Massachusetts Bar Association President Douglas K. Sheff's year
has been marked by heightened engagement between lawyers and the
public. Sheff took steps to improve the visibility of the legal
profession's generous nature. He invited the public to be more than
just clients, but partners working together in support of our
system of justice. Sheff was also recognized for making landmark
strides to improve the lives of workers, and sought to promote
underrepresented segments of the population.
More than just accomplishments of a successful year, each of
these efforts represent important victories on the road to
improving the public image of lawyers - one of Sheff's goals from
the outset of his presidency.
Sheff grew up viewing lawyers and judges as leaders and
caretakers of their community, and continued to see this in action
throughout his 30 years in practice. However, aware that negative
stereotypes often cling to the legal profession, he resolved to
shed light on the charitable nature of members.
"Lawyers and judges are good folks, givers of their time," Sheff
says. "They give back an average of 56 hours a year in pro bono
time (according to a 2013 report by the American Bar Association).
That's not mandated; [it's] just part of our ethical code."
He encouraged MBA members to continue supporting established
public outreach efforts, and to seek new opportunities. Members
rose to the opportunity. The turkey drive helped feed nearly 2,000
people on Thanksgiving, more than 600 families in the Boston area.
Members also contributed to a lawyer-backed project to fight
homelessness at the Pine Street Inn. The Young Lawyers Division
partnered with Cradles to Crayons to collect new and like-new
children's items and warm winter gear as part of its Gear Up for
When tragedy struck Boston with the Marathon bombings, nearly 90
MBA members immediately turned to the public's aid. Programs such
as the Marathon Bombing Victims Legal Assistance Program and the
MBA's special Dial-A-Lawyer programs ensured that victims knew
their rights, had their medical records properly reviewed and
received compensation due to them. Support continued as victims and
families navigated the difficult year ahead, with pro bono efforts
providing support to 25 individuals injured in the blasts.
"Lawyers often have dinners where we recognize a member and give
out an award. These dinners aren't heard by the public," Sheff
observed. "This year we had every major news outlet report
something positive about our attorneys and judges."
Rights for all workers
Sheff himself was honored this year for his efforts on
behalf of workers' rights. The Workers' Injury Law and Advocacy
Group (WILG) presented Sheff with the Special Recognition Award for
Innovation and Community Service in recognition of his role in
spearheading the MBA's Workplace Safety Task Force, which is part
of his Working Families Initiative.
Composed of a diverse representation of industries, individuals
on the task force studied statewide trends in workplace safety,
with a focus on reducing injuries and deaths in the workplace. They
also promoted education and awareness of workers' rights, and
raised awareness in many communities throughout Massachusetts.
The task force played a major part in getting the Right to Know
Bill passed in 2012, after the bill had failed nine times
previously. The Right to Know Bill mandates that workers receive
basic information about their employer and their legal rights,
which is particularly important for temporary workers who often
lack this knowledge.
The Workplace Safety Task Force was so successful, it was dubbed
the "Sheff Model" and is being used as a prototype for other states
pursuing similar initiatives, including California, Illinois, New
York, Connecticut and Missouri.
"I was thrilled to be honored by this national organization. But
what's twice as nice is having a role in inspiring other groups
across the country, to see our work duplicated and grow over the
years," says Sheff. "My vision is to one day see them all join
together, sharing one project."
Sheff and the MBA's contributions to workers' rights are
ongoing. Just recently, two other MBA-backed workers' bills were
signed into law: the Burial Bill and the Domestic Workers Bill. The
Burial Bill increases burial compensation from its previous amount
of $4,000 to eight times the average weekly wage in Massachusetts.
The Domestic Workers Bill protects and establishes work standards
for nannies, homecare workers and house cleaners who work in homes
and are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Allies in funding:
The 12 for 12 program
Viewing the public as more than just consumers to the
legal profession, Sheff created the "12 for 12" program, which
calls upon the public as partners in the goal of securing proper
court funding. Through the program, he asked 12,000 lawyers to ask
12 of their clients to write to their legislators, advocating the
need for adequate court funding. This push took place during the
critical 12 week period open to budget deliberations after the
governor announced his budget proposal.
"It's a new unique program, based on the idea that the message
would be stronger if it came from more than just the lawyers and
judges, but from the people," he explains. "With the unique
geographical distribution of the MBA, we're in a good position to
While there's no metric with which to measure the success of the
program, the feedback Sheff received was positive.
"Participating attorneys have told me their clients were
grateful to be heard," he says. "The legislature hears plenty from
lawyers and judges, but hearing from constituents shows that we all
want the same thing."
Traumatic brain injury: an invisible epidemic
One of the causes Sheff is most passionate about is
raising support and awareness for victims of Traumatic Brain Injury
"Each year, 2.4 million people suffer from a Traumatic Brain
Injury and their case is often mishandled. In the military, there
[is] an average of 22 suicides per day linked to head injury,"
He is now creating a multi-profession task force, similar to the
Worker's Rights Task Force, to address this problem. The group will
study the current state of TBI victim's rights, advocate for
solutions to any shortcomings discovered, and promote
"We want to provide help to the folks who need it, to educate
the public, and to overcome bias which often accompanies an ailment
that you can't easily see, that people aren't familiar with," he
Sheff says the marathon attacks strengthened his resolve to
reach out to this population, as many victims of TBI are still
"This population needs a voice. The TBI task force effort just
shows the willingness of the bar to motivate another diverse
group," says Sheff, who will remain committed to this effort beyond
New opportunities will continue
During the past year, the MBA House of Delegates voted
unanimously to create two new sections: the Complex Commercial
Litigation Section, and the Workers' Compensation Section.
The Workers' Compensation Section is the first of its kind in
Massachusetts and provides Workers' Compensation lawyers much
deserved representation at the MBA. The Complex Commercial
Litigation Section is intended to create a home for complex
commercial litigators, many of whom practice before the Superior
Court's Business Litigation Section or in the federal courts.
Sheff is pleased to add these new sections and to create new
opportunities within the organization.
Sheff is proud of the accomplishments of the MBA over the past
year and looks forward to seeing it continue to thrive under
incoming president, Marsha V. Kazarosian.
"The MBA's goals will never stop; ideas are always picked up and
continued by the next leader," he says. "We don't erase the board
and start over."