Boston University School of Law

Strong Students Make Strong Public Service Advocates

An Interview with The Honorable Julian Houston

Judge Julian Houston, recently retired from the Massachusetts Superior Court, is a graduate of Boston University School of Law Class of 1971.  Judge Houston is one of the two recipients of this year’s Fall Public Service Award. His involvement in public service extends throughout his legal career.

Apart from being a judge and a successful author, one of his notable achievements was conceiving and supervising the development of the Long Road to Justice Project, for which more than $400,000 was raised. This exhibit showcased the experiences of African Americans in the Massachusetts court system over three centuries. It includes a traveling exhibit, curriculum, and web exhibit which are aimed to educate the public and to bring to life the struggles for racial justice of African Americans in the Massachusetts court systems. The web exhibit can be seen at www.masshist.org/longroad.

Houston also conceptualized and developed RoxburyYouthworks, Inc., a non-profit organization in Boston whose mission is to inspire young men and women to become independent and to keep them away from juvenile delinquency. In twenty-five years, Roxbury Youthworks has grown from an organization with one employee to one that now has thirty eight employees in five sites with responsibility for all Department of Youth Services day reporting programs in the City of Boston and an annual budget in excess of $2,000,000.

Among Judge Houston’s many contributions to the justice system, one in which he takes great pride is his work to create a child care program in the Massachusetts court system. The impetus for this endeavor was seeing so many young children in courtrooms with relatives due to the lack of child care.

When asked how difficult it is for law students today to do public service and pro bono work in their career, Houston acknowledged that enormous financial burdens can complicate the desire to make a contribution to the public good. He points out, however, that today there are more private sector organizations that support public-service activities today, especially among law firms, and that students and lawyers alike should take advantage of these opportunities.

“The development of strong legal skills is a precondition for making a pro bono contribution,” Houston emphasizes. “Ideological correctness or zealous advocacy alone are of little help in the courtroom or in negotiations with opposing counsel. There is no substitute, for example, for knowing the controlling law and how it applies to your case. We need more lawyers who are committed to practice in the public interest, but they should understand that the rewards of such a practice cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Rather, they come from a kind of inner satisfaction that is all too rare in this money-hungry, celebrity-driven age.” This doesn’t mean a lawyer with a largely pro-bono practice should “wear a hair shirt,” he says. Lawyers who choose to develop such a practice must understand the basics of sound office management and financial planning “and they will quickly go under.” Nor should they ignore their family responsibilities and require their family to sacrifice for their professional choice. “But it should be understood from the outset, that a pro bono practice means you are choosing a modest lifestyle in a   BMW era. It means helping those who need help the most.”  

Houston’s first novel, published by Houghton Mifflin, is entitled “New Boy”. He is now retired and currently working on the sequel.