Boston Bar Association – Serving Boston And Its Legal Profession

Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 17:48

The Editor interviews James D. (“J.D.”) Smeallie, President of the Boston Bar Association (BBA) and Partner in Holland & Knight’s Boston office.

Editor: Please share with us your professional background.

Smeallie: After graduating from the University of Virginia School of Law, I began my career in San Francisco at Bronson, Bronson & McKinnon. After a few years, I moved back east to Boston and joined Sherburne, Powers & Needham, a medium-sized, general practice firm. In 1998, Sherburne, Powers & Needham merged with Holland & Knight.

My practice is primarily business litigation, with a subspecialty representing schools and colleges. For many years, I headed our national education team. Education is one of Boston’s four leading industries, and Holland & Knight has been rated as the top firm for education law in Massachusetts. We have a great client base, and a fair amount of my work is in this area of practice. 

Editor: Congratulations on being elected president of the BBA. What was your path to the presidency?

Smeallie: Ten years ago or so, Mike Keating, who was the BBA president at the time, asked me to head the Diversity Committee. I served as chair of the Diversity Committee for seven or eight years. I then served as secretary of the BBA, and participated in task forces dealing with diversity and the creation of a new website. After that, I served as vice president, president-elect and now president.

Editor: What do you see as your mission during your term as president?

Smeallie: Year in and year out, the BBA advocates for two things in particular. The first is sufficient funding for our courts, which continues to be an issue here and elsewhere around the country. The other is adequate funding for civil legal aid.

As president, I am in the midst of creating a statewide task force comprised not only of legal aid professionals, but also of business leaders, academics, legislators, bar leaders and others to address the need to expand civil legal aid in Massachusetts. The task force will determine the unmet need for civil legal aid and propose ways of providing representation to indigents in such cases. 

A similar task force has been at work in New York State for three years. It developed the business case for increased civil legal aid by demonstrating that if you increase the funding for civil legal aid, you can reduce the cost of homelessness, reduce the social costs of domestic violence and increase federal assistance coming into the state. 

Under the leadership of Chief Justice Jonathan Lippman, that task force made the case so effectively that the New York legislature has increased dramatically funding for civil legal aid. The effort in New York is a great model for Massachusetts and other states.

Editor: Last year, we spoke with Lisa Goodheart, your predecessor as president, who spearheaded the creation of the Environmental Sustainability Task Force. Where does its work stand today?

Smeallie: The crowning achievement of that task force was its report entitled “Greening the Profession.” The report compiled the work of 20 sustainability experts who had backgrounds in business, government and the law. The report contained many excellent suggestions. One resulted in the publication of a Green Lease Guide that offered sample green clauses and lease forms for use by lawyers. The report also identified seven sustainability best practices for law firms, corporate legal departments and other providers of legal services. It provided tips for how lawyers in various practice areas could support sustainability in their practices.

Editor: Diversity has historically been a core interest of the Boston Bar. What does BBA offer in terms of affinity groups and committees?

Smeallie: The focus of our Diversity & Inclusion Section is to increase diversity in the profession in Boston. We are particularly proud of two of its recent efforts – the Judicial Internship Program and our Group Mentoring Program.

The Judicial Internship Program is an unpaid, noncredit internship in which minority law students work directly with a judge, observe courtroom proceedings and enhance their legal research and writing skills. It involves internships in the Boston municipal courts, state district courts as well as the family and probate courts.

The law schools in the Boston area are quite diverse, especially Northeastern. However, we need to do a better job of keeping minority graduates of Boston law schools here in Boston. Many of them return to their hometowns or go elsewhere. Our Judicial Internship Program connects law students to judges who can introduce them to the Boston legal community.  The program also involves seminars at the BBA, which help diverse students develop the skills needed to succeed after law school.

Editor: Tell us about the Group Mentoring Program.

Smeallie: A supportive mentoring environment is important to the success of lawyers in general and particularly minority lawyers. Our Group Mentoring Program, which was launched in 2009, matches a small group of mentees, some but not all of whom are lawyers of color, with an experienced mentor. The aim is to assist the mentees in developing their practices, while at the same time fostering a new generation of diverse leaders within the BBA and within our profession here in Boston.  During its four-year history, nearly 200 mentees have benefited from the experience of working with BBA mentors.

Editor: I assume there are committees of the BBA specifically dedicated to aspects of diversity.

