Lydia E. Lawless surprised the legal community last month when she announced she would resign as Maryland’s bar counsel, a powerful position that involves investigating and prosecuting attorneys accused of misconduct.
Only four people have held the job in the nearly 50 years that the Office of Bar Counsel has existed in Maryland — and before Lawless took over, the job had only been held by men who held the role until retirement or, in the case of the first bar counsel, L. Hollingsworth Pittman, his death.
Lawless instead chose a different approach: On Friday, she stepped down from the position she’d held since 2017 after less than six years on the job.
“I was always committed to staying for a limited period of time,” Lawless said. “It’s the type of job and the type of office that can always use a fresh look and fresh perspective.”
She is moving to Kramon & Graham, P.A., a major Baltimore firm known for handling legal issues for other law firms and lawyers.
“We are extremely excited that Lydia will join Kramon & Graham,” said David J. Shuster, the firm’s managing principal. “She is an exceptional lawyer, and her considerable experience will be an invaluable asset to our clients and our firm.”
In her time as bar counsel, Lawless developed a reputation as a tough but fair prosecutor of her fellow lawyers and an accomplished legal advocate. Seen by some opponents as inflexible — a view that shifted somewhat during her time in office — Lawless said she sought to standardize the work of disciplining lawyers in Maryland.
“I have enormous respect for Ms. Lawless’s performance as bar counsel,” said Mary Ellen Barbera, who was the first woman to serve as chief judge of Maryland’s Court of Appeals, now called the Supreme Court.
Barbera was leading the court when it approved Lawless as the Attorney Grievance Commission’s selection to become bar counsel in 2017. Lawless would become the first woman to serve as bar counsel and, at just 36 years old, the youngest person to take on the role.
“Ms. Lawless is the quintessential professional,” Barbera said. “She consistently undertook, with great distinction, the many duties of that important position. We owe much to Ms. Lawless for her steadfast commitment to serving the legal community and the public.”
Bar counsel represents the Attorney Grievance Commission, which oversees attorney discipline in Maryland. The Office of Bar Counsel evaluates complaints against lawyers and handles a number of other issues, including petitioning for conservatorship when an attorney dies or becomes unable to practice law.
The office, which has a staff of about 25 people and an annual budget of over $4 million, investigates allegations of professional misconduct and, if warranted, prosecutes attorneys for violations of Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct.
In her years on the job, Lawless took on legal titans, including Joseph I. Cassilly, the former longtime state’s attorney for Harford County.
In October 2021, the Maryland Supreme Court took the extraordinary step of disbarring Cassilly, who had retired, for withholding a potentially exculpatory report from the defense in a decades-old murder case, among other rule violations.
The high court adopted a hearing judge’s findings that Cassilly violated prosecutors’ ongoing obligation to notify the defense of information that casts doubt on a conviction and failed to tell a post-conviction judge of the exculpatory information in a misrepresentation that was “knowingly and intentionally false.”
Lawless also pursued disciplinary action against Stephen L. Snyder, a prominent medical malpractice lawyer now facing charges in federal court.
Snyder is accused of attempting to extort the University of Maryland Medical System by going public with allegations about the hospital system’s transplant program if it didn’t offer him a $25 million consulting deal. Federal prosecutors say the deal was a sham and that Snyder did not intend to work for the money.
Snyder has maintained his innocence and was recently reinstated to the Maryland bar after initially agreeing to a temporary suspension while he dealt with the federal indictment. His attorney grievance case is on hold while the federal charges are pending.
Lawless declined to comment on specific cases, but said that she strove for consistency in the attorney discipline process.
“The system only works if people believe that it’s fair, and in order for it to be perceived as fair, the rules have to apply to everybody,” Lawless said. “I think that the bar deserves that … but I think also the Maryland public deserves it.”
Lawless fought to improve pay for attorneys at the Office of Bar Counsel, which she said often saw turnover because of the intensity of the work and low salaries.
