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An Interview with John Donohue

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Tell me how the gift in Frank’s name to BC Law’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP) came about.

It really started with a conversation between Dean Garvey, Marianne Lord [associate dean of BC Law’s Office of Institutional Advancement] and myself following Frank’s receiving the Thomas Moore award. We began talking about a way to really symbolize at Boston College Law School what Frank stands for in his career, especially his public service career. So that led to a conversation about the difficulty of lawyers being able to go into public service because of the huge debts that they have from their tuition. One thing led to another, and it seemed like a very natural fit with Frank’s background to set up this endowment, this permanent endowment, in his name, specifically to be able to help these young lawyers be able to continue in public service and have some of their loans forgiven.

I happened to be on the board of directors of the Greater Boston Legal Services, and we constantly are talking about how to keep lawyers at Legal Services. They come out of law school and they join, but typically after two years they feel they have to leave because they need to make more money. Now sometimes it’s because they’re starting a family, but lots of times it’s because they have very significant debt from both college and law school and they can’t afford to continue to pay that debt on the lower salary. And the real dilemma is the lawyer is at his or her best four or five years out of law school – after they have built up some experience. So that’s exactly when you don’t want to lose them. But what I was seeing at Greater Boston Legal Services was that was exactly when we’d start to lose them, at that key period when they’ve really built up some expertise. And often it was just because of their loan burden on them.

Do you recall the first time you met Frank?

I remember it fairly vividly. I went to apply for a job at the AG’s office. A friend of mine worked there, so he got me in and got me introduced. And I ended up getting hired. I didn’t get interviewed by Frank. I didn’t meet him until I’d been there for several months. But the first time I met him was in a large group meeting. He called all the lawyers into the conference room, and he was preparing to run for reelection. I supposed there were going to be requests to give money or work on the campaign. And he called us all into a room, and he said, “Listen, I want you all to know I’m running for reelection, and in case you’re wondering how you can help me, I’ve brought you all here to tell you. The best way you can help me is by staying out of my campaign and doing your job and being excellent assistant attorneys general and you will make me look good. I don’t need your money. I don’t need your help. I’ll run the campaign. You stay in this office and do great work.” And there was this stunned silence across the room. People did not expect that to be the conversation.

How did Frank view his role as attorney general?

One of the things Frank did early on was to take the approach that the Attorney General’s office was the people’s lawyers’ office, and he would talk about that all the time. What he meant was that we were not there just to defend the government. We would do that, and we’d do it very well. But there was a whole other component as the elected chief lawyer of the state for you to go out and be proactive, trying to protect consumers, protect the environment, protect people around civil rights issues. All of those proactive affirmative types of litigation to protect the citizens of the Commonwealth he felt were the obligation of the Attorney General’s office, and that had never been done before. It had always been primarily around defending the government and being the government’s lawyer, and while Frank continued that, he wanted to add this other component where you would be the people’s lawyer and that caused him to reorganize and bring in new areas like anti-trust law, environmental law, and civil rights law. That had never been done before in Massachusetts and, quite frankly, by most attorneys general around the country. He actually went on to become a model. I know for years young men and women would become elected attorneys general in other states, and one of the first things they’d do was fly to Boston and sit with Frank and have him explain to them how to go about building a proactive people’s lawyers’ office.

Frank inspired tremendous loyalty among the people who worked for him. How did he do that?

He was a fabulous mentor. He would give you the chance to really stretch and to try things that many of us, being fairly young lawyers, weren’t necessarily qualified to do yet. He also would be very open to innovative approaches, so if you thought there was an area that had never been done before, a certain legal argument that had not been made, if you could convince him that it was a good legal argument and had merit to it, he would let you go with it, let you run with it.

How would you describe Frank as a politician?

Some of the attorneys general who followed Frank really saw the office as a stepping stone to become governor or senator or some other political office. So they were there just kind of passing through. And that doesn’t mean they didn’t do a good job while they were there, but it’s a different point of view. Frank said this was a very important job. He would say he was privileged to have it. It was an honor to have it, and he was committed to doing it as well as possible. And you don’t hear a lot of other people talking that way. I just think that there seems to be a lack of connections today between a lot of politicians and the people who work for them and the people who voted for them. That was something Frank always talked about was that we worked for the citizens of the Commonwealth. That mentality doesn’t seem to be there that much anymore. 

What is your favorite Frank Bellotti story?

When Frank was running for governor in 1990, he was probably in his early 70s. At one point during the campaign, a young reporter for the Boston Phoenix wrote an article about the fact that he thought Frank was too old to serve as governor. As you know, Frank is very committed to being physically fit, so the morning that story broke, Frank came into my office furious. We knew the reporter was at most 30 years old, and Frank said, “I want you to call that reporter on the phone and you tell him I will meet him in Kenmore Square and we will start running west and we will see who runs the longest.” And I said, “Well, Frank, you’re just upset.” And he said, “No, I mean it. Get him on the phone. Get him on the phone now. You tell him to be at Kenmore Square at noon and we’ll start running.” Needless to say the reporter did not take him up on the challenge.