Reflections on December 1909 for the MBA

Issue December 2009

One hundred years ago this month, on Dec. 22, 1909, the first organizational meeting of the Massachusetts Bar Association was held in Boston at the Hotel Somerset. The mission of our founders was stated as follows: "To cultivate the science of jurisprudence, to promote reform in the law, to facilitate the administration of justice, to further uniformity of legislation throughout the Union, to uphold the honor of the profession of law, and to encourage cordial intercourse among the members of the Massachusetts Bar …" At that first meeting, the Hon. Samuel G. Elder acknowledged the fact that the many other states had already established statewide bar associations, but received applause when he quoted Pope:

"Be not the first by whom the new is tried, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside."

Right from its inception (and contrary to the biases of the day), the MBA welcomed African-American members and immigrants, and by 1913, welcomed women members, making it one of the first bar associations in the country to do so. Geographic diversity was another hallmark of the early organization: two out of six presidents and five out of six vice presidents between 1910 and 1915 practiced law "in the far corners of the commonwealth."

Progressive as the newly minted MBA was, it is somewhat surprising to note that the requirements for becoming an attorney were so lax that a person applying to the bar need not have even completed high school, and judicial appointments were made without any checks or balances provided by input from the bar on competency.

I have often wondered what some of the founding members, including Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Louis Brandeis, would think now about what we have accomplished over the last 100 years.

We have made great strides in raising the professionalism of the legal community and we have made quantum leaps ahead in legal education, both in what we have done directly through the Mass. Bar, as well as our work as a founding partner of MCLE. The Uniform Probate Code signed into law earlier this year is a prime example of our legislative efforts. Our bench-bar collaborative work continues in full force, with examples ranging from the Joint Bar Committee (which rates as qualified or unqualified all prospective judicial nominees before the names are made public), to joint task forces on numerous important topics and a significant amount of coordinated work in lobbying for adequate court funding.

The two areas that are closest to my heart, though, are the areas of diversity and access to justice. As the eighth woman president of the association, I keenly feel the need to keep us moving in the direction of inclusiveness for all. I am immensely proud of the many, many hard-working MBA task forces and section councils, but perhaps none more than our Diversity Task Force, which is in the midst of revitalization and is blossoming under the able leadership of the Hon. Angela Ordoñez and April English.

One of the Diversity Task Force's most exciting new projects is its Tiered Community Mentoring program. In October, Justice Roderick Ireland gave the keynote speech to a group of 40 participants who have been teamed up as follows: each team has an attorney member of the MBA, a law student from Suffolk, a college student from Roxbury Community College, and a high school student from the John D. O'Bryant School of Math and Science. These teams will stay together for the year and provide mentoring, with suggested activities ranging from attending a trial to observing a House of Delegates meeting at the MBA. This mentoring program is the result of a significant amount of thought and planning by Judge Ordoñez, who is a visionary in designing programs that will make a real difference, as well as her co-chair, April English, also a hard-working and inspiring leader for the Mass. Bar.

In October, we were honored to co-sponsor the Long Road to Justice re-dedication in the Brooke Courthouse. Through our Diversity Task Force, we served as mentors to approximately 20 women who are formerly homeless or insecurely housed but are now succeeding in college and are interested in legal or law-related careers through the One Family Inc. program. Also in October, officers attended the Mass. Black Lawyer's Association Passing the Torch event for retiring and new African-American judges, as well as the gala dinner for the National Association of Asian Pacific American Lawyers Attorneys. The Mock Trial Program, which reaches hundreds of teenagers and their families throughout the commonwealth every year, is entering its 25th year.

The Equal Justice Coalition, of which the MBA is a founding partner, had its annual meeting with bar leadership and then with court leadership. EJC also honored six key legislators, and is well underway in its planning for the annual Walk to the Hill to lobby for legal aid funding on Jan. 27. Dial-A-Lawyer programs are held regularly, both for the general public as well as for veterans. The MBA celebrated October as Pro Bono Month, and our online Pro Bono Opportunity Guide now lists over 100 programs which are accepting volunteer attorneys.

With the MBA's first annual meeting on Dec. 10, 1910, and the official filing of our Articles of Organization on June 21, 1911, we have many important anniversaries coming up in the next two years. We are delighted that our Centennial Commission, led by the Hon. John Greaney (ret.), was scheduled to meet in early December to plan for our year of celebrations for the 2010-11 association year.

As a very human organization, we are far from perfect. We have not yet fully accomplished, once and for all, the goals set forth by our founders, nor is it realistic to expect that we will do so anytime soon. But in the meantime, it is appropriate to remind ourselves of our rich heritage, to remember that we are making tangible progress, and to find inspiration in the work that remains to be done.

1 All of the historical information in this column is taken from Robert J. Brink's excellent book, Fiat Justitia: A History of the Massachusetts Bar Association 1910 -1985. All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from this book.