Recognizing quiet heroes

Issue April 2008 By David W. White Jr.

Each year, the president of the MBA has the pleasure and the privilege of giving a number of awards to lawyers around the state. The awards break down into a couple of different categories, most notably what lawyers have done to promote access to justice, and what lawyers have done to provide service to their community.

The two are quite different. The former category recognizes individuals for their achievements at work. So many Massachusetts lawyers have taken on careers helping those who have limited access to justice, and their work impacts the lives of these people directly. On top of that, they create and improve institutions, and they pave the way for others. We had the opportunity to honor many of these fine lawyers at our Access to Justice Awards Luncheon on March 6.

So many other lawyers contribute in hundreds of other ways in their communities, and while that work is not necessarily legal work, it enriches communities locally and even worldwide. The work can be as familiar as helping the girls’ softball team to as grand as building schools in Afghanistan. Each year, affiliated bar associations from across the commonwealth nominate members of their communities that proudly provide these services to receive MBA Community Services Awards. Each nomination brings with it a story of commitment and honor, selected from the many similar stories of the generosity of our colleagues. The work of so many others goes on every day without widespread recognition.

That is, in a way, no surprise. Each of the recipients I have had the pleasure of meeting has one thing in common: The work they do for the disadvantaged or for victims, or the volunteer work they do for their communities, is motivated not by a desire for recognition or acclaim, fame or fortune; it is motivated by selflessness, generosity and a strong sense of community. When they are recognized or thanked, they are most likely to be surprised and to try to pass the credit on to others.

Lawyers are, by any objective standard, a generous lot. We give of our time, and when we can, we give of our money too. The MBA membership survey conducted in 2005 found that most lawyers volunteer time in public service, bar-related or community activities, and that the average charitable contribution was over $2,500. Whether the calling is local, or farther away, such as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Massachusetts lawyers are among the first to stand up to help.

Perhaps it is because of this generosity that so many lawyers so roundly rejected the draft rule from the Supreme Judicial Court which would have mandated 25 hours of pro bono publico work per year. Disciplinary Rule 6.1, which is presently only aspirational, also provides an option for making donations instead of performing work.

At a discussion of the draft rule, so many bar association leaders stood up to denounce the concept of mandatory pro bono work. It is understandable that lawyers feel their volunteer efforts — for the bar, for the disadvantaged, or for their communities — should not be mandated or managed by our ethical rules. I personally hope that Rule 6.1 remains aspirational and inspirational, and that it does not become mandatory. I respect the right and ability of lawyers to make these choices.

That said, there still is a vast ocean of unmet legal needs, and we must all press for increased funding for legal aid in Massachusetts. This year, we are fortunate that Gov. Deval Patrick proposed a $2.5 million increase in the legal services budget. Even with that increase, it still falls far short of actual needs. Last year, legal services turned away about half of its eligible potential clients for lack of resources.

Not surprisingly, an investment in legal aid yields fabulous returns. For example, in the benefits area, a dollar spent advocating for federal or state benefits yields seven dollars for the client (and the Massachusetts economy) in the first year, and the benefits typically last another nine years. Every time a person can be kept in his or her home, homelessness costs are avoided. The list goes on.
Are you wondering what you can do? Each issue of Lawyers Journal includes information on getting involved, and there is even more information on the MBA Web site,

Perhaps this is not the best time for you to embark on your next volunteer venture. Sometimes the pressures of work and family keep many of us away from the volunteer work we would be happy to do. Opportunities will be waiting, you can be sure.

In closing, I offer you this quote not to engender guilt, but rather for reflection and inspiration.

“It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.”
— Jean-Baptiste Molière

As lawyers, we are not afraid to face our accounting, because we do so much. And so I thank you, fine members, for the many things you do each day that may go unrecognized by your colleagues.