By Jane Whitehead
On April 15, 2013, Bill Sinnott JD ’85 was one of hundreds of Boston Marathon runners who crossed the finish line well before the two bomb blasts that killed three people and injured more than 260.
The next day, as corporation counsel, the City of Boston’s top attorney and a cabinet officer, he played a key role in shaping then-Mayor Thomas Menino’s recovery strategy.
“The aftermath really showcased how a city can pull together and turn tragedy into triumph,” said Sinnott, a former state and federal prosecutor and retired Marine Corps Colonel, whose eight-year tenure as corporation counsel ended in February 2014.
Sinnott was as shocked as anyone by the violent disruption of a signature Boston event, but as a former U.S. Marine with 32 years of active and reserve service, he was better prepared than most. Joining the Marine Corps after college in 1979, in search of travel, adventure and challenge, he served as Intelligence, Civil Affairs and Security Officer in Cuba, Norway, the Balkans, Greece, the UK, Spain, Korea and Iraq. Later, he saw active service overseeing peacekeeping, security, and reconstruction initiatives in Bosnia in 1998 and was director of security at the Iraq Project and Contracting Office in Baghdad in 2004-05, responsible for the safety of more than 600 military and civilian employees.
Road to Law School
As a young officer briefing senior officers at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – long before its post-9/11 notoriety – Sinnott’s skill at handling tough questioning so impressed his superiors that one general told him: “Kid, you should be a trial lawyer.” Sinnott found himself “very much attracted to trial work,” and had already considered law school before he joined the Marines, but decided he needed more life experience first.
At Suffolk Law School, practical experience with Suffolk Prosecutors and an internship at the U.S. Attorney’s Office proved crucial preparation for his first post as an assistant district attorney in Norfolk County, Mass.
“Those clinical programs are so useful in getting the attention of employers, and giving them a comfort factor with who you are and what you’ve done before,” he said.
Heavy caseloads, constant time pressure and low pay did nothing to dampen Sinnott’s enthusiasm for his second profession. Sinnott prosecuted cases in District Court, Norfolk County Superior Court, and the Massachusetts Appeals Court in the late 1980s.
“I loved walking into the courtroom knowing I was going to put on a good case,” he said. As a trial lawyer, he said, “You can be creative, you can be humorous, you can bring drama and comedy to that courtroom.”
Leadership and Service
Following his move to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston in 1990, as an assistant United States attorney, Sinnott served as chief of the New England Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force and as district office security manager for the District of Massachusetts, coordinating with all law enforcement agencies on emergency action procedures and personnel security issues.
As Boston’s corporation counsel, Sinnott was responsible for all litigation, claims, and regulatory and transactional matters involving the city government and its personnel and property. Heading a staff of 60 attorneys and support personnel, Sinnott used the leadership approach he had learned in the Marines.
“At its core, it’s all about recognizing first and foremost what your mission is,” he said. “And the most important thing you need to do is to hire well, promote well, and give your people sufficient guidance without handcuffing them, and then let them do their jobs.”
During his eight-year tenure, Sinnott built a reputation for insulating his staff from political and media pressure.
“I felt my role was to know everything that was taking place,” he said.
That was a tall order with around 500 pending litigation cases at any one time, on top of a constant stream of transactional matters. With clients including all city departments, he oversaw a great variety of cases—from major civil rights cases to the legal process that brought the Occupy Boston protest to a peaceful end in December 2011.
Throughout the Occupy Boston protest, Sinnott and his office gave legal guidance to the police, public health officials, and fire marshals monitoring the encampment on Dewey Square. Sinnott takes pride in Boston’s measured response, and gives credit to Mayor Menino’s patience and deference to the First Amendment for avoiding the violence seen in Oakland, Calif., and other cities.
Obliged to 'Do Justice'
The great privilege of being a government lawyer, whether as a prosecutor or as Corporation Counsel, Sinnott said, is that “you’re in a unique position, because it’s not only about winning, and sometimes it’s not about winning at all.”
With the latitude to look beyond the narrow interests of an individual client, he said, “You’ve got an obligation to do justice and to do the right thing, and I’ve been very fortunate to work for chief executives who recognized and expected that.”