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Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins Speaks at the BBA

March 21, 2019

We were pleased to welcome the new Suffolk County District Attorney to 16 Beacon Street last week, to hear about her formative experiences, her plans for the office, and her take on hiring and management.

Fresh off her historic election last fall, and barely two months into the job, DA Rachael Rollins visited the BBA on March 11 and took questions from Cat Ham, of the Suffolk DA’s Homicide Unit and co-chair of the BBA’s Criminal Law section, and Kate Cook from Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen, P.C., as well as from audience members.

After earning a lacrosse scholarship at UMass-Amherst—and then engaging in a legal battle to save the program and other women’s sports at the school by threatening to bring a Title IX discrimination lawsuit—DA Rollins entered law school with a plan to pursue a career in sports law, specifically to become the first female Executive Director of to the National Basketball Players Association. She credited the co-op program at Northeastern Law School with helping her learn more about the field and gain valuable experience. While at NUSL, she interned at the NBPA and with the Boston Celtics After earning an LL.M. at Georgetown, she ultimately landed at the National Labor Relations Board in Boston before joining the firm then known as Bingham McCutchen (now Morgan Lewis). She said that, at Bingham, her work with former Suffolk DA Ralph Martin, the first African-American to hold that post, and her selection to participate in a District Attorney rotation in Plymouth County steered her toward criminal law.

What drove her to make the run for DA in 2018 was her anguish at watching as black and brown men were shot by police across the country, with no transparency about charging decisions (or lack thereof). That was also her motivation for announcing, the same day as her BBA appearance, the creation of a Discharge-Integrity Team, to help her exercise her exclusive authority on how to proceed in cases of police-involved shootings. Rollins is also taking pains to keep the deceased’s family apprised of the investigation’s findings.

Perhaps the policy she’s most associated with, in the public’s mind, is her list of 15 offenses for which she’s pledged to consider alternatives to prosecution.  DA Rollins said she’d given much consideration during the campaign to the development of the list after discussions with law enforcement, criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges about the types of cases where a different kind of accountability than incarceration is called for. Her plan is to pause and do some “quality review” before putting people on what she described as a “conveyor belt” to jail, because these are overwhelmingly defendants dealing with poverty, mental-health concerns or substance use disorder in those instances. One part of the more thoughtful approach she’s aiming for is to make social services more available. But she promised to review the policy and go where the data lead, after consulting the public.

The DA intends to be closely involved with the communities she serves. In part because she’s seen it first-hand in her own immediate family, she understands that the justice system needs to better handle the cycle of treatment and relapse on the path to recovery from addiction. That means more case workers, social workers, and clinicians—an effort, she notes, that should’ve begun in the 1980s when it was mostly Black and Brown people struggling with addiction. She believes that since she has the power to send someone away, she needs to visit the prisons and jails she’s sending them to. And her ADAs should understand their role, too: If you want to work for her, she wants to know what drives you to be a prosecutor.

Asked about her greatest challenge so far as DA, Rollins cited the sprawling bureaucracy she now heads up, and the extreme pace of work—beyond anything else in the Commonwealth, by her measure. There’s simply very little time to dwell on each of the individual decisions required in the thousands of cases her office handles. And yet, working alongside similarly-situated victims who may have different ideas of justice, on the same fact patterns, she’s learned there’s no one “right” answer or approach; each case must be addressed on its own merits.

“We work at a very fast pace and handle incredibly complicated and violent matters,” Rollins said. “Not everyone can handle this pace of work and not everyone is cut out for it. I am incredibly proud of my staff, who show up every day, work hard, and give their best to the Commonwealth.”

Nevertheless, as a survivor of cancer, this job is not the toughest thing she’s faced. Her hard-earned strength and resilience are just what the job calls for, in her estimation. As she told the BBA audience, a DA needs to be decisive and instill confidence in employees, while still demanding accountability. Rollins says she knows what she doesn’t know, and she’s not afraid to defer to expert staffers.

Finally, responding to a question from Kate Cook, DA Rollins offered this advice to the new lawyers and law students in the room: First, be great at what you do and how you do it. At the DA’s Office, she seeks out people who are driven, hard-working, and ambitious—qualities more important to the ADA job than their credentials. “Be your own advocate,” she advised, and know when it is time to move on.

—Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association