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Importance of Involvement: A Conversation with Michelle R. Peirce

Michelle R. Peirce is a Partner in Hinckley Allen’s Litigation group who devotes her time equally to white-collar criminal defense and complex civil litigation. She is the current President of the Women’s Bar Foundation and a past president of the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts. Here, she tells us about her path to becoming a litigator, and the importance of using your expertise to help others.

HA: Tell us a little bit about the litigation practice at Hinckley Allen and what your work comprises.

MP:  My practice falls into two main buckets: The first is white-collar criminal defense, and the second is civil litigation. A subset of my practice relates to professional licensing—for example doctors facing complaints at the Board of Registration in Medicine. In all of these areas, my work is often a hybrid of civil and criminal work.

HA:  Tell us about a particularly exciting case that you worked on.

MP: One of the biggest and most complicated cases I have worked on was a criminal case brought against Barry Cadden, a pharmacist and one of the owners of New England Compounding. Following the meningitis outbreak of 2012, he was indicted and charged with 25 second-degree murders, among other charges. We had a three-month trial, and ultimately saw him acquitted of the murders and several other charges.

HA: As President of the Women’s Bar Foundation, can you tell us about the organization and the work you do?

MP:  Of course! We provide direct legal services to people in need—mostly women, but we serve men, too. Our biggest and most well-known project is the Family Law Project: We represent low-income clients, often women, in family and probate court–women who are victims of domestic violence. A great part of this project is that we provide lawyers with the necessary family law training and mentoring to feel comfortable taking on these cases. Additionally, we provide direct legal services in the Elder Law Project, helping low-income seniors set up their healthcare proxies and other important legal documents. Our third main project is the Women’s Prison Re-Entry Program: We provide educational resources to incarcerated women to help make it easier for them to reenter the workforce and other parts of public life when they’re released from jail.

I really encourage lawyers to remember that there’s a tremendous need for our services. I think it’s so important, especially for junior attorneys, to get involved in organizations that are meaningful to them—and to do it now. There’s no need to wait until you’re more experienced to get involved. So many people can benefit from your talents and skills right now, and you’ll see how rewarding it is to help others.

HA: How has the work being done by the Women’s Bar Foundation been affected by the pandemic?

MP: Quite sadly, the need has risen, but women’s access to help has decreased. That is because domestic violence victims have been trapped at home with their abusers during the pandemic, and their ability to reach out for help has been diminished. We know that people are in some really perilous positions right now and aren’t even able to make a phone call to the WBF or other organizations to get the help they need. We still have many clients and are also trying to plan for what’s going to happen when the pandemic ends. A lot of people need help.

HA: It sounds like you do so much to help women. Can you tell us about a woman who has been a role model to you?

MP: This may sound trite, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg is someone I can’t help but look up to: She was a driving force for women’s rights and women’s legal issues and she had a unique way of promoting those issues without antagonizing others unnecessarily. That’s a pretty fine line to walk. The fact that she and Justice Scalia were terrific friends exemplifies this rare skill. I don’t just admire Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legal skills; I admire how she understood that we’re all human. We have more that holds us together than divides us.

HA: Can you share some insights about the importance of women’s representation at law firms, and what firms can do to retain and advance female attorneys?

MP: I think firms need to be self-critical. If they’re embarrassed by their lack of diversity, they should acknowledge the problem and work to fix it. The truth is, virtually all firms have this issue, unfortunately. Putting your head in the sand is never going to change anything.

A good place for reflection is during the annual attorney review process: Firms can compare the feedback women are getting to the feedback men are getting. Do women’s reviews include loaded buzzwords that we all know at this point are code for unconscious bias? Hopefully at this stage, most people with unconscious biases really don’t want to have them, and that’s where proactive education programs come into play. The more mindful we all are, the more we can help women (and everyone else, frankly) stay on a professional path that elevates and uplifts them. But beyond just women, the same critical thinking needs to be employed for people of color and other underrepresented groups.