Mary K. Ryan, a passionate and effective advocate for making our courts and our legal system accessible to poor people, and a litigation partner at Nutter McClennen & Fish, has been named the recipient of the Boston Bar Association’s 2011 Thurgood Marshall Award. BBA President Lisa C. Goodheart will present the award at the BBA’s Annual Meeting Luncheon on October 13 at the Westin Copley Hotel — with some 1,200 lawyers and judges in attendance.
“Mary Ryan has been actively engaged in a series of major initiatives to address the challenge of unrepresented litigants and increase the private bar’s delivery of pro bono legal services,” said Goodheart. “Mary’s committed advocacy and persistence are remarkable, given her busy legal practice.”
During Ryan’s presidency of the Boston Bar Association, from 1997 to 1998, she convened a task force that performed the first comprehensive study on the issue of unrepresented litigants in the Massachusetts courts. The ensuing report brought to light the vast number of unrepresented litigants in both the Probate and Family and Housing Courts, and their impact on the courts’ ability to do justice for all. Years later, when the Massachusetts courts convened a conference on the issue of unrepresented litigants, the first document they handed out was the BBA report.
Also using her presidency as a bully pulpit for urging her colleagues to increase their individual contributions of pro bono time, Ryan went on to chair the Pro Bono Committee of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, a post she held from 1999 to 2011. Under her leadership, the SJC developed the Adams Pro Bono Publico Awards, an important recognition program highlighting pro bono contributions of law firms and individuals. Her leadership also resulted in the Committee proposing adoption of an ethical rule encouraging all Massachusetts attorneys to do at least 25 hours of pro bono work per year.
Based on Ryan’s talent, commitment and experience, she was appointed Co-Chair of Boston Bar Association Task Force on Civil Right to Counsel in 2006. The report produced under her leadership, Gideon’s New Trumpet: Expanding the Civil Right to Counsel in Massachusetts, received national attention, calling attention to a national issue.
Ryan has also worked via the American Bar Association to advance pro bono and access to justice. A member of the ABA House of Delegates, she currently serves on the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service.
Aside from her systemic work, Ryan has been generous in providing bono services in her individual capacity, as co-counsel in Connor B. v. Patrick, a federal class action filed with the national advocacy group Children’s Rights to seek broad reform on behalf of approximately 8,500 children in foster care. She has also served as counsel to a number of indigent tenants under the Volunteer Lawyer’s Project’s Eviction Defense Project, both assisting individuals in protecting their tenancies from negligent landlords and maintaining tenants’ public housing vouchers. In addition, she has served as counsel to a number of immigrants facing deportation in connection with the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project.
The BBA’s Thurgood Marshall Award was established to recognize private attorneys in greater Boston for their extraordinary efforts to enhance the human dignity of others through improving, developing, or delivering civil or criminal legal services to low-income clients in Massachusetts.