Boston Bar Association: Serving The Bar And The Public

Sunday, March 1, 2009 - 00:00

Editor: Please tell our readers about your professional background and how it relates to your becoming president of the Boston Bar Association?

Weinman: I've been interested in public service since law school which was many, many years ago; I joined Dwyer & Collora as a partner when we formed the firm in 1988. We're a litigation boutique here in Boston. My practice has focused on defending companies and individuals in white collar criminal and other government enforcement matters.

Dwyer & Collora has always encouraged its lawyers to serve the public. Many partners as well as associates at the firm have been board members for non-profits, have been actively engaged in pro bono matters and have been active participants in bar associations. In fact, one of my partners, Tom Dwyer, was president of the Boston Bar Association about nine years ago. He had encouraged me to get involved even before that time. It's really a great organization and when I was tapped to become part of the leadership I didn't hesitate at all. I felt it was my obligation as well as my honor to take that opportunity.

Editor: What can you tell us about the Public Interest Leadership Program that the BBA founded in 2003? How, if at all, has its focus shifted over the last tumultuous year?

Weinman: The Public Interest Leadership Program is one of my favorite programs at the Boston Bar Association. Its central premise is that there is no conflict between being an excellent attorney in the service of clients and serving the public interest as well. The program actually started from conversations between a federal district judge here in Boston and a former president of the BBA. The judge was hearing from former clerks that they weren't really enjoying their professional lives because they were just focused on working on client matters. And, it seemed that the profession itself appeared to be turning away from community leadership even though that had always been a hallmark of our profession, particularly in Massachusetts. The then president of the Boston Bar Association appointed a task force to figure out how they could deal with this issue from which the Public Interest Leadership Program emerged. It's a program for attorneys no more than 10 years out of law school. Alumni of the program participate in the selection process. They select a diverse group of participants, focusing on legal background as well as ethnic and gender diversity. This year, for example, we have seven attorneys who practice in law firms, two who come from government and five who are working directly for legal aid organizations. They're learning about both the public interest and the pro bono landscapes in Massachusetts while planning their own programs.

Editor: And do the alumni who you said stay involved with the program mentor the new members who come on board?

Weinman: They do. In fact, one of the great things about the Public Interest Leadership Program is that it has created a network of like-minded young attorneys who want to do great work for their clients and also want to be involved in the community. So, they are both sources of advice and sources of support for one another. The number of participants gets bigger each year.

Editor: Has the focus of the program shifted or had to respond in any way to the economic events of the past year?

Weinman: I think each class is slightly different. Some of the lawyers in this year's class are focused on trying to address some of the unmet needs for legal assistance that the economy has really exacerbated. And there are public interest leaders who are, for example, representing detainees in immigration matters and others doing similar projects.

Editor: You mentioned in a recent President's Letter to The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel that the revenue generated for legal aid by Massachusetts' attorneys via IOLTA is plunging due to the world's financial crisis. Can you talk about what you see for the future of legal aid in Massachusetts?

Weinman: Absolutely. In Massachusetts, legal aid has relied on IOLTA for about 50 percent of its funding in recent years. Since IOLTA revenue has dropped over 50 percent, our legal services organizations are really hurting. That drop has come about as a result of two factors. First, as you know the number of real estate and other types of transactions has dramatically declined and those are the kinds of legal work that typically generate IOLTA interest. Secondly, bank interest rates have dropped dramatically and therefore the interest generated on IOLTA accounts has really plummeted as well. Legal aid organizations throughout Massachusetts have had to slash their budgets and lay off professionals, so that just when the demand for legal assistance is increasing because of economic pressures, the availability of legal assistance is declining. This is a very difficult time, and what has impressed me is that we have a special legal community in Massachusetts which has responded to the crisis. Hundreds of lawyers have lobbied their legislators to maintain state funding for legal aid, more attorneys then ever are showing up at the bar association for training to do pro bono work and law firms have continued to contribute funds to legal services. Some law firms have even increased their donations. There is still a terrible gap between the need and the supply, but I think as a bar association we are there to do everything that we can to help.

Editor: I wonder how that compares to other states.

Weinman: I don't know. We in Massachusetts have a long tradition of supporting legal aid and there's a very strong relationship and bond between not just our bar association but others as well and our legal services community.

Editor: The BBA's recently announced Task Force to Prevent Wrongful Convictions was intended to identify the reforms needed to reduce the risk of convicting innocent people and to recommend how these reforms should be implemented. How is the task force moving forward since its inception?

