Beacon Award 2021 Honoree Spotlight

Voice of Change Award

“Giving time to people, even in just the course of a day, is a fundamentally decent thing to do. You often don’t realize how impactful it is.” – Ralph C. Martin II

The giving of time – a mere 45 minutes, to be exact – changed the trajectory of Ralph Martin’s life and career.  

As a Brandeis senior, Martin’s attention was already fixed on the law. His plan was to join the New York Police Department (NYPD) as his father had, attend law school at night, and ultimately become a civil rights or criminal defense lawyer. Over winter break, however, Martin’s father asked whether he’d ever considered becoming a prosecutor. 

 “At the time, civil rights and criminal defense were the most immediately available models for me to connect with,” said Martin. “I grew up in an era of civil rights activity, and I really thought of prosecutors as a regressive force and not a progressive force. So, my first reaction was ‘why would I want to become a prosecutor?’”  

Undeterred, his father encouraged him to meet with Richard Lowe, an assistant district attorney in the New York County office in Manhattan, and the son of a fellow NYPD cop. Having known “less than a handful” of Black lawyers and only one Black prosecutor prior to knocking on the door reading “Richard Lowe, Rackets Bureau” in gold script, Martin felt an immediate affinity with the ADA.  

“We sat down and talked about the role of a prosecutor, and how you needed good and honorable people on all sides of the adversarial system,” Martin said. “It was his belief that on any given day, the person who has the most influence on what’s going to happen in a criminal case is the prosecutor. You could have an impact on people’s lives, on what goes on on a particular street, or even an entire neighborhood. That really resonated with me; it was the first time that I considered becoming a prosecutor.” 

A fiscal crisis in New York City curtailed Martin’s plans to join the NYPD. Instead, he stayed in Massachusetts and spent a year working as a field investigator for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) before attending Northeastern Law. During one of his cases, he met attorney Wayne Budd, another professional whose “giving of time” would profoundly impact Martin’s life and career. 

“Wayne was representing a claimant in an MCAD matter that I was investigating. I was impressed with the way he advocated for his client, and how respectful he was,” said Martin. “It had been my experience – and the experience of other investigators I worked with – that lawyers in cases like these tended to try to intimidate people with their credentials, and were sometimes condescending and dismissive. When the case was over, I reached out to him and said ‘I’m going to apply to law school, do you have time to talk?’”  

That encounter led to not just a conversation, but also a co-op – and subsequent job – at the firm Budd & Reilly, as well as a personal and professional relationship that has lasted for decades. At Budd & Reilly, Martin enjoyed increasing responsibility and a diverse list of clients. A few years later, however, an opportunity to launch his career as a prosecutor came via firm partner Tom Reilly. Recently tapped by newly elected Middlesex County District Attorney Scott Harshbarger to be his first assistant, Reilly in turn encouraged Martin to join him in the public sector, where he would remain – and advance – for nearly 20 years. From Middlesex, Martin moved to the US Attorney’s office, where he prosecuted cases involving drugs, fraud, and a variety of other criminal suits. But just as Martin was preparing to return to private practice, a new opportunity in public office emerged in the resignation of Suffolk DA Newman Flanagan. 

“I had been talking with a small group of friends about ‘this crazy idea’ of someday running for Suffolk DA, but I didn’t really know how I would go about doing it,” said Martin. “As it turns out, I applied for the job instead of running for it.”  

Martin’s long-time mentors and colleagues backed his candidacy for the role. Despite being – as Martin puts it –  “easily the least prominent name” in consideration, his credentials and scope of work earned him the appointment, making Martin the first Black Suffolk County District Attorney. Martin credits Governor Weld for articulating the impact of race on the decision.  

“In Suffolk County, a disproportionately high number of defendants were Black and people of color,” Martin said. “To his credit, Weld was cognizant of the fact that making an appointment of a Black lawyer could have a positive impact on the community.” 

