Getting back to basics

Issue September/October 2017 By Mike Vigneux

When Christopher P. Sullivan became a lawyer more than 40 years ago, he took an oath - the same oath that Massachusetts attorneys still take today when being sworn in.

The oldest attorney's oath in the United States, it reads: "I solemnly swear that I will do no falsehood, nor consent to the doing of any in court; I will not wittingly or willingly promote or sue any false, groundless or unlawful suit, nor give aid or consent to the same; I will delay no man for lucre or malice; but I will conduct myself in the office of an attorney within the courts according to the best of my knowledge and discretion, and with all good fidelity as well to the courts as my clients. So help me God." (Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 221, Section 38)

For Sullivan, who began his year as president of the Massachusetts Bar Association on Sept. 1, the basic concepts in the oath still hold true today, especially in times of uncertainty. What he refers to as "bedrock legal principles," such as the rule of law, due process, access to justice and equal protection, are fundamental aspects of the special role that lawyers play in society.

A partner at Robins Kaplan LLP in Boston, Sullivan plans to emphasize these basic legal principles throughout the association year. He also hopes to encourage lawyers to think more about their citizenship and civic responsibilities in becoming what he calls "attorney citizens." Sullivan remembers a time 30 years ago when half of the elected state legislators in Massachusetts were lawyers - a percentage that has dropped significantly since that time. He thinks lawyers have a duty to get more involved in civic matters and should also consider being more politically active, including running for elected office.

Another priority for Sullivan is to strengthen the bar's relationship with the judiciary by defending it and explaining certain controversial or difficult court rulings or decisions. According to Sullivan, the judiciary is often constrained by the law or judicial ethics when making decisions, such as the granting of parole to defendants in certain criminal matters, as well as issuing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Depending on the case, a judge might have little or no discretion in determining the outcome based on the law. Instances such as these are where Sullivan sees the bar as having a role in educating the public as why the court decided what it did.

"The organized bar has an obligation to not only defend the judiciary, but to explain how the system works," he said.

But perhaps Sullivan's most important priority for 2017-18 is reinforcing the notion that the MBA is the bar association for every lawyer across the state, regardless of location or practice area.

"The MBA is the home for every single lawyer in the commonwealth of Massachusetts," said Sullivan.

He hopes to work closely with the MBA's section councils, which he refers to as the "heart and soul of the MBA." Each section council will appoint a person to serve as a liaison to other affiliated bar associations (geographic, ethnic, substantive, affinity) as a means to collaborate and co-sponsor events and CLE programs. Within the MBA, Sullivan plans to take advantage of the natural symmetry that exists between section councils, such as the the Sole Practitioner & Small Firm and Law Practice Management section councils and the Young Lawyers Division to present outstanding CLEs and work on other projects of mutual interest.

"Chris brings a wealth of legal knowledge and a very keen business sense to the role of MBA president," said MBA Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin W. Healy "The MBA has greatly benefitted from his passion to strengthen the MBA and the legal profession at large throughout his service as one of our officers.

"I have heard from many of our members how open and welcoming Chris has been to them," Healy continued. "Personally, he is a great role model to me and represents the best the legal community has to offer."

From New York to Boston
Although Sullivan has been a practicing attorney in Massachusetts for four decades, he is a native of New York City and a graduate of Xavier High School, a Jesuit military high school in Manhattan - the same school once attended by former Supreme Court Justice Antonin G. Scalia. A graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, where U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was a classmate, and Fordham University Law School, Sullivan began his legal career as a special assistant attorney general for the state of New York, working with the Office of the Special Prosecutor during its investigation and prosecution of official corruption within New York City's criminal justice system.

In Massachusetts, Sullivan entered private practice with Fine & Ambrogne before co-founding Carolan, Sullivan & Greeley, where he worked for 13 years prior to Robins Kaplan. He has served as vice president for the First Circuit of the Federal Bar Association, as well as president of the Federal Bar Association's Massachusetts chapter. Sullivan has been an MBA officer since 2012, serving as chair of the MBA's Membership Committee and as a member of the MBA's Executive Management Board.

Growing up, Sullivan remembers watching Perry Mason on television and always thought being a lawyer would be something he could excel at. Being an attorney also appealed to him because it could open other doors for him in the business realm.

"Someone once told me that getting a law degree qualifies you to do a lot of different things," said Sullivan, who has been at Robins Kaplan since 1994, focusing on complex litigation involving financial and securities cases and intellectual property.

Despite being a native New Yorker, Sullivan is now a big fan of the New England Patriots since becoming a Massachusetts resident many years ago and is a season ticket holder for the five-time Super Bowl champions. Like the Patriots motto of "Do your job," Sullivan focuses on collective goals rather than self-promotion. Describing his individual work ethic, Sullivan quotes former President Ronald Reagan who once said, "There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit."

In that mindset, Sullivan expects the MBA to get a lot accomplished in 2017-18 through a collective brand of leadership that embraces a system of teamwork and collaboration with shared accolades and achievements.