The Boston Bar Association: An Organization Devoted To Public Service

Friday, October 1, 2004 - 00:00

Editor: Your law firm, Roach & Carpenter, has an interesting history. Would you tell our readers something about its origins and subsequent evolution?

Carpenter: Five of us, all women in the Civil Division at the U.S. Attorney's Office, left government service 15 years ago to start a law firm. It opened in September of 1989. Since that time, two have left to become judges and one to join another firm. Two of us remain, the only partners in the firm at this point.

Editor: Please tell us about the challenges that a small law firm faces today. I am thinking of a very competitive environment in which large firms, with extensive resources and a deep bench, appear to be the dominant players. How does a firm like yours compete?

Carpenter: Being competitive means meeting client needs. Technology - things like email, electronic filing, and so on - has leveled the playing field to a considerable degree. There are matters on which we are not suited to compete with the big firms, but there are a great many things that we can do, with leaner staffing and technology support, that align precisely with client needs. Doing things in a cost-effective way also helps to make a small firm like ours competitive.

Editor: Please tell us about your practice.

Carpenter: I concentrate my practice in bankruptcy and creditors' rights. In addition, I am engaged in commercial litigation, in both state and federal courts.

Editor: I understand that you are the first bankruptcy lawyer to head the Boston Bar Association. How did you come to the Association?

Carpenter: When we started our firm 15 years ago, I was encouraged by others to get involved in the Boston Bar Association, and particularly the Bankruptcy Law Committee, which was the "place to be" for bankruptcy lawyers. It was, among other things, a way to meet others in the field, and this included both senior partners from some of the leading firms in Boston to newly-minted associates. In addition, I found the group to be very welcoming and a wonderful source of advice and encouragement on all of the issues we face in the practice of law. The BBA has been a second home for me from the very beginning of my involvement.

Editor: You have been active at the BBA for many years. What have been the highlights of your BBA career?

Carpenter: Certainly the first highlight was being asked to be the Chair of the Bankruptcy Law Committee by the outgoing Chair, Joel Rosenthal, who is now one of our Bankruptcy Court judges. That was a signal honor, and I enjoyed my two years of leading the Committee tremendously. It also gave me a start in my involvement in leadership at the BBA.

Editor: You are going to be inducted as President of the Boston Bar Association in September. Is Renée Landers going to be a tough act to follow?

Carpenter: Absolutely! Renée has been a wonderful President. She has been a wonderful spokesperson for the values of the Boston Bar Association. She has a passionate belief in the importance of access to justice for everyone, and she is a tremendous role model for women and for attorneys of color. I have some very big shoes to try to fill.

Editor: What are some of the principal issues before the BBA today?

Carpenter: The adequacy of compensation for bar advocates is a major issue, one that the BBA looks at as an access to justice issue. The bar advocates act to protect the constitutional rights of our indigent defendants, and without adequate compensation it is very difficult for them to do so. The Association has a very strong position on this, as do the Governor, the Legislature and the Attorney General, of course. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has unanimously determined that the level of compensation is entirely unacceptable, however, so we believe the matter is going to receive a full airing. We intend to be at the center of that discussion.

Editor: Another issue is the proposed expansion of the Business Session of the Superior Court.

Carpenter: The Boston Bar Association took a lead on the formation of the Business Session. It has been a spectacular success. The litigants who have appeared there are unstinting in their praise for the caliber of the judges - people who really understand complex business questions - and for the speed with which their cases are heard. The Business Session is extremely important in attracting business to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. For a variety of reasons, the Association is in favor of seeing it expanded.

Editor: Do you think it could be a model for other specialized courts?

Carpenter: We have a number of specialized courts already, a Juvenile Court, a Probate Court, and so on. The Business Session and these specialty courts require rather specific expertise - on the part of both practitioners and judges Ñ and they lend themselves to very specific types of cases. I am not certain there is a need to develop more such courts at this point. I do believe that what is necessary is to look at ways to make the court system as a whole more accessible and more efficient in its operations.

Editor: Another issue is the reform of the Superior Court circuit system. I understand that this is high on the BBA's agenda.