During his 10-year tenure, Martin was instrumental in changing the way law enforcement collaborated with other agencies, making substantive improvements in crime prevention and prosecution. And he did so in partnership with the police, to the extent that when it was time for Martin to run for a second full term, he faced no opposition from either a candidate or union. 

“Ralph is a force, a bridge-builder,” said Tracey West, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at WilmerHale and member of the Boston Bar’s Beacon Award Selection Committee. “He has an unmatched ability to work through challenges and create coalitions. Most of us are trained to ‘listen to respond,’ but Ralph listens to learn, and that’s a huge part of his success as a leader.” 

Meerie Joung, a partner at former law firm Bingham McCutchen when Martin served as managing partner there – a transition he made following 10 years as Suffolk DA – agrees.  

“Ralph is an incredible attorney and an even more incredible person,” Joung said. “He treats everyone – no matter their role – with equal importance. When he came to Bingham from the public sector, he brought with him the perspective that ‘commitment’ at a firm goes both ways. That attorneys are expected to be committed to the firm was well known, but Ralph made it clear that when the firm is as committed to its attorneys and staff, it creates something very powerful and fulfilling.” 

Joung describes Martin’s time at Bingham as marked “with empathy and support.” He was an inclusive leader and an advocate for women and attorneys of color who had been underrepresented in leadership roles, including those who were balancing work alongside raising young children. 

“The firm was sorting through the question of ‘were we giving women candidates a fair shake?’ and I made some observations about how we’re going to be known for what we do, not what we say,” said Martin. “I didn’t feel that working reduced hours because you’re balancing a young family had any bearing on whether you became partner. It shouldn’t be a factor on the quality of their contribution, whether they’re a great firm citizen, or a great business generator. If they’re hitting the mark, then why shouldn’t they be a partner? It led to a series of conversations during which people squared up to the fact that there were parts of our culture we needed to address.” 

His reputation for inclusive leadership continues at Northeastern University, where Martin has served as Senior Vice President and General Counsel since 2011. He oversees the University’s institutional master planning, compliance and risk management, city and public affairs, and institutional diversity. In this current capacity, noted Tracey West, Martin “consistently gives people opportunities to shine.” 

Yalonda Howze, Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer of Codiak and member of the Beacon Award Selection Committee, points to Martin’s intentional efforts to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion as one of the qualities that makes him a “pillar of the legal community.” 

“Ralph is someone who has made the community richer to work in,” she said. “I’ve known him all of my career because he’s always involved; if we’re putting on an event and he can do it, Ralph is there. Afterwards, he’ll stick around not just to talk to people, but also to listen. It’s in keeping with who he has always been; he is humble, open, and generous in passing on his wisdom.”  

Howze describes her involvement in the selection committee – and its decision to give the Beacon Award to Martin – as an honor. “Sometimes, when we are used to seeing someone doing extraordinary things, they can be overlooked,” she said. “It’s so important to not take for granted those who are consistently doing the work.” 

For Martin, the giving of his time is the product of his “home training,” which includes not just his childhood home but his many professional “homes” in Boston with people like Budd, Reilly, and others.  

“With the support that we as young lawyers received, it’s part of our DNA that we look for ways to support the next young lawyers,” said Martin. “When you’re in a position of influence or leadership, you take an interest in helping others navigate situations where it’s not clear how to speak up for yourself, how to advance your career, how to seek feedback, and what to do when you have a setback. It’s just how you operate.” 

As for Richard Lowe, Martin reconnected with his early mentor following his appointment as Suffolk County DA. While talking with a Boston Globe reporter, Martin shared his long-ago meeting with Lowe, who had since become a judge on the New York State Supreme Court. And Lowe, when contacted by the reporter for comment, was inspired to travel to Boston for Martin’s swearing in. The two have been friends ever since. 

“It was a 45-minute conversation that was so influential in my career,” said Martin. “The time you give to people, even in just the course of a day, is a fundamentally decent thing to do. You often don’t realize how impactful it is.” 

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