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J. Michael McWilliams, a mediation lawyer who assisted in the 1978 gubernatorial campaign of Harry R. Hughes, dies

J. Michael McWilliams was a president of the American Bar Association.
J. Michael McWilliams was a president of the American Bar Association.

J. Michael McWilliams, a Baltimore mediation attorney who founded his own firm, participated in the 1978 gubernatorial campaign of Harry R. Hughes and then headed his transition team, died of complications from pneumonia Feb. 23 at Sinai Hospital. The Roland Park resident was 81.

“Michael was a good man, bright, and a great personality,” said Joseph M. Coale III, a writer and historian who managed the Hughes campaign. “And I’d describe Michael as a free spirit who didn’t fit the normal Baltimore lawyer-type-of-guy. He was perhaps a little too casual for some, and he probably did more to get Harry moving than anyone else.”

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C. Wayne Davis, a Baltimore lawyer and a partner in the firm of Thomas & Libowitz, became acquainted with Mr. McWilliams in the gym at the Maryland Club, where they were members.

“He’s 20 years my senior, and I always liked listening to him discuss the law and history. He was a great guy and a real student of Maryland politics and had a great command of Maryland political history, and especially of the Hughes era,” Mr. Davis said. “He could command a room with that deep voice of his and people would quiet down and listen to him.”

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Bill Tanton, former Evening Sun sports editor and columnist, was another longtime friend and Maryland Club squash partner.

“First off, Mike was a substantial lawyer and had been president of the American Bar Association,” Mr. Tanton said. “He was a strong guy physically and always played a good game of squash. He was a nice guy and I never heard anyone say anything bad about him.”

John Michael McWilliams, who never used his first name, was the son of Maryland Court of Appeals Judge William J. McWilliams and his wife, Helen Disharon McWilliams, who died shortly after his birth. He was born and raised in Annapolis. His father married Nancy Leighton, who helped raise Mr. McWilliams.

After graduating from St. Mary’s High School in Annapolis in 1957, Mr. McWilliams began his studies at Georgetown University, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1964, and served as an Army lieutenant from 1964 to 1966. He was a 1967 graduate of the University of Maryland Law School.

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When he was freshman at Georgetown, Mr. McWilliams and several other GU students were at Great Falls Park on the Virginia side of the Potomac River when two students were swept into the churning rapids. Mr. McWilliams dived in in an attempt to save the life of fellow freshman George Thomas Grace, who was swept from his rescuer’s arms and drowned.

“He was an innately selfless person, as evidenced by his attempted rescue of a college classmate from the Potomac rapids in 1958,” a son, J. Michael McWilliams of Boston, wrote in a biographical profile of his father.

After serving two years as an assistant attorney general of Maryland, he spent six years as counsel to the state Department of Transportation.

During that period, he directed negotiations with contractors who were demanding more than $30 million in cost overruns for the construction of the second Bay Bridge. His efforts resulted in a settlement of $10 million, which “transportation officials viewed as a victory for the state,” reported The Sun, while attributing the successful outcome to Mr. McWilliams’ “disarming” talents.

In 1977, he joined the law firm of Tydings & Rosenberg, where he was a senior partner and focused his practice on national and international general and complex business litigation and transactions, while maintaining close contact with Mr. Hughes, his former boss at MDOT.

When Mr. Hughes resigned as state transportation secretary in 1977 in a dispute over how a department contract was being awarded for construction of the Baltimore subway, he was urged to consider running for governor the next year and assembled a team that included Mr. Coale, Mr. McWilliams and Harold C. “Hal” Donofrio Sr., who founded in 1964 what became Carton Donofrio Partners Inc.

“Harry Hughes owed his successful campaign to the brilliant work of Mike McWilliams and Hal Donofrio,” Mr. Coale said. “Mike did more to get Harry moving than anyone else, and he led him to the next step to be a dedicated candidate. And Hal quickly assembled a media team that produced a viable candidate at a time when we were at 2 percent, and got him off the ground.”

When Mr. Hughes was elected, he appointed Mr. McWilliams to head his transition team.

Mr. McWilliams explained to The Sun when he took the job: “No one can say I have any vested interest in what I’m doing here. I’ve spent enough time in state government to know how frustrating it can be,” adding that he could make more money in private practice than he could in a high state office.

He also explained to the newspaper that Governor Hughes was not a flamboyant politician but “basically a shy person whose reticence is sometimes misrepresented as a sign of arrogance or aloofness. It’s not arrogance, it’s simply Harry’s nature.”

Mr. McWilliams returned to his old law firm, remaining until 1997, when he established McWilliams Dispute Resolutions Inc. in the 1100 block of N. Charles St., where he was president and CEO. As in his earlier career, he engaged with leading professional organizations in parallel with his work in private practice, including active membership in the College of Commercial Arbitrators and the International Academy of Mediators, serving as president of both organizations.

Throughout his career, he was a firm supporter of expanded legal access to legal services for both the poor and children.

He was a member and eventually president of the Young Lawyers Council, Maryland State Bar Association and the American Bar Association. In 1992, he was the first Marylander to be named president of the ABA.

One of the first things he tried to do was correct the public’s perception of lawyers as being like the sleazy Arnie Becker on “L.A. Law,” a popular TV show at the time.

“It’s not that important that what the witness said on the stand would in a normal court be inadmissible,” he explained in an Evening Sun interview at the time. “As a whole, they are good shows to have. ... A lot of the ill will toward the legal profession is based on ignorance,” and added, “I’m sick and tired of lawyers jokes.”

He stepped down from the ABA in 2016 and retired from practice the next year.

He was an accomplished carpenter, sailor, fisherman, card player and ballroom dancer, in addition to playing squash.

Mr. McWilliams, a skilled orator with a quick and dry wit, was said to be able to hold an audience with rapt attention. His verbal repertoire included a 10-minute speech of nothing but non sequiturs.

He enjoyed family vacations on Water Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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He was a member of the Maryland Club and a communicant of Sacred Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church in Mount Washington.

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Due to the pandemic, plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife of 50 years, the former Frances Edelen McCabe; another son, James M. McWilliams of South Orange, New Jersey; a daughter, M. Edelen McWilliams of Brooklyn, New York; four brothers, Bernard F. McWilliams of Baltimore, F. Byron McWilliams of Rockville, Stephen B. McWilliams of Summit, New Jersey, and Hugh L. McWilliams of San Antonio; three sisters, Carla McWilliams of Chestertown, Patricia McWilliams Cleary of Chevy Chase and Mary H. McWilliams of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and four grandchildren.

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