McWilliams is building a caseload for his ABA presidency

February 20, 1991|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Evening Sun Staff

THE SUMMER OF 1992 doesn't seem that far away as attorney J. Michael McWilliams discusses taking over the presidency of the American Bar Association from his sunlit, corner office on the 25th floor of a Charles Street high-rise.

The senior partner with Tydings & Rosenberg, selected by the nominating committee at the ABA's semi-annual convention last week, will be the first Marylander to lead the 380,000-member organization if its House of Delegates confirms his nomination at the annual meeting in August. Traditionally, election is a foregone conclusion once a candidate is nominated.

The three-way race, which included the first female candidate for president, ended in a 31-20-9 vote. McWilliams, whose specialty is corporate law, will serve a year as president-elect, beginning in August, and another, beginning in 1992, as president.

While office clutter covers his desk and tabletops, evidence of the work he delayed to attend the convention in Seattle, and congratulatory phone calls continually interrupt his conversation, he shows no signs of feeling harried.

He talks about his hopes for expanded legal aid for the working poor, improved opportunities in law for minorities and women, and more participation by John Q. Public in solving the much talked-about "crisis in the justice system." His language is measured and confident, and already he sounds like the organization's chief officer, or at least its chief promoter.

"The ABA does an extraordinary amount of public service in its programs that deal with the elderly, the handicapped . . . you name it and we've got some group trying to improve the situation. But so few people know about that unless they happen to be involved in it."

That won't be the case if he has anything to say about it. One of his goals as president, he says, is to improve public knowledge of the legal system. Improving public opinion of lawyers might be more difficult, he admits.

"The image of the lawyer is not something that can be worked on directly, by hiring a PR firm. People are going to begin to respect and look more kindly on lawyers when they begin to see what part it is that lawyers play in our legal system and why."

McWilliams says that while fictitious TV characters like the sleazy Arnie Becker on "L.A. Law" don't help lawyers' image, the popular series does provide a public service in another sense. The controversies it explores, he says, are usually valid and the scripts often quite revealing, despite their tendency toward the dramatic.

"It's not that important that what the witness said on the stand would in a normal court be inadmissible," he says. "As a whole, they are good shows to have. . . . A lot of the ill will toward the legal profession is based on ignorance."

McWilliams has made a more or less traditional ascension to ABA leadership. He is past president, treasurer and member of the board of governors of the Maryland State Bar and in 1986 became the first Marylander to chair the ABA House of Delegates.

Born and raised in Annapolis, he is the son of a former judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. He attended Georgetown University and did a two-year stint in the Army infantry before graduating from the University of Maryland law school in 1967. In 1970 he married Frances McCabe of Roland Park; they have three children.

McWilliams spent six years as general counsel to the newly formed state Department of Transportation under Harry Hughes in the early '70s. It was the beginning of a friendship that would last well beyond McWilliams' resignation in 1977 to go into private practice.

When Hughes decided to run for governor, McWilliams helped mastermind the campaign. And with victory in November 1978, the governor-elect chose McWilliams to head the transition team for his move to the statehouse.

"It's a great accomplishment for Mike," said Hughes, who characterizes his friend as a tireless worker with a successful persuasive technique.

"When he sets his sights on something, he pretty well does it," says Hughes, who is now with the Baltimore law firm of Patton Boggs & Blow.

McWilliams' sights are now set on lining up programs and issues for '92. Among other things, he says, he intends to support the ongoing work of ABA commissions investigating the status of women and minorities in the legal profession.

As for legal aid, he advocates a greatly expanded Legal Services Corp., funded through the states and federal government, along with volunteer programs on the state and local levels. Volunteer work will keep lawyers from getting too comfortable, he says.

"We all have a tendency if we don't run into a problem ourselves to lose track of the fact that it's still there."

McWilliams is just as demanding of the public as he is of lawyers. If you don't like the way things work, he advises, "tell the legislature how you feel."

He would like to see partnerships develop on the state and local levels between bar associations and civic groups like the League of Women Voters and environmental groups where lawyers would talk with citizens on the grass-roots level and point out how they can work together.

"The point to be made is: 'This is your system and it is affecting you negatively, so get in the car with us and go to Annapolis.'"

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