MATA Aims to Boost Influence, Membership

‘Carrying Torch’ In Tort & Other Battles

Published: 1:00 am Mon, August 14, 1995 1:00 am Mon, August 14, 1995By DAVID L. YAS Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly The Massachusetts Association of Trial Attorneys — which has been aggressively battling tort reform, no-fault insurance and other issues on both the state and federal level in recent years — is hoping for a major boost in its membership and resources in order to maintain and even expand its ability to influence public policy.While other, larger bar associations in the state have hardly ignored these matters, MATA has often been seen as carrying the torch for the bar on hot-button issues and its clout far outweighs its 1,800-member size.Now, however, MATA is eager to increase its size so it can continue to be a major player on Beacon Hill — and Capitol Hill.“It would help us if we had a larger membership,” said Lowell attorney Kathleen M. O’Donnell, who becomes MATA president on Nov. 1. “You really do need lobbyists helping you daily. More members would give us a better base.”O’Donnell said she’s aiming high — hoping to get up to 5,000 members during her presidency.“I know that’s very ambitious, but that’s what I’d like to see,” she said.Some MATA members told Lawyers Weekly that the organization is in a difficult position because it has fewer resources than other bar organizations — which offer MATA little help in battles such as tort reform.“We’re continually having the same people paying the bills,” said Boston attorney and MATA membership committee chairman Frederic N. Halstrom. “Money is the mother’s milk in politics. It would be nice if others would [contribute] as well.”Boston practitioner Douglas K. Sheff, a MATA Executive Committee member, said that tort-reform bill recently filed in Massachusetts by Gov. William F. Weld deserved the close attention of all attorneys.MATA and other bar associations have criticized Weld’s plan to “overhaul” the civil-justice system, saying it unjustly favors business at the expense of consumers.“We’d like to see some of the other bar associations [be] more active,” said Sheff. “Everyone has an interest in keeping corporate greed from running roughshod over ordinary citizens. [The bill signifies that] big business wants to make sure you have to be rich to have a key to the courthouse door. They’re ripping apart a system rather than [reforming] it.”

Sizing Up The Problem

According to Director of Communications Sue Buerkel, MATA currently has 1,763 members, a small figure compared to the approximately 8,000 lawyers in the Boston Bar Association and the 17,000-plus membership of the Massachusetts Bar Association.Members said that MATA’s size limits its resources, a problem when an important matter like tort reform is on the table.MATA President Robert V. Costello said that his organization is always attempting to boost membership.“Everybody would like to see the size increase,” said Costello. “But when you talk to lawyers, it’s very tough these days to afford the dues.”MATA’s dues range from $50 annually for a first-year attorney to $195 for members who have been practicing for 10 years or more.A reduced-fee program is available for attorneys who simply can’t fit the fees into their budgets.Incoming-president O’Donnell said that many lawyers simply do not understand what MATA means for them.“My major goal is to increase membership,” said O’Donnell. “We’ve been doing a lot, for a lot of lawyers, and they may or may not realize it.”O’Donnell said that expanding membership in areas outside of Boston would be a step in the right direction.“I want this organization to be known as a statewide organization,” she stated. “We certainly would like to involve more members in Pittsfield, the Cape, Newburyport.”Costello agreed. “We would like to see more members from the western part of the state, but more lawyers are in the east,” he said.

Front-Line Fear?

Some members of MATA say that on matters such as tort reform, the MBA and other bar associations are not pulling their weight.“The MBA seems to have stepped aside on many of these issues and not engaged the lead,” stated Halstrom. “I would expect them to continue their non-engagement policy. They don’t seem to be fighting the front-line issues. … They have money. I don’t know what they’re using it for.”Halstrom said that MATA often finds itself in the unenviable position of fighting alone.“It’s the age-old philosophy,” he said. “Why do the work when someone else will?”MBA General Counsel Benjamin Fierro III said that the MBA is poised to be anything but non-engaged.“We are prepared to testify strongly in opposition of the governor’s bill,” said Fierro. “We will utilize any and all resources we have as the situation demands.”According to Fierro, the growing sentiment on Beacon Hill may be that the bill is headed for defeat anyway.“There seems to be some skepticism in the State House,” he said. “But if there’s growing interest [in favor of the bill], we’ll maximize our efforts.”The MBA, however, cannot always devote full attention to legislative matters due to its expansive constituency, Fierro noted.“As the state bar association, our jurisdiction is much broader than any single bar association devoted to a [particular] aspect of practice,” explained Fierro. “We attempt to speak for the bar as a whole.”MATA leaders said they understood that the MBA’s position and organizational structure made it difficult to move as swiftly or decisively as the trial-attorneys’ bar.“Our focus is a lot narrower,” said Costello. “[The MBA] represents the broad spectrum of [the bar].”O’Donnell agreed. “Every time an issue comes up [the MBA] has to look at its entire constituency,” she said. “They cannot react as quickly.”Boston Bar Association Government Relations Director Sara Romer said that the tort committee of the BBA’s litigation section is carefully considering the tort-reform bill, but at present the BBA has taken no position for or against the proposed legislation.

Join The Club

MATA’s drive for new members is an “ongoing process,” according to O’Donnell.Phone-a-thons, telemarketing and promotions connected to book and tape purchases are among the tactics that MATA uses to drum-up interest, Buerkel said.Buerkel also noted that MATA has recently targeted new lawyers, offering free membership for six months and establishing education programs taught by judges and seasoned attorneys.Sheff, who runs the new-lawyers program, said that “the doors are wide open” for lawyers to get involved right out of law school.The push for new members is crucial in light of the tort-reform bill, according to Sheff.“For every dollar that [MATA] has to spend getting the message out, there’s so much more in the hands of the insurance industry,” said Sheff.Halstrom said he was perplexed by the problems MATA and other bar associations have been having with membership.“The bar associations are not expanding,” he said. “The younger attorneys don’t have money to pay their dues.”Increased numbers of attorneys in recent years has not translated into the same increase in bar association membership, Halstrom noted.Younger attorneys “seem to sit back and let others do it instead,” said Halstrom.