Judge Robert Foster is an associate justice on the Massachusetts Land Court. Prior to his appointment to the bench, he was a litigation attorney at the firm of Rackemann, Sawyer & Brewster, representing clients in a wide variety of real estate matters. He was a long-time member of the BBA’s Real Estate Section, serving as Co-Chair for its Public Service Committee and for the section at large at various times; he also co-chaired the Delivery of Legal Services Section. Judge Foster is a member of the Boston Bar Journal Board of Editors. He has served on the board of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and as a member of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission.
1. What did you find the most valuable about being part of the Real Estate Public Service & Pro Bono Committees? Lawyer for the Day at Housing Court was also a project from this part of the Section – what was your involvement in that program?
The most valuable part of these committees was the chance to put in place and oversee the Lawyer for the Day in the Housing Court program – that was our main job when I was there. It was great working with so many to be able to get it done, and it’s wonderful to see how well it’s done…to have a small part in that process was a great privilege.
Lawyer for the Day was an idea bouncing around for a long time in the legal services and pro bono world that, back in 1998, folks at the BBA decided to try to bring to fruition again. A meeting was set up with Chief Justice Daher at Housing Court on December 24, 1998 – I still remember the date. I was there in my capacity as Co-Chair of the BBA’s Delivery of Legal Services (DLS) Section, but the main attendees were BBA President Mary Ryan, the then-head of the Volunteer Lawyers Project, Meg Connolly, Wiley Vaughan, and Sandy Moskowitz, who were there to propose this program that would have lawyers sitting at a table giving advice to both landlords and tenants. We presented it to then-Chief Justice Daher, who had resisted the plan years before. When we explained that it would serve both landlords and tenants, he said he didn’t have a problem with it. We almost fell off our chairs!
At that point, we brought on Harvey Chopp, Chief Justice Daher’s chief administrator, Barbara Zimbel of Greater Boston Legal Services, and Bruce Eisenhutt of the BBO and conducted meetings to work out how the program should look. It started running in 2000 and has been going ever since. All credit goes to the folks who are there every day and making sure the firms are on board, like Barbara and Joanna Allison, and also to Wiley Vaughan, who really set the project in motion. It’s a model program and works perfectly here because you have the combination of Housing Court’s hundreds of cases, and large law firms who can commit to send in attorneys every session. It’s ideal for transactional attorneys, which is why it’s great for the Real Estate Section. I’m just really proud to have been a part of this.
2. You have also been a member of the MA Access to Justice Commission during much of your involvement on these committees; what was the interplay between your work on the Commission, your time on the MLAC Board, and your work at the BBA?
I was appointed as MLAC’s representative to the Commission in 2009 when I was on the MLAC Board. All of these activities had the same goal – we all wanted to increase access to justice for low-income people and to promote civil justice for everyone in the Commonwealth. In MLAC, we dealt a lot with the existing system of legal services programs and how best to run those, raise money for them, support them, and give them ways to increase and maintain services. In the DLS Section, we spent time looking at that system from the BBA point of view, and in the Real Estate Section, created the Lawyer for the Day program. The Commission had people from all parts of the system – there were lawyers, judges, general counsel from business, and those you might call civilians – who tried to look at all aspects of the justice system and promote their mission…without having the power to spend anyone’s money. It was a great group run by Justice Gants and David Rosenberg that came up with ideas to help with issues like what state agencies could do to make it easier for people to work with them, how to get money into the system without using tax dollars, and ways to create new pro bono opportunities. After I went on the bench and had to step down from the Commission, I was on the Trial Court access to justice committee, and we were able to get a training manual for limited assistance representation available to view online.
I’ve been working on this issue almost all my career, and it’s very important to me. It’s our obligation as lawyers, and my obligation as a judge, to try to ensure that everyone has equal access to justice – it’s a fundamental right and principle for us as a Commonwealth, and everyone should be able to vindicate their rights in courts. The people facing barriers to the delivery of justice are our neighbors, friends, relatives, fellow citizens – their rights are just as important as ours.
3. You served as Co-Chair of both the Delivery of Legal Services Section and later the Real Estate Section – how did your experience differ from one to the next?
When I was asked to be co-chair of the DLS Section, I hadn’t been in practice very long – I was sort of shocked to be asked, although I was glad to do it. At first I stumbled along – I hope I learned how to run a meeting, at least! I really did learn how to do things like chair a meeting, put together programs, and form committees from the experience. Otherwise, the Sections have different roles – DLS focuses on access to justice issues, and but also cuts across all the subject matter lines that most other Sections are organized along. In the Real Estate Section, we focused on that particular practice area, but in focusing on that I had a range of things to think about: the different committees, programs, what the Section does, and legislative issues of interest to the real estate bar. I’ll add that it was helpful to have good Co-Chairs, that’s for sure.
4. Can you share a favorite story you like to tell from your time on the bench as a Land Court judge thus far?
I remember a hearing very early on, probably one of the first times I was on the bench, we were discussing a particular property. There was a site plan that the litigants were referring to that I couldn’t see from where I was on the bench, so I said, “Why don’t I just come down and look at it?” I thought the court officer was going to have a heart attack – afterwards she told me, “Please don’t do that, please don’t step off the bench.”
But it reminds me of something I said in my BBJ article reflecting on my rookie year, which was along the lines of, “Lawyers: I see everything you do.” Well, the flip side holds true: they see everything I do. As a judge I have to remember that – you are a public figure from the bench, and you’re in this role where everyone is looking at what you’re going to do and listening to what you say. You have a responsibility to the court and the people before you to take that seriously and fulfill your goal and job as best you can. All the judges I know are aware of this and do that, but I don’t think I realized when I came on what an important responsibility it was. Being a judge is about fulfilling that responsibility to take litigants seriously, listen to them, and treat them fairly; that requires you to show that in your demeanor and hold on to it in everything you do and every gesture you make…and that includes not just waltzing off the bench!
5. Is there anything else you would like to add that we haven’t asked yet?
By virtue of my position as one of seven judges in the Land Court, I’m a leader of the Court, and that means that I have to remember to recognize all the people here and their hard work, and appreciate the enormous amount of support we get. I try to do that, and not take their help for granted.