanin

It was astounding - the level of excitement and energy contained in a room last September in the Boston Public Schools college prep school Another Course to College.

MBA President Joseph P.J. Vrabel
MBA President Joseph P.J. Vrabel
Students were so eager to share their views and ask questions about the complex legal and civic issues facing the nation following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as they met with MBA President Joseph P.J. Vrabel, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall and attorney James McGuire of the firm Brown Rudnick Berlack & Israels during the launch of the MBA's "Conversations on Law & Liberty in Times of Crisis" program.

But for Vrabel, who had just kicked off his year tenure as MBA president, the true test of the program's success came after he left the building to head back to his office.

A handful of students, who had been dismissed from school, were standing on Commonwealth Avenue just as enthusiastically discussing civil liberties as they had been while inside. Instead of leaving, Vrabel continued the conversation with them. It was a scene he would see over and over again throughout his presidency.

"Kids don't just sort of pack up and leave, they hang around," said Vrabel, who serves as vice president and general counsel to Capital Risk Management in Framingham. "That to me shows they really enjoy it."

Bringing "Conversations" to high schools across the state was one of Vrabel's hallmarks as president.

The experience, which combined the volunteer efforts of attorneys speaking with students with the desire of teenagers to address critical issues of the day, proved a success for both attorneys and students alike.

The program was an example of a major tenet of Vrabel's presidency - education, bringing attorneys together to work as a team and encouraging lawyers to become involved in community- and public-service projects.

"Lawyers being more involved and open and teamwork are all the things I tried to emphasize, and I think for the most part we started getting that message across," Vrabel said recently as he reflected with Lawyers Journal on this past year.

Indeed, the 2002-2003 association year was a busy one. The court system wrestled with an extreme budget crisis. The MBA's annual conference, "Charting the Course for Law in Today's Society," brought attorneys together from across the state to delve into pressing issues facing the legal profession.

While the MBA's Court Reform Task Force began a review of the association's seminal Harbridge House court study, the Supreme Judicial Court's Visiting Committee on Management in the Courts presented its recommendations for how the court system should improve. And attorneys led the charge this spring and summer lobbying for appropriate aid for the court system and important legal aid programs. Vrabel and other MBA leaders also met this year with Supreme Judicial Court Justice Martha B. Sosman to discuss how the bench and bar can work together to improve court administration and funding issues.

Vrabel's proudest accomplishment is instilling a new sense of teamwork among the officers.

"I think it's more interesting and more fun with officers functioning together as a team," Vrabel said. "Over the last year we were able to do just that."

As an example, each officer served as a liaison to a county or specialty bar.

"We never had that before," Vrabel said. "It allowed us to find out the issues at the county bar level and specialty bar level and deal with them … It also allowed us to communicate our message in a more effective way. I hope we keep doing that next year as well."

The process allowed officers to listen to as many voices as they could across the state.

And instead of just talking about how the MBA wanted to encourage diversity, it accomplished that goal. During Vrabel's tenure both the Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts (AALAM) and the Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys (MAHA) gained representation on the House of Delegates.

Another large issue pressing the bar this year was a push to improve the image lawyers have among the public.

The response from the MBA under Vrabel's leadership was to institute a public image campaign that will highlight the good work lawyers do every day, from their law practices to their tireless dedication to community.

"I think we need to get better at telling people we are not as bad as they think we are," Vrabel said.

In addition to sending a message to members of the community, Vrabel hopes the MBA will serve as a facilitator between the legislature and the court system.

"I think the Mass. Bar can play a key role in getting all those parties together and finding a way to make change happen," Vrabel said.

Though Vrabel knew his role as president would keep his calendar booked most of the year, he said he didn't realize the extent or the amount of time involved. Nevertheless, he said, he enjoyed his year as president, counting it among the best of his life.

Another surprise to the position was the response he received from readers of his column in Lawyers Journal.
"I can't believe how many e-mails, letters and phone calls I received," Vrabel said. "It's just really gratifying that people really do read it. I like that."

And the feedback Vrabel receives much of the time is from lawyers commenting on a new level of enthusiasm emerging from lawyers and the Massachusetts Bar Association - something that Vrabel hopes will continue to build and grow.

"The comment I've gotten most is that this year the energy level in the bar seems to have gone up a notch and I think that's good, because if you are happy and busy and your membership is up and you are looking outward instead of inward, I think that rubs off," Vrabel said.

Vrabel hopes this attitude continues in the coming years, particularly as the commonwealth faces some of its largest challenges to date with reorganization of the court system looming and the budgetary crisis.

"I think that with Judge (Robert) Mulligan coming in as the new Chief Justice of Administration and Management, I think there will be a positive change because of his ties to the legislature … I think Judge Mulligan will be a little more willing to work with the legislature and get things done.

"One of the problems the courts have had is they have been unwilling to tell their story and make their pitch," he said. "Now they are starting to do that … You can never hope status quo will sit there and hope it will always stay there."

Vrabel said he hopes the MBA will be able to continue its work on the task force to improve the court system and participate in a change to make things better than they are today.

Vrabel also launched an effort this year to involve attorneys from the corporate sector in MBA activities. As such, the In-House Counsel Practice Group was revived and the first In-House Counsel Conference was created.

Vrabel readily admits his tenure as president amounted to a lot of work.

"But I have to tell you this has been one of the most enjoyable years of my life," he said.

And he is equally enthusiastic about his successor, MBA President-Elect Richard C. Van Nostrand, who becomes president on Sept. 1.

"I think Rich is a terrific guy and the reason I'm so happy he's coming next," Vrabel said. "He's very even tempered, level headed and thinks before he shoots. He is a guy who will take a very measured approach to being president.

"Rich is a very thoughtful guy. He's not afraid to speak his mind. He is a good manager. He listens well. He relates well. He takes all opinions in before making a decision. I could never ask for more in a leader than that."