Carpenter: Before I moved to Massachusetts I was with the Department of Justice in Washington and litigated cases in various jurisdictions around the country. When I moved here and began to litigate in state courts, I was astonished at a system which called for changing judges in the middle of a case. The Association has a task force that has issued a report on this matter, and I will definitely be following up on this.

Editor: Another issue is the impact of budget cuts on the Massachusetts court system, with particular reference to access to justice.

Carpenter: This is a tough issue. We all acknowledge the many needs that the Governor and the Legislature are being asked to meet. The court system, however, is severely affected by Massachusetts' financial crisis. The staff of the judicial system has been reduced dramatically in recent years, through early retirement and by failing to replace people who have moved on to other jobs. What this means is that litigants must wait a very long time to have their day in court, and this is true of both civil and criminal cases. It is the responsibility of the Boston Bar Association, I believe, to impress upon the Governor and the Legislature what this state of affairs means to the people of Massachusetts in a variety of ways, including our need to attract new business to the state and in terms of public safety with respect to criminal matters.

Editor: The BBA recently adopted a formal diversity policy. What was the background of that initiative?

Carpenter: The Association has had a Diversity Committee for several years and, of course, a very strong track record with respect to civil rights. We did not have a formal diversity policy, however, and in order to ensure that there was no doubt as to where we stood it was determined appropriate to adopt and publicize a written statement on the matter.

Editor: Would you tell us about some of the Association's public service programs?

Carpenter: For starters, the BBA Children and Youth Outreach Project is an undertaking that we take great pride in. This includes a summer jobs program. We work with the Mayor to place high school students in jobs with law firms, government agencies and other organizations all over the city. The BBA Public Interest Leadership Program is a terrific new program that involves young lawyers who have been permitted by their firms to devote time to meeting with each other and with community leaders. The intention is to develop public policy leaders for the future and, in particular, to reach out to diverse communities in this effort. It is a two-way undertaking, and it brings together not only diverse groups of people from diverse communities but also young lawyers from diverse backgrounds in terms of practice areas, people from large firms and small, from government agencies, corporations and a variety of organizations. We believe this initiative is going to be useful in the development of future leaders of the bar in addition to community leaders.

Editor: Do you have plans to expand any of these programs? To add some new initiatives to this list?

Carpenter: The Public Interest Leadership Program is pretty well set in terms of its size. A small group works well together and forms close bonds. The Children's Outreach Program, however, is really an umbrella for a number of different programs. One of my projects for this year, as a bankruptcy lawyer, is to develop an initiative under the Children's Outreach Program to bring credit training to high school and college students. I am very disturbed at the number of really young people who end up having to file for bankruptcy because of credit card debt. I plan to work with both the Association and the judges of the Bankruptcy Court to attempt to develop a program to take to the schools of Boston.

Editor: Please tell us about the BBA Government Relations Department.

Carpenter: In the last two years we have made a conscious decision to increase the BBA's presence both here in Massachusetts and on Capitol Hill in Washington with respect to the issues that concern us. At the moment we have two full-time attorneys in the Government Relations Department, and they are working to build a proactive presence for the Boston Bar Association that will be ongoing.

Editor: What kinds of issues are you planning on addressing?

Carpenter: The compensation of the bar advocates and the funding of the Massachusetts court system are at the top of the agenda right now. We are also committed to watching out for legislation that affects the poor. Access to justice is also a perennial concern, and we expect to be engaged in that discussion in any number of forums. The funding of legal services for the indigent by the Legislature is also something in which we anticipate being involved. There is no end to the number of issues that require our attention.

Editor: When you hand over to a new Boston Bar Association President,

what do you hope you will have accomplished during your term of office?

Carpenter: One of my major goals is to bring in as many new members as possible. Once here, I believe they will quickly commit to the variety of activities that improve the profession and the quality of legal services available to the public. I am also going to try to take the Association and its programs to the law schools. Introducing law students to the idea of public service embodied by the Association is very important, in my view. The BBA is not simply a trade association looking to improve the lot of its members. It is an organization devoted to public service, and the infusion of energy represented by a new group of young lawyers will help to guarantee that it stays that way.