BBA President Hannah L. Kilson Invites Us to Ask:
“How can I be of service?”
New BBA President Hannah L. Kilson doesn’t hesitate when asked about her favorite job. From the ages of 15-22, she worked as a counselor at a summer camp in Maine serving children from under-resourced neighborhoods in Boston and Lawrence and children with physical disabilities from Easterseals Massachusetts.
“I loved it,” Kilson says. “It was my happy place. I loved working with kids, teaching and mentoring.”
Kilson grew up in Lexington, MA, moving there from Cambridge when she was 4 years old —"New England born and bred,” in her words. She spent her summers in southwestern New Hampshire until she was 10 years old, when her parents sent her and her siblings to a summer camp on Lake Winnesquam run by the Boston Missionary Society serving primarily children from under-resourced neighboods in Boston. Kilson would continue to attend this camp for the next three summers. Those experiences, first as a camper and then a counselor, led her to develop an abiding interest in urban issues of economics and equity.
In the decades since, through several job titles and office changes (she jokes that, when her children were younger and would ask what she did for a living, she’d simply say she’s a problem-solver), Kilson’s passion for teaching, mentoring, and making a difference in her community has never wavered. Drawing on what she called her father’s “helping hand ethos,” Hannah L. Kilson has spent her professional life asking herself a simple question:
“How can I be of service?'
The answer has taken many forms, and the question continues to inform how she plans to serve as President of the BBA.
Following her time as a camp counselor and graduation from Amherst College, she took a position as a family law paralegal at the Legal Services Center (LSC) in Jamaica Plain, which is now the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School. As a legal services advocate, she spent six years there helping clients – typically women and children – navigate through divorce, paternity, guardianship, and domestic violence issues. Though she loved the work, she also says it became draining.
“I was frustrated by the relational and socioencomic dynamics of my family law work. My clients were people in dire economic situations, mothers with young children—all of my clients were living in poverty and there were so many systemic issues. I asked myself, ‘How can I get further upstream on these issues?’”
To begin to answer that question, Kilson obtained her master’s degree from Harvard University Graduate School of Education with a focus on urban educational policy while still working full-time at LSC. A course on educational policy in the law prompted her to go to law school.
“I decided to go to law school, thinking I wanted to get into community development work,” she said. “Working at a thinktank in Washington, DC the summer after my first year, I came to realize housing is the linchpin in dealing with poverty and creating stability for families and individuals, so housing became my focus.”
During her time at Harvard Law School, she took the limited array of available courses on housing policy and real estate finance, served as co-managing editor of the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review, and organized the Women of Color Collective, a group of women of color law students who organized conferences concerning issues on women of color and the law. After law school, she clerked for Judge William G. Young of the United States District Court of the District of Massachusetts, a “great opportunity,” she said, but one that confirmed her belief that she did not want to be a trial attorney.
After her clerkship, she joined the firm Hill & Barlow, handling commercial real estate transactions, including some affordable housing development transactions with her current law partner, Stephen Nolan. After six years, concluding that private practice was not compatible with parenting her young children, Kilson moved on to an in-house role with a former client, MassDevelopment, the state’s economic development arm. But in 2010, to her surprise, she returned to private practice at Nolan Sheehan Patten LLP, becoming a partner in 2013, and concentrating her practice on real estate transactions in the area of affordable housing and community development. Though she says she was initially hesitant to return to private practice, assurances that she’d be able to do so without sacrificing time with her three children—and the opportunity to join a mission-driven practice focusing on affordable housing and community development—convinced Kilson to return to private practice with some of her former Hill & Barlow colleagues. She’s been with Nolan Sheehan Patten ever since.
“I have never enjoyed practicing law more or feeling able to effectively manage my professional and personal roles and interests than at NSP,” says Kilson.
“Hannah has become an amazing leader at our firm for a number of reasons,” said Stephen Nolan, one of the firm’s founding partners. “She is forthright and honest. She actively mentors our associates and organizes our continuing legal education efforts. She does not shy away from difficult tasks and has a strong work ethic and commitment to her practice. She leads by example, has a strong moral framework, and always chooses to do what is right over what may be easy or expedient.”
That strong moral framework leads her to continue to ask, “How can I be of service?” in her practice and looking ahead to her role as BBA President. It has also guided her in her activities beyond the BBA; she has served as a member of the Multi-Family Housing Advisory Committee of the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency since 2016, as well as the Horizon for Homeless Children’s Advisory Committee since 2021. She was also elected as a member of the directors of the American Civil Liberties Union – Massachusetts and Chaired the Massachusetts IOLTA Committee from 2013-2021, where former Executive Director Jayne Tyrell said she quickly demonstrated impressive leadership skills.
“The IOLTA Committee thrived under her guidance,” Tyrell said. “She treated our staff with respect, never failing to respond promptly to the program’s needs despite the demands of her practice, other community service positions, and the BBA. It was a privilege to work with her.”
