Accomplished trial attorney, altruist takes MBA helm

Issue Sept/Oct 2009 By Tricia Oliver

As far back as age 5, Valerie A. Yarashus set her sights on becoming an attorney. Now 43, there has been very little that Yarashus has put her mind to that she has not achieved.

An accomplished plaintiff trial lawyer, Yarashus is a principal of Meehan, Boyle, Black & Bogdanow PC. Yarashus built much of her career at Sugarman and Sugarman PC, where the 1990 Harvard Law graduate cut her teeth as a trial attorney and quickly established herself as the firm's first female partner in 1996.

Yarashus' latest professional accolade came when she assumed the presidency of the Massachusetts Bar Association on Sept. 1.

An ambitious start

As a youngster, she watched episodes of the television series "The Rockford Files" with her father. One of its featured characters, a female attorney, made a strong impression on Yarashus. Her career aspirations would fluctuate over the years, but her desire to become an attorney remained the strongest.

"There is nothing else I'd rather be doing," she said.

Growing up outside of Annapolis, Maryland, Yarashus has called New England home since graduating from George Washington University.

Sugarman and Sugarman's Neil Sugarman, who hired Yarashus following her graduation from Harvard, described her as a "stand out" among the other applicants. "Valerie had a desire to practice plaintiff personal injury work from the very earliest [of her career] and she excelled at it," he said.

"Valerie learned quickly and absorbed the lessons" gained in her early career, according to Paul Sugarman. As a result, he said, she set goals and grew steadily.

"Valerie's success as a trial lawyer is hard to ignore," said David L. Yas, publisher and editor-in-chief of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. Yarashus' victories in many of Boston's high profile and big money cases have established her as "one of the more prominent, leading female attorneys in Boston," according to Yas. Those impressions made Yarashus worthy of being named an Up and Coming Attorney by the paper and later being inducted into its Hall of Fame.

All the while, Yarashus maintained a sense of helping people and trying to do what's right for people in need, according to Neil Sugarman. "That was her drive early on and she never lost it."

"Among the many credentials Valerie brings to her new office, her longstanding commitment to, and leadership on, diversity and mentoring in the legal profession particularly stand out, said Supreme Judicial Court Justice Roderick L. Ireland.

Ireland recalled meeting with Yarashus and one of her high school mentees, a young African-American woman, some time ago. "I was impressed not only by the student, but also by the depth of the relationship between the two. I could see that they had a special bond, and that Valerie was devoted to seeing the student succeed," said Ireland. The young woman is now a freshman at Harvard University. "Res ipsa loquitor," said Ireland.

"Mentoring is often just helping others to realize what they already know," says Yarashus, "and that's one thing lawyers do in the courtroom-help judges, jurors and even opponents realize the truth in the evidence before them."

No one can question her success at that. Yarashus has handled the full spectrum of litigation-from multi-million dollar medical malpractice and defective product cases to workplace injuries and automobile matters. According to Yarashus, she particularly enjoys working on cases in which she can help bring about safety-related changes for the future.

Polishing her craft

This past January, Yarashus entered the next phase of her career with Meehan, Boyle, Black & Bogdanow PC, in Boston.

"She is the single most thoughtful, prepared and fearless trial attorney I've met in nearly 20 years of practice," said law partner Brad Henry, who managed the Del Valle "Big Dig" ceiling collapse case. Henry has had the opportunity to work closely with Yarashus on a number of cases since she joined the firm.

"Every time I hear Val examine a witness, I learn something new about being a trial lawyer - thoughts about when in the course of a narrative to drive home a point, how to reorder a series of questions for maximum effect, what to best leave alone for later use on re-direct," he said.

Henry describes Yarashus as being on a non-stop quest to make the most out of every detail and pressing every advantage in each case she handles. "It's exhausting! But, it's also exhilarating and a joy to watch," Henry added.

"To quote our firm's John Carroll, 'I feel like we've acquired the legal equivalent of Tom Brady,'" said Leo V. Boyle, Yarashus' law partner and long-time mentor. "Valerie is the complete lawyer and person. She combines keen intelligence with impeccable judgment and a passion for service to others. It is amazing to watch her handle so much responsibility so calmly and elegantly. She's an inspiration.

Focusing on what she loves

Yarashus takes seriously the altruistic aspects of her chosen profession.

"It is important for my kids to know that I love what I do and I'm making a difference," said Yarashus, who enjoys being a mother to four children - Sarah (14), Rachel (10), Daniel (3) and Benjamin (2).

"I try to explain to them in an age-appropriate manner the difference I make by being there for my clients," said Yarashus, who has struck a comfortable balance between her trial work in Boston and her family life in Holliston.

"I have had the wonderful opportunity of going from one thing that I love to another," said Yarashus, who explained that it is always "important not to feel pulled." As she juggles her many professional and personal obligations and interests, Yarashus' method is matter-of-fact. "When I'm at work, I focus on work, and when I'm home, my focus is my family."

However, for Yarashus, her time and energy is not simply divided between her office and home. Volunteerism is at the core of her personal and professional worlds. She and her family volunteer at her church in Holliston and at "The Crossing" - a progressive church in Boston - where she serves lunch to the homeless each Monday.

Through all her personal and professional efforts, it is apparent that Yarashus places a high value on relationships. She explains that relationships help her prioritize her many obligations and put things into perspective.

