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An ‘Instrument of Fairness’

Meet the unflagging, unflappable Marian Ryan.

Photo/Reba Saldanha April 3, 2019  Photograph by Reba Saldanha

The Boston College Women’s Law Center (WLC) honors one exceptional BC Law alumna annually for making noteworthy contributions to the legal profession through practice, community involvement, or scholarship in the field. This year’s award went to Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan ’79. In her introduction of Ryan at the April 4 award ceremony, Professor Sharon Beckman called Ryan courageous, creative, collaborative, and extremely generous.

Borrowing a phrase coined to describe 1930s-era Ginger Rogers in a man’s world, Beckman metaphorically compared Ryan—who in 2013 became the first woman District Attorney in Massachusetts—to the dancer who did everything Fred Astaire did only more skillfully because she did it backwards and in high heels.

The WLC noted that it selected Ryan as the 11th Annual Woman of the Year not only because of her service preventing harm and pursuing justice across the Commonwealth, but also because of her position as a role model and mentor to the next generation of female lawyers.

Ryan’s background is well documented. She graduated with honors from both Emmanuel College in 1976 and Boston College Law School in 1979. Her understanding of law enforcement, victimization, and the judicial system was reinforced in 1980 when she became the victim of a violent assault and witness to the murder of her then-boyfriend. At the time, Ryan was a young assistant district attorney starting her career as a prosecutor.

Instead of discouraging her, Ryan acknowledges that the incident strengthened her resolve and turned the harrowing experience into something positive. Subsequently, she built her career on supporting exhaustive and unassailable investigations, victim advocacy, fair trials, just verdicts, and crime prevention. “The world is a very unfair place,” she explains, “but people have a deep desire to see fairness and know that they are being heard,” which is why she works so hard to be an “instrument for fairness.”

Ryan took a position at the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office—the only place in the area at the time that allowed women to handle homicide cases—and worked her way up briefing and arguing a wide number of cases in the Massachusetts Appeals Court and Supreme Judicial Court.

“This is where sometimes men have an advantage. Men raise their hand and try it out while women often take more time to think about [an opportunity] and the moment passes.” —Marian Ryan ’79

When the top job, an elected post, opened up mid-term, Ryan saw people lining up for the position but didn’t know how to get into the race herself. “This is where sometimes men have an advantage,” she observes. “Men raise their hand and try it out while women often take more time to think about [an opportunity] and the moment passes.”

With few expectations, she wrote a letter to Governor Deval Patrick and still expresses astonishment that, in 2013, he appointed her Middlesex County District Attorney. The following year she ran to secure her seat, beat back a primary challenger, and was unopposed in the general election. She is now serving her second term overseeing Middlesex County, which encompasses more than one quarter of the Massachusetts population, fifty-four cities and towns, and over twenty colleges and universities.

By numerous accounts, Ryan redefined the role of District Attorney not only because she was the first female in the position and paved the way for others, but because she has stood up for progressive justice reform. She has helped implement significant changes in the handling of non-violent offenses and taken a collaborative approach to the opioid crisis, aiding in the reduction of fatal opioid overdoses by 11.5 percent countywide in 2017. Ryan has also worked extensively with immigrant and senior communities and is closely connected to many education programs throughout the county. For this, she says, groups not known for praising district attorneys have rallied behind her.

Ryan attributes much of her success to her love of her work, support from her family (her son, Michael Foley, graduated from BC Law in May), and the purposeful choices she has made. As she reflects on her career, she shares this advice with aspiring lawyers: “Nothing gets you through without hard work, but no one is diminished by showing compassion.”