Weinman: In large part through developments in DNA testing, we've learned of at least several hundred individuals who were incarcerated and then released because we've determined with certainty that they were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. As litigators, we know that the system cannot be perfect because it is run by human beings who are inherently imperfect.

I started this task force because many of us recognize that we can make certain changes needed to improve criminal justice here in Massachusetts. I think the key ingredient to this task force is making sure all the stakeholders are represented at the table. I have been so impressed by the willingness of not just criminal defense attorneys but prosecutors, the Boston police commissioner and other state law enforcement officials to participate and really make a contribution. They are looking at the causes of wrongful convictions, seeking to identify what can be done to minimize them and recommending the ways to implement those reforms. I expect the task force to produce its recommendations sometime this spring.

Editor: Your predecessor, Anthony Doniger, appointed a Task Force on the Civil Rights to Counsel, so that disadvantaged persons would be fairly represented. What were the final recommendations of this task force and were they implemented?

Weinman: Tony Doniger appointed a task force on providing counsel in certain civil cases where fundamental human needs are at stake. The task force published a report called "Gideon's New Trumpet" and proposed pilot projects in certain areas. We are building on the work of the task force, and partial funding to begin a pilot project representing tenants in certain eviction cases has been secured.

Editor: Mr. Doniger was also vocal about continuing the vital work BBA has done to promote funding for the state courts, as well as independence for and support of the state's judiciary. What is the BBA doing in this regard today?

Weinman: Those issues have come to the fore this year more than ever. Like other states, Massachusetts is facing budget shortfalls and our courts really have suffered. We have a governor who is very appreciative of the role of the judiciary. Governor Patrick is an attorney himself. But the budget he has proposed is simply insufficient for the courts to provide fair administration of justice.

In December, I appointed a task force to look at the impact of budget cuts on the judiciary and particularly to focus on cuts that occurred this past October and cuts proposed by the governor in his 2010 fiscal year judiciary budget. The task force worked very quickly and issued its own report in February which we provided to the legislature. We are advocating very strongly that the state adequately fund our courts so they can do their job in fairly administering justice.

We don't have enough money to provide an attorney for every individual who needs one. As a result, court personnel is often the only interface for the tenant in an eviction proceeding, for example. It is really the staff of the clerk's offices that provides guidance to the individual to help him or her navigate this incredibly complex system. If you must reduce staffing in the clerk's office at the same time that you are reducing access to legal aid lawyers, you do a real disservice to the people in the greatest need. Editor: What would the schedule be for the legislature to review that report?

Weinman: I haven't heard the exact schedule for the budget but it is certainly under consideration at this time. We are hoping that the legislative leadership will read our task force report and focus on the needs of the courts, given the needs of the citizens of this commonwealth.

Editor: You recently announced that the BBA, which is currently headquartered in a historic townhouse, will embark on a $1,350,000 million building project. Can you talk a little bit about that and what that means to the legal community in Boston?

Weinman: The building is on Beacon Street and we have been here for many years. We are actually bursting at the seams because we just don't have space for all the activity that takes place at the Boston Bar Association. Fortunately, lawyers in this community want to be involved - they see the Boston Bar Association as a home for them. We bought the adjacent space several years ago and decided that this is the time to move forward with our plans.

Editor: What is your schedule for completion?

Weinman: We are hoping to complete it by the end of June. The plan is to begin in March, mostly with the renovation of existing space. Our "Justice Is Sweet" chocolate fondue and wine fundraiser is planned for the end of June, with young lawyers raising money for legal aid. Our goal is to be done in time for the Justice Is Sweet event to be held in the new space.

Editor: What other initiatives in the pursuit of greater justice have been undertaken by task forces or committees under your stewardship? What would you like to see accomplished by the end of your term in September?

Weinman: The preamble to our rules of professional conduct in Massachusetts states that a lawyer is not only a representative of clients and an officer of the legal system, but also a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.

I alluded before to the rich tradition in Massachusetts of lawyers serving as public citizens and the Boston Bar Association has always served in the role of mentoring, encouraging and supporting that effort. We trace our origins back to John Adams, who used to convene meetings of lawyers in a local tavern. Although we are not doing that anymore, he really serves as a role model for what we strive for. He sacrificed his own well-being by representing British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre even though that was obviously a very unpopular cause. He took time off from his law practice to devote himself to securing the independence of our nation.

My term will have succeeded if all the volunteers at the BBA work together to provide more opportunities for lawyers to not just be the best lawyers they can be in the service of their clients but also to be supported as public citizens in the service of the profession.

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