Marylander is expected to win bar group's top post

February 05, 1991|By Graeme Browning

Frustrated at the slowness with which his case was moving through the courts, a client of lawyer Mike McWilliams recently burst out, "Why don't you lawyers do something about this?"

"I told him, 'The engraving over the Supreme Court doesn't say "Equal justice for all lawyers." You're just as responsible for the condition of the system as I am,' " Mr. McWilliams recalled recently in his office at the Baltimore firm of Tydings & Rosenberg.

"And I meant it. We have to get every citizen in this country involved if we're going to cure the problems in the courts," he added.

It is primarily because of such forthrightness that Mr. McWilliams has been nominated for the post of president-elect of the American Bar Association, friends and colleagues say.

If he wins the majority of votes to be cast this weekend by the nominating committee at the ABA's midyear meeting in Seattle -- as is expected -- Mr. McWilliams will become the first Maryland lawyer ever to be in line to head the 380,000-member organization, which was founded in 1878.

Success in the presidency of the largest and most prestigious lawyers' group in the country demands a combination of energy, diplomacy and tact. Those who know him say Mr. McWilliams has those traits in abundance.

"God knows he's a good politician and an excellent parliamentarian. He can run an organization very effectively," said Edgar H. Gans, a partner at the law firm of Niles, Barton & Wilmer and a friend of Mr. McWilliams for 25 years.

"As gregarious as Mike is, he knows how to get down to the bottom line and communicate on a one-to-one basis with people in order to develop information and to persuade," said Hal Donofrio, chief executive officer of Richardson, Myers & Donofrio Inc., a Baltimore agency that devised advertising for the 1978 campaign of Gov. Harry Hughes, which Mr. McWilliams directed.

A thoughtful man with an intense manner that belies what friends say is a sometimes outrageous sense of humor, Mr. McWilliams is the son of a former judge of the state Court of Appeals and a 1964 graduate of Georgetown University.

He received his law degree in 1967 from the University of Maryland Law School and later served as general counsel to the state Department of Transportation.

He joined Tydings & Rosenberg in 1977.

Mr. McWilliams has served in several positions of importance in the Maryland State Bar Association, from the Young Lawyers Council, in 1969, to the presidency of the organization, in 1981-82. He has been elected to so many positions of leadership in the ABA that a single-spaced listing of his activities in that organization takes up an entire page.

Along the way, lawyers say, Mr. McWilliams has developed a reputation for speaking his mind on issues he considers important.

A firm advocate of providing more legal services for the poor, he champions the revitalization of the federal Legal Services Corp., for example. He also supports efforts by the legal profession to lessen the competitive pressure among lawyers and improve their image.

"I'm so sick and tired of lawyer jokes, but you have to wonder what it is about lawyers that prompts people to keep making them up," Mr. McWilliams said.

When bitter debate on the subject of the ABA's position on abortion erupted last year during both the midyear and annual meetings, Mr. McWilliams spoke forcefully in favor a resolution supporting what he describes as "the right to choose."

Asked what he would do if he becomes president and the issue arises again, he shook his head. "I don't think anyone looks forward to it coming up again because of the bitterness and divisiveness," he sighed. "That's really a tough one."

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