The importance of public service and academic excellence was instilled in Chris Netski at a young age while she was growing up in upstate New York. Both her parents were public educators and the first in their families to go to college. Her late father, a first-generation Polish-American who went to college under the G.I. Bill following service in World War II, understood the importance of equal opportunity and promoted diversity and inclusion throughout his career, including helping to lead the effort to integrate the public schools in their town in the late 1960s. Her parents’ commitment to their community and their positive influence on the lives of so many young people continue to inspire Netski today. “They inspired me to always be alert to how I might contribute to the betterment of our society, and they taught me that I could excel in any profession if I worked hard and found fulfillment in my work.”
And excel she has. After more than thirty years as a successful litigator at the Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak and Cohen, P.C., Netski assumed the office of President of the 13,000 member Boston Bar Association (BBA) on September 1st. She brings a wealth of professional and personal experience to the role, as well as a clear-eyed vision of what the BBA can and should be. Consistent with the lessons she learned in her youth, she sees diversity, inclusion, and equality of opportunity as integral to everything the BBA does and aspires to be. Netski believes in “fostering a culture where everyone is valued, where everyone is respected, and where new ideas are welcomed.” She also sees great opportunity to deepen the BBA’s relationship with the city of Boston by collaborating with the Association’s current partners, identifying new partners throughout the community, and furthering outreach to help and serve those who are most in need. “We are fortunate to call this great city home, and there is much we can do, as a profession and as individuals, to improve the quality of life in Boston through our shared commitment to access to justice and service to the community in which we live and work.”
Netski also serves as the managing partner of Sugarman Rogers, a boutique litigation firm that has been part of Boston’s legal community for 90 years. Former Sugarman Rogers managing partner, Regina Roman, knows first-hand that Netski will bring strong management skills to her leadership role within the bar, and lauds “her ability not just to spot an issue or define a problem, but also to work with others to develop creative solutions; her incredible knack for finding and building consensus, even among people who spend most of their time in an adversarial world; and her willingness to take on any challenge with seemingly boundless energy.”
It was while she was a student at Cornell University that Netski found her calling. She participated in a summer program that Cornell Law School offered to undergraduates, and was immediately hooked. Contrary to the advice she usually gives to college students today, she went straight to law school with little real-world experience under her belt. She excelled at Boston University School of Law, where she served as Note and Case Editor of the Law Review. She quickly realized that she wanted to be a trial lawyer and wanted to find a work environment where she could thrive, both professionally and personally.
During on-campus recruitment in her second year at B.U., Netski was interviewed by Natasha Lisman, then a newly-minted partner at Sugarman Rogers. Lisman stood out, not only because she was a female partner with two young children, but because she had tried cases, was handling a high-profile pro bono matter, and spoke passionately about her work and her colleagues. When the nervous second year law student arrived at the firm for a second interview, she was ushered into a conference room where 12 of the firm’s then 14 attorneys were present to meet with her – sending a powerful message that every person in the firm mattered.
Nearly 35 years later, Netski says, “Joining Sugarman Rogers as an associate was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.” She credits much of her professional success to finding the right “fit” at a firm where she has spent her entire career. “The values of our firm not only help us become the best lawyers we can be for our clients, but allow us to be well-rounded, kind and generous people.” It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship. As Former BBA President and Sugarman Rogers partner Lisa Goodheart observed, Netski herself has had a profound effect on the firm, in terms of values, character, and style. “She was a role model from the beginning.” Goodheart added that other young women lawyers look to Netski as a model of meticulous and prepared professionalism and as one who is ready, willing, and available to help and support others.
Sugarman Rogers believed in developing new lawyers by exposing them to a wide variety of substantive areas, and ensuring that they were actively engaged in depositions, motion practice, and trials early on. Netski now concentrates her practice in business and employment litigation, but emphasizes that this broad foundation was invaluable in making her the lawyer she is today. For her, the most satisfying and challenging aspect of litigating cases is working with witnesses to uncover the human motivations and perceptions that often provide essential context for understanding and ultimately resolving conflict. “It can be painstaking work,” she notes, “and it rarely feels like the work is done, but it is extremely rewarding when a witness testifies in a truly informative and credible way.”
Netski feels especially grateful to have been mentored by former BBA President Ed Barshak, who she describes as a brilliant trial attorney and a true “citizen lawyer.” It was Barshak who first encouraged her as a young associate to get involved with the BBA. She quickly saw the many ways the Association promoted and supported pro bono work, fostered an inclusive legal community, and served the broader public good. Netski made a particular point to attend BBA educational programs where judges were panelists. “It was a huge benefit to be able to hear from judges. As trial lawyers, we are always looking for insights from the bench. The BBA was one of the few venues where that could happen.”
She was soon appointed to the Board of Editors of the Boston Bar Journal (BBJ). During her years as a member of the Board, she coupled her love of legal writing with volunteer work and ultimately became chair. Past BBA President Don Frederico, who served with Netski on the BBJ said, “From the beginning, it was clear that Chris possessed all of the best qualities of an effective leader – intelligence, wisdom, vision, humor, and an ability to inspire confidence and affection from those she leads. She has a wonderful combination of self-confidence, humility, and compassion for the people with whom she works and those who benefit from the work she does.”
