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Adrian Walker

Back to the mission

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / January 29, 2011

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The surprisingly quick courtship of Ralph C. Martin II to a unlikely career transition began innocently enough, over a meal at Hamersley’s Bistro in the South End in December.

Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun had told Martin he wanted to pick his brain about a new general counsel for the school. Martin is a both and an alumnus and a trustee, and they often talked about the university. But Aoun actually had a candidate in mind — and he was sitting across the table.

Martin, the former Suffolk district attorney, has spent the nine years since leaving office at the law firm of Bingham McCutcheon, most recently as managing partner of the Boston office. It’s a nice job, with an extremely nice paycheck, and he wasn’t looking to leave. At the same time, it’s not the kind of job in which “mission’’ is the first word that comes to mind.

Aoun wasn’t certain that he could land him, but he is a big thinker and a persuasive man. “I always felt that Ralph is a mission-driven individual,’’ Aoun said yesterday. “The momentum of the place was exciting to him and the chance to help us shape it was exciting to him.’’

The Northeastern of today is a far cry from the commuter school Martin entered as a law student in 1975 — a fact he had come to appreciate as a trustee.

“If you think of the evolution of Northeastern — if you look at it 15 years ago and now — the distinction is really stark,’’ Martin said. “And when you think about where the energy is in this city in terms of innovation, it’s really in the colleges, the hospitals, and the life sciences.’’

Martin, a moderate Republican, was appointed district attorney in 1992, won the office outright in 1994, and left in 2002. He was Suffolk County’s first black district attorney and was credited with being an innovator who played a major role in the substantial drop in crime in the late 1990s. There isn’t much doubt that he could have won another election, but unlike many politicians, he was eager for life outside public office. He moved into the downtown business-and-legal power structure without missing a beat.

Martin’s portfolio at the university will be unusually broad, from legal issues to development to diversity. But the real appeal of leaving a major downtown law firm for a college at the edge of Roxbury was the opportunity to reconnect with the city. His experience as a prosecutor proved invaluable to him in private practice. But in the end, helping major corporations fend off federal and state investigators left something to be desired.

“The line I’ve been using is that I’m not exactly clicking my heels because it’s been a great place for me and a great place to work,’’ Martin said, of Bingham McCutcheon. “But our chairman likes to say that, even with the size and the scope of the work we do, we’re not saving lives. And I’ve often said I miss running something. This gets me a lot closer to both.’’

Yes, it’s a major pay cut. “I’m not going into anything resembling the hardship realm,’’ he said. “I won’t be materially affected, and I’m lucky to be able say that.’’

Martin is, of course, the subject of frequent political speculation. He downplays the idea of making another run for office — like, say, mayor of Boston in 2013 — and insists that the move from downtown to Northeastern has no political implications.

“This isn’t a job you take if you’re planning to be politically active,’’ he said. “You can’t compromise the institution by pursuing your own political agenda.’’

Still, it is a move into a different world — as he will discover at his first community meeting. He says he is looking forward to returning to the fray. “This,’’ said one of Boston’s best, “is a great fit for me at this point in my life.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.