Walter McLaughlin Jr.; helped others prepare for the bar

By Stephanie M. Peters, Globe Correspondent  |  June 27, 2010

Walter H. McLaughlin Jr.’s high score on the Massachusetts Bar Examination in 1960 didn’t just open the door for him to begin practicing law.

The Harvard Law School graduate’s performance caught the attention of Boston College Law School professors Jim Smith and Fred Hart, who recruited him to join them in forming Smith McLaughlin Hart Bar Review, a company focused on prepping law graduates for the intimidating test, passage of which is required in the state in which a prospective attorney hopes to be licensed.

During a 30-year span, more than 30,000 students in Massachusetts and many more across the country enrolled in the bar course, according to his son, William M. of Newton.

“He himself sat for exams in perhaps 15 states as a method to conduct market research,’’ he said. “He would fly in, take the two-day test and jot down notes about the exam on the plane ride home. In one such instance, he flew to Texas for the exam and achieved the highest test score in the state that year.’’

Mr. McLaughlin also served as an adjunct professor at Boston University School of Law and later Suffolk Law School and maintained a private practice at Gilman, McLaughlin & Hanrahan, a Boston firm he helped found.

Still, according to another son, Michael J. of Newton, “he was a teacher first, and his real passion was teaching the bar course.’’

Mr. McLaughlin died in his Belmont home June 11 after several years of battling cancer. He was 76.

Born in Cambridge, Mr. McLaughlin graduated from Belmont High School in 1951. He went on to Harvard College, where he joined the Naval Reserve Office Training Corps and studied government, graduating magna cum laude with his bachelor’s in 1955.

Immediately after graduation, he was commissioned as an ensign in the Navy. During his two years of service, Mr. McLaughlin earned the rank of lieutenant and served as a navigator aboard the USS Strickland, a destroyer escort on which he traveled to such places as Greenland, the Panama Canal, and Hawaii before it was a state. He was stationed in Newport, R.I.

After the Navy, Mr. McLaughlin returned to Harvard to study law, following the path of his father, Walter H. McLaughlin Sr., and uncles. He served as editor of the Harvard Law Review and graduated magna cum laude in 1960.

While pursuing the offer from Smith and Hart to start up a new bar review course, Mr. McLaughlin also served as an adjunct professor at Boston University and joined the family’s McLaughlin Brothers, a Boston law firm located in what was then Scollay Square, according to his son William.

Eventually, Mr. McLaughlin’s younger brother, Robert, also joined the firm, which their father left in 1967 to take an appointment to the Massachusetts Superior Court; and in 1970, he was named its chief justice.

In 1975, Mr. McLaughlin, his brother, and attorneys Arthur Gilman and David Hanrahan were among a group of lawyers that left McLaughlin Brothers to form Gilman, McLaughlin & Hanrahan.

After Mr. McLaughlin’s father retired from the bench in 1977, he joined his sons in the firm.

In a family considered “giants’’ in the Boston legal community, Mr. McLaughlin stood out, according to William York, a longtime coworker who took Mr. McLaughlin’s bar review course.

“Walter was one of a kind,’’ he said. “Taking the bar review with him was the first time I met him. From that day on, even though it was more than 35 years later, he was just mentoring every day. . . . He was kind of an artist in both the courtroom and the classroom.’’

Mr. McLaughlin was a general practitioner, but particularly enjoyed real estate law and even built his own real estate portfolio over time. He also specialized in electric utility deregulation and in later years taught a course on the subject at Suffolk, according to his son Michael.

“My father had an absolutely brilliant intellect and a mind that was just never at rest,’’ said his son William. “He had a nice combination of pragmatic approach and creative problem-solving. He was a man of few hobbies, so he kept himself busy through work, family time, and civic volunteering.’’

WALTER MCLAUGHLIN JR. WALTER MCLAUGHLIN JR.

Although involved in Belmont town government, Mr. McLaughlin considered teaching to be the vehicle through which he could give the most back, according to his sons. They describe him as an educational entrepreneur who pioneered videotaping his lectures in the 1970s and was an early-adopter of translating his course material into a CD-ROM format for students studying independently.

“Part of the demise of [Smith McLaughlin Hart] was that it was 1992, and he was about five years ahead of the students,’’ Michael said. “No one had laptops.’’

When it came to technology, he was always ahead of the curve, according to his sons. For example, Mr. McLaughlin purchased an Xbox video game system as soon as it came out. It was one of several activities he shared with his grandchildren.

He sold the bar review company in the mid-1990s and continued to work for them for a couple of years before forming a new, primarily online company, McLaughlin Bar Review. He also taught bar review at Suffolk, where he became an adjunct professor in 1990. He taught his final, three-hour bar review session at Suffolk on May 26, despite failing health.

“We tried to tell him not to, but he said . . . ‘I made a commitment, I’m going to teach,’ ’’ Michael said.

In addition to his sons William and Michael, Mr. McLaughlin leaves his wife of more than 49 years, Katherine A. (Mullen); two other sons, Walter K. of Hampden and David E. of Belmont; a brother, Robert E. of Belmont; a sister, Alice Ann Grayson of West Falmouth; and 13 grandchildren.