"Open Dialogue" forum provides valuable feedback to courts

Issue July/August 2009 By Tricia M. Oliver


Beginning in May 2008, a series of five Open Dialogue sessions were held across the state. Each session welcomed local judges, attorneys and court personnel to engage in frank conversation on court operations.

"Any opportunity for the bench and bar to openly share their perspectives can only be beneficial," said Massachusetts Bar Association President Edward W. McIntyre.

The MBA served as the statewide sponsor for the series and was integral in its coordination and promotion. The SJC's Court Management Advisory Board (CMAB) was the driving force on the series, and additional local support was provided by local and county bar associations.

Michael B. Keating, a partner at Foley Hoag LLP in Boston, was appointed chair of CMAB by the Supreme Judicial Court to advise on all matters of court administration. He called the Open Dialogue series "a very successful process" for bringing together judges and attorneys to discuss matters of common interest.

"Many attorneys commented that the Open Dialogue was the first occasion they have ever had to talk to the judges before whom they appear about how things work - or don't work- from the attorney's perspective," he said.

"Many very helpful ideas emerged to improve our court system, and that is very much at the heart of what the Court Management Advisory Board is all about," Keating said.

Sessions were held in Brockton, Lawrence, Boston, Springfield and Worcester. Collectively, the series drew feedback from more than 1,000 members of the Massachusetts bar.

"This has been an im portant management tool to find out how we're doing," said Francis S. Moran Jr., legal counsel to the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.

Some of the suggestions have already been implemented. Worcester District Court First Justice Paul F. LoConto, who was co-facilitator of the Worcester session in October 2008, said a change made on a trial basis in civil cases has been successful. District Court Chief Justice Lynda M. Connolly granted Worcester District Court an exemption from a standing order that requires lawyers to attend a case management conference. Lawyers are able to bypass the conference if they can certify that they have communicated and accomplished the same goals before the conference takes place, freeing up schedules for both lawyers and judges.

"It's working very well," LoConto said. "I know it's successful in Worcester, and I think it has applications in every court and could be useful statewide."

LoConto, who co-chairs the Worcester Bar Association's District Court Committee, was enthusiastic about the frank discussions that lawyers and judges had at Worcester's Open Dialogue.

Robert L. Holloway Jr., vice president of the MBA, was involved in sessions that took place in the Land Court and Superior Court and found those in which he participated to be open and candid as well. Holloway explained that given the court's continued struggle with insufficient resources, now, more than ever, it is important for such dialogue to take place.

"Even modest suggestions offered by the bar can streamline a portion of court operations," said Holloway. "It is a win-win."

Martha Rush O'Mara, who tries most of her cases in Boston Juvenile Court, participated in two of the Open Dialogue sessions. Rush O'Mara found both sessions to be well attended.

"This was an opportunity for attorneys to ask questions that they often don't have a chance to ask," said Rush O'Mara, much of the conversation at the Juvenile Court session in Boston concentrated on time standards, but questions on other topics were posed by attorneys, including the possibility of hearings taking place in the evening to better serve clients' schedules. Overall, she found the sessions to be productive and the participating judges to be "attentive and responsive."

A summary of the Open Dialogue on Court Practices series can be found on the court's Web site by visiting and clicking on "Report on Open Dialogues on Court Practices."

"This is only the beginning," said McIntyre. "Because our system is forever evolving, these conversations need to be continuous."

Holloway added, "I hope even more attorneys participate should these programs continue, as I believe they would find this exercise very useful."

Following a series of "Open Dialogue on Court Practices" sessions conducted over the last year, Massachusetts courts have gained important feedback regarding court operation improvements from the perspective of trial attorneys.