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Fast Thinking

boyle recounts saga of 9/11 fund

Immediately after the September 11 terrorist attacks, few people could think clearly, let alone face a momentous decision that might affect tens of thousands of lives. But that was what confronted Leo Boyle '71 as president of the American Trial Lawyers Association (ATLA) following the tragedy. Driven by the impulse to "respond like I feel" and to show what tort attorneys are made of, on September 13 he called for a moratorium on the filing of civil suits and set in motion a series of moves that would lead to a federal fund for victims and a pro bono outpouring by the legal community.

"The moratorium had no force of law. It was like calling for world peace," Boyle said during an appearance in the dean's lecture series last March. "But it had this odd power to it. It gave people leave not to file suit."

But trouble was brewing. Aviation lobbyists were hard at work on Capitol Hill trying to protect the industry by eliminating victims' tort rights. The airlines were facing catastrophic losses, and Boyle could see that Congress was inclined to offer them some relief. He also saw an opening. How could Congress bail out the airlines before bailing out the families? When ATLA went to the Hill proposing a relief fund for the victims, legislators immediately saw it as the political leverage they needed. "In one night, it happened. There was a fund in concept," Boyle said, still incredulous. "Without the airline bill, we wouldn't have gotten anything."

The 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund was signed into law September 22, and with it came another goodwill gesture by ATLA: All legal services related to the fund would be provided free of charge, creating the largest civil pro bono program in history, according to Boyle.

To Boyle's surprise, the fund, and ATLA's intentions, subsequently came under fire from several fronts-from some victims upset when caps were imposed; from disgruntled critics who warned that victims would "get what they paid for"; and from the press, which Boyle said blew the protests of a few lawyers into a major tug of war. Concerns were also raised about whether the fund would become a model for tort reform, but, Boyle said, "You can't let the fear of future contingencies make you balk at helping 3,000 people."

Despite the sleepless nights he endured, he kept his focus on the families and has been rewarded with growing public understanding of the fund's purpose and power. "You don't know what's going to happen on your watch, but you just have to do what's right," Boyle said. In May, at a reception at the Copley Plaza Hotel, members of the trial bar of Massachusetts honored Boyle for his outstanding work.

-Vicki Sanders

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