National recognition for local achievements: MBA's social causes earn ABA recognition

Issue January 2011 By Tricia M. Oliver

As the Massachusetts Bar Association neared its 50th anniversary of existence, a portion of the association's focus was beginning to concentrate on public service. The MBA was gaining traction across the state and growing its membership and prominence.

The MBA was also getting recognized at a national level, specifically with accolades from the American Bar Association, including its Award of Merit. In addition, more modern times brought forth ABA recognition in the form of the prestigious Harrison Tweed Award, bestowed upon the MBA in 2007.

Important precursor to Law Day

Among the ABA recognition received in the 1950s was an Award of Merit for the MBA's 1954 Massachusetts Heritage Program. The program was an outgrowth of the Good Citizenship Program, first established in 1952 by then president Samuel P. Sears. The Good Citizenship Program placed a prominent lawyer in every high school in the commonwealth to impress upon the students the importance of the judicial system.

Sears first established the program following his sense of a broadening cynicism in the state and across the nation, combined with his perception of an impending Communist threat.

Sears said, "I thought high school students should know this -- they're the ones who'll run things within a few years. And I thought they should also know -- hear from the lips of lawyers, men who are in our courts daily -- that the fight for our kind of system did not come easy."

Although Sears' version of this influential program ended when his term came to a close in 1952, its impact was carried on by president Robert W. Bodfish in 1954. Under Bodfish, the program re-emerged as the Massachusetts Heritage Program. This version was accompanied by much publicity; so much so, that Massachusetts Gov. Christian A. Hertner proclaimed December 1954 as "Massachusetts Heritage Month."

Due to its sweeping success, the ABA bestowed the MBA with its Award of Merit and used its model to create ABA's Law Day, still celebrated across the nation on May 1 annually.

Unveiling inhumane treatment of mentally ill

Among the other programs honored by the ABA was the MBA's vital role in reforming the state's laws pertaining to the mentally ill. Enacted in 1970, the new code in Massachusetts represented a national model for how to protect the rights of these patients.

Many attributed such reform to MBA President Paul Tamburello's (1966-68) tour of Bridgewater State Hospital, which helped bring to light the inhumane conditions for mentally ill patients. The work of Tamburello and the leadership of the MBA on this issue earned the association another ABA Award of Merit.

Tamburello's efforts to reform Bridgewater State Hospital exemplified a shift in the MBA's focus from more conventional professional issues to problems of broader social concern. Tamburello's efforts caught the attention of then Gov. John A. Volpe, who referred the matter to then Attorney General Elliot Richardson to investigate.

Richardson enlisted MBA volunteers, including Tamburello, to represent more than 200 patients during the initial competency hearings. The investigation ultimately led to the 1970 passing of legislation to protect the rights and interests of the mentally ill in Massachusetts.

MBA expands membership, scope

For the third time in seven years, the MBA received another ABA Award of Merit, in 1974. When President Frederick G. Fisher Jr. accepted the award, membership numbers had doubled since five years earlier and its programming was thriving. The ABA acknowledged the success of the MBA when compared to peer voluntary bar associations across the nation.

Many of the programs which Fisher cited for the MBA's sustained success were the Lawyer Referral Service, the Committee on Judicial Complaints, the Committee of Public Education and the Committee on Administration of Justice and Trial Practice.

"The MBA has in the past and will in the future fashion its programs in the public interest," wrote Fisher, "and the reward to lawyers will automatically follow." During Fisher's term, more than 900 members were engaged in the association's 35 committees and the association's membership accounted for 65 percent of the Massachusetts bar.

Longtime advocacy for legal aid funding

More recently, in 2007, the MBA received the Harrison Tweed Award, an honor it shared with the Boston Bar Association. The MBA and BBA were recognized for their longstanding commitment to advocating for legal services funding.

Specifically, the prestigious honor applauded both organizations' effort to expand the Massachusetts Equal Justice Coalition and secure funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

The bars also encouraged the Committee for Public Counsel Services to establish and maintain quality controls of indigent defense services, and advocated for adequate compensation for public defenders and assigned counsel.

MLAC nominated the MBA and BBA for the national honor. "We are deeply grateful that the fundamental American value of justice is kept alive in Massachusetts through the dedication of both the Massachusetts and Boston bar associations," said MLAC Executive Director Lonnie Powers following the announcement.

Material from
Fiat Justitia: A History of the Massachusetts Bar Association, 1910-1985 by Robert J. Brink, was used for this article.