President Harnais: From Humble Beginnings To The Highest Office

Issue July/August 2016 By Joe Kourieh

Rewinding back a few decades, few of even the most prescient law professionals around Boston would have expected the curious Quincy kid nosing around the local courthouses to be, in August of 2016, rounding off a successful year as president of the Massachusetts Bar Association.

But as that kid, Robert W. Harnais, would demonstrate to his peers, going beyond what's merely expected is the first step to becoming truly respected.

That's why Harnais has spent the last year traversing the four corners of the commonwealth getting to intimately know its countless communities, from the bay to the Berkshires. He has taken steps to ease the impact of the current opioid crisis on those communities and made bold strides to foster unity and camaraderie in the legal profession.

Harnais is humble about the leadership role he has held at the MBA and about the importance of the legal community in society.

"As lawyers, we provide a product, and that product is justice," he said. "The product is people's rights, and their protection. The product is representing people to the utmost, all the time.

"Justice is like breathing," he added, quoting an old trial adage. "You don't think about it until you don't have it - until you really need it."

Cultural Background

The winding road that brought Harnais to an MBA presidency began when his Argentinean parents took the leap that countless immigrants before them did in hopes of a more prosperous life, and headed to the U.S.

Harnais said being a first-generation immigrant was never an obstacle for him personally, but recalled feeling embarrassed and even ashamed to be the son of non-native parents, only later realizing the strength required of them to live that life.

"As you get older you're ashamed that you were ashamed," he said. "I didn't see it as an obstacle, but I saw my parents struggle with it more. As I look back I realize more what a brave thing it was that they did, to come to the States. … They struggled, for good or bad. They struggled for me."

Harnais has always made a point to stay loyal to his roots and lobby for greater inclusion and diversity in regard to Latinos in the law - something he noticed was lacking.

"It's the second biggest community in the state - and yet there were only seven Hispanic judges in this whole state," he said, referring to the time when he was president of the Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys (MAHA) in the mid-2000s. "The court's supposed to be reflective of the community."

As part of his MBA involvement, Harnais has served as the chair of the MBA's Diversity Task Force, and as president of the association he continued to lift up the Hispanic law community, both at home and abroad. This year, the MBA was proud to host an event with visiting Cuban law school deans.


Locally, for the lawyers of the commonwealth, Harnais is known for his call for professional unity. During his presidency, he established a Committee on Civility and Professionalism.

Harnais described his aim of dulling the "cutthroat" nature that he has witnessed in lawyers toward lawyers, and towards clients.

The harm that a bad lawyer can do was illustrated to Harnais early on, when one of his first bosses consistently lied to a client whose home was being foreclosed upon, assuring him he could remain there. Finally realizing the manipulation, the client barricaded himself in the house. It was left to Harnais to talk him down.

"He was desperate. He relied on a lawyer to help him, but he was lied to," he said. Although the incident was an extreme one, Harnais realized that it was a corruption of justice and moral duty, and only added to the pop culture reputation of lawyers as deceptive and manipulative.

Harnais expects his peers to make a living as best they can - with a degree, office space and a respectable income - but he believes that the public will come to admire the legal community more when it treats these as the means rather than the end.

"All that's the business part of it; what people really respect is when you do that extra step, and you care - you sincerely care. You go above and beyond."

"That's what's respected of people in every profession," he added.


It's easy to talk about "community" as an abstract concept, but in the practical sense it's composed of one main thing: people. For the idea of community to function in a positive way, the people must live in a state of general safety and wellbeing. In Massachusetts, as in many communities around the nation, that wellbeing is being threatened by drug and alcohol abuse.

During Harnais' presidency, a Section 35 Helpline was launched to help those individuals seeking court-ordered inpatient treatment for a family member or friend struggling with opioid and alcohol addiction.

As part of the Section 35 Helpline, lawyers involved in the free legal service are available to provide moral support and guidance to family members during court proceedings.

"The reality is, the lawyer doesn't do much when he or she is there. But the parents will tell you that having the lawyer there with you in court when you're doing this makes it a little bit easier," he said. "It's never easy. But knowing there's somebody next to me is a great feeling."

"Is this a cure to the problem? Absolutely not," Harnais said. "But it's something we as lawyers can do to try and help people who are suffering."

"In his year as president, Bob has been able to bring our legal community closer together by drawing attention to civility within our profession," said Martin W. Healy, MBA chief legal counsel and chief operating officer. "His tireless work to launch our Section 35 Helpline has also addressed a strong need in our local communities for families struggling with a loved one's drug and alcohol addiction."


Though a dedicated MBA officer, Harnais is looking forward to spending more time with his family, including a newly arrived granddaughter. In addition, he realizes he has to get back to work (at Mahoney & Harnais in Quincy) because he has found out his family thinks food is a necessity.

"The MBA has a great future," he said. "The team coming up, led by president-elect Jeff Catalano, has great ideas and a lot of energy."

For his part, Catalano doesn't intend on diverting too far from the course on which Harnais and his predecessors have set the MBA. He said he respects and has admired Harnais' style of leading from behind.

"He doesn't impose," Catalano said. "He suggests ideas, he invites feedback. He understands what it's like to be a leader."

In particular, leadership is something that Catalano will focus on building in the upcoming generation of lawyers, through programs such as a Leadership Academy and enhanced interaction with the city's incubator program run between several area law schools.

"So many people have to start on their own, and don't have senior partners to look up to - we want to be that entity. That's what we're there for. … We want to train people to have big vision, and to be at the forefront of everything that matters in society," Catalano said, adding that the aim is ultimately to make the profession "more enjoyable" for all.

Of his presidency, Harnais said, "We all have to deal with serious issues in our lives, and as lawyers we deal with them all the time, but when you have a moment to enjoy, enjoy it."