Others at the BBA took notice of those qualities as well. Over the years, Netski was selected to take on a succession of high-profile and institutionally important assignments, serving as chair of the Association’s Nominating Committee, co-chair of the Strategic Planning Committee, and co-chair of the BBA’s Task Force on the Future of the Profession. She was also elected to serve on the BBA’s governing Council and appointed to the Executive Committee, before progressing on to become Treasurer, Vice President, and then President-Elect. Netski’s involvement in the Association has been one of the most rewarding aspects of her career. “The relationships I have developed through the BBA – and the satisfying work I’ve been able to do – have enriched my life in ways I could not have imagined.”
She was also building a reputation as a smart, thorough, and meticulous litigator who gets the results that clients are looking for. Dave Greenbaum, who served as general counsel of one of Netski’s long-term clients, describes her as a go-to lawyer for his company, both as a trusted adviser and as a trial lawyer. “Chris has always impressed me with her intellectual curiosity and compassion, together with her incredibly quick analytic mind,” he said. Those are qualities that she has also brought to bear as Massachusetts counsel for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and, in particular, in her successful representation of the NFB and its members in seeking equal access for blind individuals to web-based services and other types of technology. She observes, “It is incredibly rewarding to be actively involved in ensuring that the law is interpreted in a way that keeps pace with how business is transacted in the Internet age so that consumers with disabilities enjoy the benefits of our increasingly technology-dependent society on an equal footing.”
Netski’s thorough and thoughtful approach has led her to being held in high regard among judges. Retired Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Margaret Hinkle presided over a complex business dispute in which Netski defeated a multi-million-dollar fraud claim against her client and obtained a substantial jury award for her client on its counterclaim for breach of contract. Judge Hinkle said of Netski, “Throughout discovery disputes, pre-trial motion practice, trial, and post-trial motions, she displayed complete professionalism; thorough, careful preparation; outstanding, effective, oral and written advocacy; and – what a judge always finds refreshing – a remarkable ability to work with opposing counsel.”
It’s that ability to work so effectively with others that has long made Netski stand out among her peers, not only as a lawyer, but as a leader. Tony Doniger, a Sugarman Rogers colleague who served as BBA President in 2007-2008, sees Netski as a natural leader for the bar and for these times. “When formulating priorities and positions, a BBA President must always consider many constituencies and views. In all that she does, Chris naturally considers all sides to arguments and positions when arriving at a path forward; this talent will serve her well as she steers the BBA through the shoals of 2019-2020.”
As she begins her year as the leader of one of the nation’s oldest and most distinguished bar associations, Netski notes that it is the BBA’s ability to adapt to meet the needs of its diverse membership that makes the Association so relevant today. “I marvel at how astute this organization has been in anticipating and responding to the evolving needs of our members and managing the large number of volunteers who help lead and support the BBA’s important work. It’s truly extraordinary how entrepreneurial the BBA is.”
As a beneficiary and now steward of the open, inclusive, and supportive environment that defines Sugarman Rogers, Netski understands the importance of seeing lawyers as “whole people.” So, she will be focused throughout the year on lawyer well-being, noting that, as both the 2017 ABA Task Force Report on Lawyer Well-Being and the recent report of the Supreme Judicial Court’s Steering Committee on Lawyer Well-Being highlighted, the isolation that attorneys often experience is directly linked to many factors, including a lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our profession. Although Netski is proud of the very significant strides the BBA has made toward ensuring that its leadership reflects the diversity of its membership, there is much more work to be done in making the law a more diverse, inclusive, and welcoming profession. “We each have a responsibility to broaden our own networks, to share openly the challenges we have experienced as lawyers – especially with our younger colleagues – and to make sure our workplaces offer equal opportunities for all, as well as effective alternatives for seeking help before manageable challenges turn into crises.”
The new BBA President also hopes to build upon the wisdom of the recent working group reports released by the BBA, including No Time To Wait: Recommendations for a Fair and Effective Criminal Justice System, Statement of Principles Concerning Immigration and Related Issues, and Judicial Independence: Promoting Justice and Maintaining Democracy
It’s not just the BBA that has benefitted from Netski’s expertise, generosity, and commitment to helping others. She has served on the Board and as Vice Chair of the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, as well as on the Advisory Board of the Boston University School of Law Small and Midsized Firm Apprenticeship Program. In addition, as a member of the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts (WBA), she has co-chaired the Senior Practice Group and the Awards, Appointments and Endorsement Committee, where she has helped women applying for the bench effectively present their credentials. She also co-chaired the WBA’s Women’s Leadership Initiative, which brings together senior women practitioners with up-and-coming younger attorneys for leadership development training and mentoring. And as Sugarman Rogers’ managing partner, she remains deeply committed to the firm’s significant pro bono practice, including its representation of “amicus plus” participants in the landmark Harvard University admissions case decided earlier this month.
For all her talent, energy and passion, Netski is the first to note that she can’t do it all alone.
She is extremely grateful for the support and encouragement that her husband, Jeff Rhodin, has steadfastly offered throughout her career. The couple are the proud parents of two children, Erica and Matt, now 29 and 26. Netski says, “I have been very fortunate to have a true partner throughout our more than three decades of navigating the twists and turns of the demands of family and careers.” Rhodin also shares Netski’s love of the outdoors (as do their children) and Netski finds that the time she spends outside and unplugged, whether skiing, cycling, or hiking, is a central ingredient to her own well-being.
Although Netski is quick to credit others for her success, there is ample evidence that her rare combination of talents and personal qualities has made a lasting impact on those around her and will continue to benefit the BBA in the year ahead. As Judge Hinkle sums it up, “Always, whether in the courtroom or at the BBA, Chris displays an engaging personality, a rock-solid set of values, a penetrating intelligence, a passion for hard work, and a manifest desire to forward the Bar’s service to the profession and the public.”