Earle K. Shawe was a tough-minded New Deal labor lawyer who later represented management at major corporations.
Earle K. Shawe was a tough-minded New Deal labor lawyer who later represented management at major corporations. (HANDOUT)

Earle K. Shawe, a tough-minded labor lawyer who gained fame as a 24-year-old New Deal-era attorney after winning a case against Bethlehem Steel Corp. and later went on to establish the Baltimore law firm of Shawe & Rosenthal LLP, died June 30 in his sleep at his Pikesville home.

He was 104.


There are a couple of things you can say about Earle," said Eric Hemmendinger, who has been a labor lawyer with the firm for 40 years.

"He had a relentless drive and a persistence and was a student of human nature. He could figure people out and was a big problem solver," he said. "He was aggressive, but he tried to find ways to solve problems and understood both sides and what they wanted. And we did a lot of collective bargaining where relationships are very important."

J. Michael McGurie was hired by Mr. Shawe in 1978. "He was very smart and down-to-earth when it came to working with people. He would get very energized representing his clients' interests and was a superb model for a young lawyer," Mr. McGuire said.

The son of Philip Shawe, a Russian immigrant and dry goods jobber, and Gita Rifka, a homemaker, Earle Kent Shawe was born in Pinners Point, Va., and raised in Portsmouth, Va., where he graduated from high school.

He was 16 years old when he entered the University of Virginia, from which he earned both a bachelor's degree in economics and later his law degree in 1934.

After briefly clerking for a small New York law firm, Halpert and Halpert, Mr. Shawe went to Washington in the 1930s as an attorney for the Reconstruction Finance Corp. and later the National Recovery Administration.

When the National Labor Relations Board was founded in 1935, Mr. Shawe was one of its first attorneys and the youngest hired.

After the validity of the NLRB was upheld on a 5-4 vote by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1937, union members had their own "Bill of rights" and the NLRB to defend them.

"He began paying his dues in Johnstown, Pa., Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Ely, Nev. and Atlanta and throughout the South," observed a 1981 Evening Sun profile. "In some cases, he was in the right place at the right time but, as he says, you have to know what to do when you get there."

During his time with the NLRB, Mr. Shawe participated in many of the leading cases of the 1930s and 1940s that tested the constitutonality of the Wagner Act, which was passed in 1935 and guaranteed the right to bargain collectively and forbid unfair labor practices by employers.

As a union advocate, in 1938 Mr. Shawe took on Bethlehem Steel and its power-steeped silk-stocking New York law firm, and eventually won the case that broke the "impotent company union," reported The Evening Sun, and gained legitimate bargaining rights for workers.

"The assembled might of the great New York law firm of Cravath, De Gersdorff, Swaine & Wood —- counsel, associate counsel, and assistants — found itself opposed by one skinny youth, a Virginian named Earle Shawe, looking for all the world like a high-school valedictorian,"according to an article at the time in Fortune Magazine on the young lawyer's triumph over the giant steelmaker.

Through the years, Mr. Shawe relished telling how he prevailed against "15 Wall Street lawyers," in the case who arrived by limousine each day to attend hearings that were held in a high school auditorium in Johnstown, Pa.

In 1941, Mr. Shawe came to Baltimore as a regional attorney for the NLRB — the youngest regional attorney in the board's history — and after five years of litigating numerous high-profile cases, resigned and established his own firm, E.K.Shawe.


He initially intended to represent unions but was hired by the Baltimore Graphic Arts Association, a group of printing companies, that was locked in a labor dispute with the International Typographical Union.

Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which allowed companies to file unfair labor practices against unions.

Mr. Shawe, "on behalf of the Association, filed — and won — the first charge under that law," according to a statement from his law firm announcing his death.

Mr. Shawe's case prevented the International Typographical Union from making city printing firms run closed shops.

"With that victory, Earle established his reputation as an aggressive, sharp and practical management-side attorney," said the statement. "Many major companies aginst whom Earle litigated when he was a Board attorney subsequently hired him to represent them. He was instrumental in our firm's development of a national practice representing management in all areas of labor relations."

"Then he changed sides, and carved out a name for himself as a top hired gun," said a 1997 Baltimore Sun profile.

In 1951, the law practice became Shawe & Rosenthal, after William J. Rosenthal joined the firm.

Even though the firm grew to represent numerous Fortune 500 companies in 36 states, and represented most hotels in Las Vegas, including Caesars Palace, and every hotel in Bermuda, Mr. Shawe resisted the notion of opening branch offices, preferring to conduct business from Baltimore's Sun Life Building.

"Even though he was a fierce negotiator, he could still be friends with the other side when it was over. That's the way it was," Mr. Hemmendinger said. "Being on the other side of the table you were adversaries, not enemies."

Mr. McGuire recalled a case in an accidental death at Bethlehem Steel when Mr. Shawe cross-examined an OSHA inspector.

"Earle was excellent at drawing out information that supported Bethlehem Steel's explanation. He was good at reading human nature," he said. "He was a lawyer's lawyer. He was not flamboyant and was respectful of the tribunal — judge, counsel and client."

With a thick head of swept-back white hair and dressed in conservative Brooks Brothers suits and ties, Mr. Shawe liked to describe himself as "just a poor country boy" and a "third-generation Southerner," who liked to use his "deep-chested drawl" as a major weapon, reported The Sun in 1997.

"He'll raise his black eyebrows and widen his eyes to make a point, and hammer a questioner with questions, 'You with me?' 'You follow?' 'Got it?' And, in the roots-conscious manner of a true Virginian, he always has to know where you're from," according to The Sun article.

Until his death, Mr. Shawe was still going to work and maintained an interest in the firm's cases.

"If you say he was retired, he'd cuss you out," said his son, Stephen D. Shawe, also a labor lawyer with the firm, who lives in North Roland Park.

"He was a demanding boss, and he expected high-quality work and attention to detail," Mr. Hemmendinger said. "He had a deep interest in what everyone was doing at the firm."

He donated his papers to the Arthur J. Morris Law Library at the University of Virginia and a established a law scholarship, also at UVA.

Beyond playing golf — which he took up in his 50s — at the Suburban Club, where he was a member, he enjoyed spending time at a second home in Palm Beach, Fla.


Mr. Shawe said his father followed no special regimen in helping him acquire centenarian status.

"He never exercised, hiked or walked around the block if he could avoid it," he said with a laugh. "He never thought about what he was eating and enjoyed bourbon, as any good Virginian would, and drank scotch, vodka martinis and wine."

Mr. Shawe was a member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

His wife of 78 years, the former Annette Colodny, a court stenographer whom he met in Washington and married in 1938, died in 2016.

Services were private.

In addtion to his son, he is surived by a daughter, Gail R. Shawe Bernstein of Santa Fe, N.M.; a brother, Norman Schokevitz of Florida; a sister, Rosalie Kolker of Bethesda; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.