Each year Governor Deval Patrick issues a proclamation naming October Pro Bono Month, which the BBA wholeheartedly embraces. This month, the profiles on Tipping the Scales will focus on attorneys who have devoted their energy and resources to making a difference in pro bono and legal services work.
Manisha Bhatt is a senior staff attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), working in the Family Unit where she represents survivors of domestic violence in divorce, paternity, and abuse prevention proceedings. She became the president of the South Asian Bar Association (SABA) in 2012 after being named Board Member and Member of the Year in 2007. Manisha was awarded with the North American South Asian Bar Association’s Cornerstone Award in 2009 and the BBA’s John G. Brooks Legal Services Award in 2011. An alum of the Boston Bar Association’s Public Interest Leadership Program (2005 to 2006), Manisha was also on the Boston Bar Journal’s Board of Editors from 2007-2013, a member of the Civil Rights & Civil Liberties Section from 2008-2013, and former co-chair of the Pro Bono Committee of the BBA’s Litigation Section (2011-2013). Manisha is a member of the BBA’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts.
1. What leadership skills have you used and learned so far as president of SABA?
I feel that the number one thing that I’ve had to hone in on as a leader of a bar association is humility. I’ve had to anchor into that place of balance between being a person of principals and many ideas about the direction of an organization while at the same time recognizing that I do not lead in a vacuum — that there are other perspectives and ideas that must be incorporated. Leadership to me is the ultimate vote of confidence, it is a sacred trust. This is especially true for bar association leadership, because you are entrusted with financial responsibility, keeping up the mission and ideals of organization, and being the voice of the organization.
I have learned that the most important task one has as the leader of a bar association is to ensure that there is a solid foundation for the future that lies ahead. When you lead from a place of humility, that is what inspires respect and consensus because you acknowledge that your way isn’t the only way. While you may be the ultimate authority, soliciting and respecting the input of others you build a stable foundation for the organization because you are building the next generation of leadership. I’m proud to say I have the pleasure of working with a very cohesive and supportive Board of Directors with various experiences, and through that, SABA has been able to grow at a steady pace with a stable foundation.
In my opinion, the best leaders are the people who have the capacity to think outside the box, and are courageous. They will say “this hasn’t been done before, but let’s embrace that and let’s do it anyway.” When you have good intention behind your fearlessness and boldness, you’re met with great results because you are trying to accomplish something worthwhile.
One of SABA’s newer initiatives has been a collaboration between our organization and South Asian medical professionals: last year, we had an interdisciplinary panel about the ACA that was very successful. This year, we’re going to reach out and collaborate with another South Asian organization for a similar event. As we were planning the event, we considered whether it would be a benefit to our members; if so, then that was going to inspire them to join the organization and be part of the mission of the community. The collaboration provided various benefits to our members, including a perspective on how other professions think, which helps us to do our best jobs our attorneys.
2. What challenges did you face while developing the ‘Know Your Rights’ (KYR) project, and how did you overcome them to succeed?
Sometimes one of the challenges was my own thinking: “it’s going to be a lot of work!” But I have learned that when you believe in something so much, you find a way: avenues open, and you realize that it will happen. I spent a lot of time thinking about how best to implement this program. I wanted to present to my board a program that I was 100% sure was going to be a success because it would be something that would benefit many people AND be sustainable for the future. Other challenges that frequently occur are concern over enough resources or concern about how to simply get the project going. Honestly, working with little to no budget is just my training as a leader, but I overcome that by simply believing wholeheartedly in what I do. Who can argue with the intention to empower the community about their fundamental legal rights?
While I was developing the KYR project, I consulted with respected community leaders who are doing great work in access to justice, bouncing the idea off of them and asking what else we could do to make this a fantastic program. Being receptive to feedback is instrumental. For instance, I also solicited feedback from the class participants as well because I wanted the project to be collaborative with those we were trying to benefit. We did have constructive feedback during the first run of the program about a topic that somebody wished was included, so we added a class to cover the various court systems in Massachusetts.
3. What advice do you have for a prospective leader looking to find his or her voice and find the confidence to assert it?
To me, finding your voice is about having a strong conviction and wanting to bring that to the table. It doesn’t have to be a loud voice. Just speak. When you’re voicing something sincere, people will align with you and what you’re trying to accomplish. Yet- leadership and finding the appropriate forum takes time. I spent a year and a half mulling over my KYR initiative because I wanted to take the time to develop relationships in order for it to be sustainable, and I’m proud that it has been a success.
Sometimes I see young lawyers who come in and want to do everything right away. While I respect that ambition and zeal, I’ve always been a proponent of ‘slow and steady wins the race.’ Learn about the organization and gradually work your way up because that will teach you very important aspects of the organization you wish to lead. True, we need dynamos, but genuine leadership needs seasoning, time, dedication, and hard work.
4. How does choosing to engage in pro bono and legal services work exhibit leadership as a lawyer?
The very fact that there is an attempt to solve the problem of providing pro bono assistance to the vast number of underprivileged is taking a leadership initiative. Active participation and inspiring others to be led by your example is the embodiment of leadership. I do believe people want to do good and right, but perhaps they’re daunted by the prospect of how large the problem is or how much time it will take. At the same time, there is something magical about helping somebody and using our knowledge as attorneys to change somebody’s life – it is very powerful! Spending 20 minutes helping somebody fill out a form will potentially affect lives in ways you perhaps can’t even quantify. It’s amazing how many people in our society are daunted by navigating the legal system. If you have just 20 minutes to help someone do it right, you’ve just changed their life forever. Is that not leadership?