(4-15-99) -- Five accomplished lawyers, including US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, discussed the challenges and benefits of public service at a panel discussion on Tuesday, as Boston College Law School dedicated its public interest center in honor of former American Bar Association President John J. Curtin Jr. '54, JD '57.
A standing-room-only audience of administrators, faculty, students and other guests of the University gathered in room 115 of the Law School's newly opened East Wing for the event, which marked the opening of the Mary Daly Curtin and John J. Curtin Jr. Center for Public Interest Law. The center houses a group of student organizations devoted to public interest and public service legal work. The Curtins also have established a fund to support various public interest activities at the Law School.
Curtin, a partner in the Boston firm of Bingham Dana LLP spoke at the end of the event, expressing his and his wife's appreciation for having their names associated with the center, which he called "a visible sign of the commitment to public service for Boston College and its students."
Through the resources provided by the center, he told the assembled students, "We hope you'll fulfill some of the dreams and hopes that led you to study law." Noting recent concerns about the legal profession's commitment to serving the public interest, he said, "the spirit is alive, but must be nourished."
Appearing with Breyer on the panel discussion "Public Service and Professional Fulfillment" were Mary M. Connolly, JD '70, executive director of the Volunteer Lawyers Project in Boston; Ted Shaw, associate director of counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; Florida State University President Talbot d'Alemberte, a former ABA president; and Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center.
The discussion was moderated by Law School Interim Dean James Rogers, who, along with the other panelists, praised the Curtins for their dedication to public interest law. He called John Curtin "a tireless advocate of the legal profession's obligation to serve the needy."
Taking their cue from Rogers' anecdote about a law student who asked "if there were any happy lawyers," the panelists described how working on behalf of the poor and powerless, or advocating for the public good, is both professionally and personally rewarding. Breyer urged students to look for public service opportunities "in unlikely places," as well as the more obvious settings like civil rights and environmental organizations.
"Remember, meaningful change works its way from the ground up, through consensus," said Breyer. Serving the public interest "will give you a satisfying career and fulfill our obligation to serve as a trustee to client and community."
Following their brief statements, panelists fielded questions and comments from the audience. Shaw responded to one first-year student's observations of a "depressing" session at a family court and the "lack of passion" exhibited by the lawyers representing the clients.
"Don't come away depressed," said Shaw. "When you observe these inadequacies, your feeling should be, 'There's work to be done.'"
Mary Curtin also spoke at the event, recalling her namesake aunt who as "a happy lawyer" in Brighton early this century embodied the ideals and virtues of working in the public interest.
Before John Curtin's remarks, Rogers announced that Bingham Dana had established a public interest fellowship program at the Law School. The program will provide stipends for participating students and pair them with lawyers at the firm who will act as mentors.
Curtin, who serves as chairman of the firm's litigation area, is former vice president and director of Greater Boston Legal Services. He was president of the ABA from 1990-91 and of the Massachusetts Bar Association from 1979-81. The recipient of a 1991 honorary Doctor of Law degree, Curtin has taught trial practice and other subjects at the Law School for 30 years, chaired its Library Campaign and Major Gifts committees, and is current chair of its Advisory Council.
On April 29, Curtin will be presented with the seventh annual Gilda Radner Award from the Wellness Community of Greater Boston for the inspiration he has provided for cancer patients through his fight with the disease. Curtin was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1990, and has since struggled with other forms of cancer. Past Gilda Radner Award winners include WBZ-TV news reporter Charles Austin, actress Kate Jackson and Anti-Defamation League Regional Executive Director Leonard Zakim.
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