"There is not anything that Valerie wouldn't do for me," said Diane Reynolds, one of Yarashus' closest friends. In 2003, at a time when Yarashus' had her hands full with two young daughters and an escalating career, Reynolds had to undergo surgery following a breast cancer diagnosis. When Yarashus learned of her friend's ordeal, she talked to Reynolds about helping her with post-operative recovery. Reynolds knew that Yarashus would have to make considerable adjustments in her home and work life to make the lengthy trip to San Antonio, so she tried to dissuade Yarashus from doing so.

However, Yarashus got things in order in New England and flew out to help her friend. Yarashus describes that as a defining decision that taught her about priorities. "Looking back, I can't remember what the work was that I left behind, but I vividly remember how appreciative Diane was that I was there for her."

From that decision and others since, Yarashus has learned that "all we have to give in life is our presence."

This was her guiding consideration when Yarashus decided to adopt her two sons at a time when she was on the officer track for the MBA and her career continued to thrive. Yarashus feels the decision to adopt Daniel paved the way in making the decision to adopt Benjamin that much easier. Benjamin's medical condition rendered him too ill to be transferred by MedFlight to Boston and required Yarashus to live in Kansas City on and off for eight weeks. Fortunately, much flexibility was extended from opposing counsel.

Despite the two lengthy adoption processes, Yarashus and her family can't imagine life without its two youngest members.

"Sarah and Rachel have told me that they thought adopting Daniel and Benjamin was the best thing we did as a family," said Yarashus.

Raising the bar

Like with her other life priorities, Yarashus appreciates that her bar involvement makes a difference.

Throughout her work as an MBA officer since 2004, Yarashus has accomplished much. Prior to serving as president-elect in the 2008-09 association year, she served as treasurer following two customary terms as vice president. A past chair of the Health Law Section and a former member of the Civil Litigation Section Council, she is a frequent speaker and writer for continuing legal education programs and helped to establish a bench-bar task force for plain English jury instructions. Yarashus established the MBA Diversity Task Force and served as the chair from 2005-07. She is an Oliver Wendell Holmes Life Fellow of the Massachusetts Bar Foundation (the philanthropic partner of the MBA) and has served on its grant advisory committee.

In addition to serving as a long-time officer and ultimately president of Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys (2002-03), Yarashus remains an active member of its Board of Governors.

"Valerie was really instrumental to bringing strength and sound oversight to our organization," said Christopher Milne, who began his presidency of MATA on July 1. When Milne joined MATA's officer ranks as secretary four years ago, it was Yarashus' advice he sought as he prepared to ascend the track to its presidency.

Yarashus is also active in the American Association for Justice (formerly the American Trial Lawyers Association), from which she was awarded the prestigious Weidermann Wysocki "Citation of Excellence" for her commitment to the civil justice system. Yarashus is also a member of the Massachusetts Women's Bar Association.

Yarashus' shared commitment and interest in bar association work with her close colleagues inspired the creation of Yarashus, Wagner, Cook, Freiberger and Washienko LLC in Boston. Although Yarashus spent a brief period of time there before leaving to join Meehan Boyle, the firm's founding principles remain important to her.

A productive year on the MBA horizon

In her capacity as president-elect of the MBA over the last 12 months, Yarashus has been thoughtfully preparing for her turn at the helm. She is now the seventh woman to serve as president during the MBA's nearly century-long history.

Technology, preserving access to justice and enhancing diversity in the profession will be Yarashus' top priorities for the 2009-10 association year. She will also work to ensure the MBA's benefits and programming bring about greater efficiencies for practicing attorneys, allowing them to strike a better balance between the office and home.

Yarashus plans on continuing two of her signature initiatives. Yarashus sees the continued work of the Diversity Task Force as being instrumental in fostering greater diversity among MBA leadership and membership as a whole.

In tandem with these efforts, Yarashus will continue the MBA Leadership Roundtables. She co-founded the series with immediate Past President Edward W. McIntyre two years ago. Building on its early success, Yarashus has charged her fellow officers to join her in leading one of the roundtables - run much like a book club - in the 2009-10 association year. Yarashus will lead the first meeting in October, where the discussion will center on Groundswell, a book about the power of social networking. On that topic, Yarashus plans on expanding the MBA's social networking presence well beyond its presence on networks like Twitter, which has already drawn nearly 400 followers in just eight weeks.

The roundtables are open to members of the MBA's Executive Management Board, section council chairs and members of the Diversity Task Force. Yarashus recognizes the importance of the roundtables as two-fold - developing relationships with current and aspiring bar leaders and the opportunity to discuss leadership principles.

Learned leadership principles will not only benefit the attorney's work in the association, but they can trickle over to help that attorney in his or her firm. "Someone may be a terrific lawyer, but no one has necessarily taught him or her to be an effective leader." Yarashus explained that the program helps with that development.

The roundtables will serve as just one of many channels through which Yarashus intends to do her part in helping to groom the next generation of legal professionals. Yarashus, herself, benefitted greatly from the wisdom of those who served as her mentors, including Paul and Neil Sugarman and Leo Boyle. She takes the time to pay that forward.

In addition to being a "superb lawyer," Yarashus has a "great deal of desire to fulfill a public commitment," according to Paul Sugarman.

Justice Ireland concurred. "I predict a great year for the MBA under the leadership of Valerie Yarashus, a year in which not just the legal profession will benefit from her vision, but every citizen of the commonwealth will as well," he said.