Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, announced her run for governor in September.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, announced her run for governor in September.

The race for governor of Massachusetts is more than a year away, but it is already shaping up to be a heated battle. One candidate who has thrown her hat into the ring is the Bay State’s Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Coakley was elected as Massachusetts’ attorney general in 2006, becoming the first woman to serve in that position in the Bay State. She was re-elected in 2010, and continues to work on behalf of the people of the Bay State. In advance of the Women, Influence and Power in Law event, which kicks off on Oct. 2 in Washington, D.C., InsideCounsel had a chance to speak with AG Coakley about her time in office as well as her ambitions to serve as the governor of Massachusetts.

IC: Tell me a bit about your background prior to becoming AG of Massachusetts. 

MC: I grew up in North Adams in the western part of the state. My father was a World War II and Korean War veteran and a small business owner.  My mother was a homemaker and together they raised five children.  I was in the first female freshman class to attend Williams College, and later graduated from the Boston University School of Law. I started my career in private practice, but was soon drawn to public service, working in the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Justice Department’s Organized Crime Task Force.  I returned to the DA’s office, headed the child abuse prosecution unit, and then was elected as district attorney where I served for eight years. I was elected attorney general in 2006 and re-elected in 2010.  

IC: As attorney general, you deal with many different issues affecting the citizens of Massachusetts. What issues are top of mind for you right now?

MC: During the past several years, we focused on the economic crisis by holding big banks accountable and keeping people in their homes.  We enforced people’s civil rights, and we were the first AG’s office to successfully challenge the Defense of Marriage Act, a major issue of fairness for so many couples in our state.  We have been very concerned about rising health care costs, and we were the first office to identify major cost disparities being paid by insurers to different providers for the exact same services. As a result, we worked with the legislature to pass reforms aimed at controlling those rising costs.  We are also seeing problems at some for-profit colleges with the way they market to prospective students, promising results that are not attainable while burdening students with massive debt.  We see similarities in this industry with the predatory lending practices that led to the collapse of the housing market.  As a result we launched an initiative to educate students about their options and we have also filed lawsuits to stop these deceptive practices.

Finally, we recently took action against the federal government over new fishing regulations that fail to balance our region’s economic interests with proper resource management.  The regulations are a virtual death sentence for a vibrant part of New England’s history.  We hope to strike a better balance.  There are so many issues that affect the citizens of Massachusetts in different ways and we can make a positive impact.

IC: Which issues are of equal concern for both state attorneys general and general counsel of Fortune 500 companies?

MC: When I became attorney general, I established our first business, technology and economic development division to develop our “ear” for business interests, knowing our work can have a major impact on companies large and small. While our office is often seen as a consumer advocate, businesses are also consumers, e.g., health care and energy. I have had the chance to visit major Fortune 500 companies in our state, such as EMC and Raytheon. Raytheon’s leaders described how a one-penny increase in energy costs could impact their bottom line by a million dollars a year. That’s a major impact. New England has some of the highest energy costs in the country and so we have been fighting against unwarranted rate increases. But we have also brought industry and environmental groups together to discuss solutions for the future as we work to control costs while at the same time being good stewards of the environment.  We know our work on the subprime-lending crisis has pitted us against some of the largest banks in the world. But we hope the banking industry has learned from past mistakes, and will not repeat those mistakes in the future. We can both protect consumers with reasonable regulation, while also ensuring businesses are not overburdened, so they can expand and add the jobs needed to rebuild our economy. 

IC: As the first female AG in the history of Massachusetts, how do you see the role of women in the law changing? What advice do you have for female attorneys, both in-house and outside counsel? 

MC: It’s changed a lot in the past 40 years, that’s for sure.  My father gave me a plaque when I left law school that read, “Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.” We have incredibly talented women in our office and I see women, particularly in law and business, try to balance families and work.  Women can and do bring different perspectives to the public and private sectors that can be incredibly important.  We need to ensure that role grows over time.  

IC: As one of the keynote speakers at the upcoming Women, Influence and Power in Law conference, what do you hope to accomplish?

MC: After several decades as an attorney in private and public sector practice, I continue to be interested in sharing my experiences and learning through other women about the triumphs, losses and barriers they see to success. This conference addresses many of those important issues. 

The Women, Influence & Power in Law conference offers an opportunity for unprecedented exchange with women outside counsel. The event runs from Oct. 2-4 and is being held at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.