Smeallie: Yes, as I said, the Diversity & Inclusion Section is focused entirely on diversity issues, and it has various committees that address specific diversity issues. Boston is also home to a number of affinity bar associations. While vibrant and active, these groups were without any permanent offices. Whoever was president in a given year often had to house boxes of association records for that year.

Several years ago, the BBA renovated some unused space into a series of offices that are now used by the affinity bar associations as their bases of operations. This has been a great benefit to the affinity bar associations and has enhanced an already strong working relationship between the BBA and the affinity bars.

Editor: Each January the BBA hosts the Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid. Have the governor and the state legislature proved supportive of legal aid?

Smeallie: The state funds legal aid through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. That entity makes distributions to individual legal aid agencies. This year, MLAC requested an increase of $3.5 million in state funding for a total of $15.5 million. The good news is that the governor included this amount in his proposed budget. At the Walk to the Hill this year, our members visited their state representatives and senators to urge them to support fully the governor’s proposed budget. The House and Senate are now considering the governor’s budget and the BBA will continue to advocate with those bodies for funding at the $15.5 million level. 

Editor: Tell us about the M. Ellen Carpenter Financial Literacy Program.

Smeallie: A few years ago, it became apparent to practitioners and judges in our U.S. Bankruptcy Court that students were racking up credit card debt during their college years, and then finding themselves unable to pay their college loans when they came due.

Under the M. Ellen Carpenter Financial Literacy Program, in which the BBA and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court here in Boston partner, lawyers visit high schools to teach students the basics of financial literacy, such as using a check book, managing credit cards and paying bills. 

More than 130 lawyer volunteers are involved in this project. We plan to reach over a thousand students in 13 public high schools in 2013 - more than doubling the number of students we served in 2012.

The M. Ellen Carpenter Financial Literacy Program provides us with yet another opportunity to work with diverse youth, and we’ve gotten great encouragement from the Boston Private Industry Council to expand this initiative.

Editor: How have the needs of the community shifted, and how has the association responded?

Smeallie: A good example is the growing number of self-represented litigants in housing cases – landlord/tenant cases in particular. We have a very successful program called the Lawyer for the Day Program in the Boston Housing Court. Volunteer lawyers spend a day or part of a day each week representing unrepresented litigants.

At the request of the judges, BBA volunteers staff two separate information tables, one for low-income tenants and one for low-income landlords. As you might imagine, some of these landlords depend on rent payments from tenants for the bulk of their income and cannot afford a lawyer. With the increase in the number of low-income landlords appearing without counsel, we decided to add a special day each month just to help landlords with their forms.

Editor: What does the association offer in terms of networking and professional development? Why should young attorneys join?

Smeallie: The membership of the BBA has evolved over recent years.  An increasing percentage of our members are either in small firms or are solo practitioners. Many are new to the profession. For this reason, the BBA has dedicated an ever-increasing amount of our programming to serving the needs of these new lawyers and lawyers in smaller firm settings. We have practical skills programs about the basics of practice. We have programs dealing with issues lawyers face when they put out their own shingle. These programs respond to the changing landscape of our legal community.

One of the great things about the BBA is that it provides the opportunity not only to attend educational programs but also to network at our educational programs and at our frequent social gatherings. I encourage young attorneys to participate in BBA activities to enhance their professional reputation through participation on panels, to make contacts, and to help address access to justice and other matters important to the bar. 

Editor: You personally have a long history of being an advocate of pro bono, having served as Holland & Knight’s pro bono partner in years past. How does the Boston Bar assist an interested attorney in finding a good pro bono “match”?

Smeallie: Attorneys can contact the BBA with a description of the type of pro bono opportunity they are seeking. If we have a project that fits their needs, like the Lawyer for the Day Program, we will give them all the information they need to begin volunteering. We offer training sessions to give them the background they need to get started.

If we don’t have a particular project that matches their interest and skills, we will work with them to find the right legal services agency or a nonprofit organization that can use their talents.

One of the things that inhibits pro bono activities is worry about a long-term commitment. The BBA has a number of activities that are very short term, like the Lawyer for the Day Program. We do our best to find an outlet for anyone who is seeking to offer his or her time to represent those who cannot afford a lawyer. 

Please email the interviewee at jd.smeallie@hklaw.com with questions about this interview.