In defense of the Mass. Bar

I rarely use this blog as a soapbox, but, as a long-time member of the Massachusetts Bar Association, I cannot let David Giacalone’s post about it (bar & guild) go unanswered. I do not have the time to respond in as much detail as he has posted, but the picture he paints of the MBA (and of Massachusetts lawyers in general) is so far off the mark that I cannot remain quiet.

I often agree with David and, when I don’t, I nonetheless respect his opinion. But his portrayal of the MBA as a self-serving “guild” with little concern for the interests of clients and the public is just wrong.

First off, let’s make clear that Mass. is not an integrated bar – membership in the MBA is voluntary. In that sense, the MBA is very much like a guild, using the definition David links to: “An association of persons of the same trade or pursuits, formed to protect mutual interests and maintain standards.” Lawyers join the MBA in part because they expect to derive benefits from being part of this larger organization. Some of these benefits are quite tangible – savings on insurance premiums, CLE discounts and association publications – while others are less so – a community of peers, a voice on Beacon Hill. David uses “guild” as if it is a dirty word. It is not. Yes, associations represent the interests of their members – that is what they are supposed to do and that is why members join in the first place.

But be very clear: The membership of the MBA has a strong interest in public service. To the extent that the MBA exists to serve its members’ interests, it has always placed public service high among its priorities. I speak from first-hand experience as a member of the MBA who has served on multiple committees and also as the one-time editor of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly who covered the MBA as an outsider. Through the direct work of the MBA and also through the work of its charitable foundation, the Mass. Bar Foundation (of which I am a life member), the MBA is engaged in an extensive range of activities aimed at making legal services more available and at educating the public about legal rights and responsibilities.

Yes, the MBA has been a strong advocate for fair pay for public defenders. This is an issue that is in the interest of lawyers AND clients AND the public. Fairer pay for public defenders translates into better qualified, more experienced lawyers for the clients. The better the representation indigent clients receive, the better the criminal justice system works overall.

And yes, the MBA has voiced concern about pro-se litigants and self-help organizations. But to paint this as monopolistic is a gross distortion of the issue, akin to chastising an MD for advising a patient not to treat his own illness. Sometimes an aspirin isn’t enough. The concern about self-help is that people will not seek legal advice when legal advice is called for. As for self-help organizations, some are legitimate and useful, but some are shady operations whose most likely victims are indigent and non-English-speaking people who in fact should be dealing with a lawyer.

This is not about lining lawyers’ pockets. In attempting to educate pro se litigants about the need for counsel, the MBA has at the same time worked to make counsel available, regardless of ability to pay. The MBA has one of the best lawyer referral services in the nation. It regularly conducts dial-a-lawyer programs to provide free answers to legal questions. It places lawyers in courthouses to assist pro se litigants with forms and procedural questions. It sends lawyers to classrooms to educate students about the law. It maintains a Web site, Mass. Law Help, to educate the public about the law. It provides mentors for young lawyers to ensure they are properly serving their clients.

One might forget, reading David’s post, that his primary target is the MBA’s report on lawyer discipline. Opinions will differ on the report’s conclusions, and David is entitled to his. As David notes, legal ethicist Ben Cowgill refers favorably to the report. But for David to take his concerns with this report and use them to paint a broad-brush picture of the MBA as a greedy, monopolistic entity, unconcerned with clients or the public, is a distortion of truth. To me, membership in the MBA is a cornerstone of my public service. It is a guild to which I am proud to belong, because the overriding interest of its members is the protection of the public’s legal rights.