“Hannah is focused, committed to success, endlessly patient, and a problem solver,” echoed Sue Cohen, General Counsel, Cambridge Housing Authority. Cohen has worked with Kilson for nearly a decade, primarily on Cambridge Housing Authority’s rehabilitation of its public housing portfolio. “She has a laser-sharp mind which fosters great confidence in her guidance and advice. Combined with her lovely demeanor and positive presence, there are few lawyers that can equal her professionalism, mastery of the law, and accomplishments.”
Of particular interest to Kilson is the well-being of lawyers in Massachusetts. It’s a subject that has come to the fore in recent years, punctuated by the report published last February by Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers and the SJC Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, which indicated high levels of burnout, anxiety, depression, and hazardous or unhealthy alcohol use among lawyers—particularly among lawyers of certain demographics, including women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and persons with disabilities.
It is a complex issue, with mental and emotional health frequently receiving the most focus, yet Kilson understands that physical, financial, social, and intellectual pieces all play a significant role.
“It's a multidimensional thing,” she says. “And we can’t just focus on one area; if you do, you become unbalanced in the other areas, and that leads to lawyers who are less effective, less productive, less fulfilled, and I think we tend to overlook that. There are all these components, and we need to attend to all of them.”
At the heart of that multidimensional approach is keeping members engaged and enthusiastic about their work and the work of the BBA, as well as their activities outside of the legal profession, she says.
“I think, for our mental health as individuals and as a profession, we need to be engaged with each other,” she said. “We need to not feel isolated.”
For her, that means striking the right balance between the convenience of online training and education with the necessity of in-person meeting and exchanging of ideas.
“Part of reengaging is forcing all of us to shake off the inertia of the last few years,” she said, pointing out that, while parts of the work-from-home model offer convenience and simplicity, she does not find it to be a sustainable model. Specifically, there is no viable replacement for face-to-face meetings and interactions.
“The Zoom screen is really effective for certain things—some trainings and meetings, for example—but we all need to be back together to make our organization most effective and engaged,” Kilson said. “If we're engaged, we're doing intellectual things that really are challenging, that promote our cognitive wellness and promote collaboration, that's good for us. When we come together and network, we also expand the pool of people who can assist us, which means we're going to be more effective in delivering services to our clients.”
Now, she seeks to find the perfect blend of the benefits of hybrid work and the necessity of in-person gatherings—both professional and social. Like her predecessor Chinh Pham, Kilson is an avid runner, and would love to see the combination of social and physical well-being in the form of, say, an informal running club for BBA members as a way to promote overall health.
“Wouldn’t that be fun?” Kilson posited. “A group of attorneys gathering on a weeknight, running along the Esplanade, letting off steam and showing a different side of themselves in a healthy, communal way? It may not take that exact form, but I think there’d be interest in some of these less traditional gatherings that appeal to younger and older groups alike.”
Kilson also wants the BBA to continue to be of service to Greater Boston—both its legal community and the city as a whole. She looks at the BBA’s partnerships with local affinity bars as one way to increase the Association’s impact. She hopes to continue to find ways to strengthen relationships between leadership at the BBA and leadership within our affinity bar partners, to share expertise and insight, and work together in our mutual goal of advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal community.
“If we're going to develop a diverse pipeline of leadership in the BBA, we must develop those relationships early to help identify individuals who could benefit from, and bring a new perspective to, our organization. It’s a win-win; we assist these crucial—and, importantly, volunteer—organizations across the city, and in turn we broaden that pipeline of future BBA members and leaders.”
“Hannah cares deeply about the organization and its mission,” said immediate-past BBA President Chinh Pham, who worked closely with Hannah on the BBA’s Council and Executive Committee. “She will continue to carry out the Association’s important work with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion—work she’s already played a crucial role in, including this year’s pilot Women of Color Leadership forum.”
Kilson understands that the BBA is at its best when its membership and leadership represent the community it serves. Her goal for the year ahead is to continue to foster a robust and effective Boston legal community where everybody knows the BBA is a space for them. This, she says, leads to an environment where people look forward to coming to events and programs because they're going to be treated with kindness and respect, be intrigued by the subject matter, and learn something new—and, hopefully, bring more colleagues and friends the next time.
“It’s important that the BBA feels like a space where you don’t feel like an outsider. We want to make sure our membership includes many kinds of attorneys, both in terms of their practice areas and years in practice, as well as their affinity associations and their lived experiences. We need to continue to bring a diverse group of people together because that's where creativity happens. That's transformative. We're more creative and we're more curious when we're in environments like that.”
“The BBA will be in great hands with Hannah,” said Pham. “I am constantly impressed with her approach to the issues that we need to address, no matter how complex. Her ability to frame important issues in a way that everyone can clearly understand will be crucial in guiding the BBA this coming year.”
And, if a member finds themselves unsure where to start or how to best get involved? Just begin with a simple question:
“How can I be of service?”