She also emphasized diversity in the office, appointing the first African-American deputy bar counsel and the first two female deputy bar counsels. Before her appointment as bar counsel, Lawless served as assistant bar counsel beginning in 2011 and senior assistant bar counsel in 2016.
“Any successes I have ever had are because of the incredible staff that I work with,” Lawless said. “There is no better group of public servants than the attorneys, investigators and staff in the Office of Bar Counsel.”
As the head of an office that prosecutes lawyers for misconduct, Lawless had “one of the toughest legal jobs in the state of Maryland,” said William C. Brennan Jr., an attorney known for representing lawyers and judges accused of ethics violations.
“Bar counsel does not have a natural constituency, and most lawyers that get a letter from bar counsel take it personally and turn their animosity toward bar counsel,” Brennan said. “It’s a very difficult position to be in.”
Lawyers who opposed Lawless sometimes felt she was less flexible than her predecessors — though Glenn M. Grossman, who was bar counsel before Lawless, discounted the notion that she was a greater stickler than he or more aggressive in her approach to enforcement, saying any difference in their styles was “small but insignificant.”
“I always found her to be receptive” to discussing cases involving clients facing allegations of ethical misconduct, said Grossman, who was Lawless’s boss before her appointment to the job.
“She was always tough but fair,” he added. “She was guided by a great deal of integrity and respect for the mission.”
Grossman joined Eccleston and Wolf representing attorneys before bar counsel until his retirement last year.
Attorney Alvin I. Frederick, a longtime defender of lawyers in trouble with bar counsel, said Lawless entered office a stickler for the rules of professional conduct and less willing to excuse conduct on the fringes.
But Lawless “evolved into the job” and showed increasing compassion toward wayward attorneys while still ensuring the public was protected from unethical lawyers, said Frederick, also of Eccleston and Wolf.
Frederick used a baseball analogy in which bar counsel is the home plate umpire, the lawyer is the pitcher and pitches in the strike zone result in at most a warning while “balls” warrant a sanction.
With Lawless, the strike zone was very tight, with pitches just off the plate being called a ball and thus sanctioned. With Grossman and his predecessor, Melvin Hirshman, a pitch “on the black” – or just off the plate – would still be called a strike and not sanctionable.
“(But) as time went by, Lydia’s strike zone expanded,” Frederick said.
For example, Lawless has increasingly directed lawyers who briefly stumbled to diversionary programs rather than place them in a disciplinary proceeding, Frederick said.
Irwin Kramer, a lawyer at Kramer & Connolly and frequent defender of attorneys facing discipline, has been an outspoken critic of Lawless’s prosecutorial decisions. He said bar counsel should use greater discretion in choosing when to bring charges against attorneys and be willing to use less public, punitive means to correct misbehavior.
“We need to U-turn to a policy of treating our colleagues collegially, of not presuming that they are unscrupulous criminals and prosecuting them,” Kramer said.
Other lawyers who faced off against Lawless in court said they didn’t always agree with her decisions, but emphasized that making tough calls is part of the job.
“I’m a fan and I don’t always see eye-to-eye (with her), but that’s what her job is about: discretion,” said James B. Astrachan, who previously served on the Attorney Grievance Commission’s Peer Review Committee.
Kathleen Howard Meredith, of Iliff, Meredith, Wildberger & Brennan, P.C., said Lawless’s reputation as a tough prosecutor may have stemmed from her efforts to standardize the Office of Bar Counsel.
Lawless was not arbitrary and tried to treat everyone the same, no matter what the circumstances, Meredith said.
“I respected the fact that what she was trying to do was to bring some consistency to the process,” Meredith said. “I didn’t always agree with where she came out, but I think that was her goal, and I think that by and large she did a very credible job.”
Lawless occasionally faced tough questions from the Maryland Supreme Court, including days before the news of her resignation became public.
During oral argument during an attorney grievance case in February, Justice Shirley M. Watts asked whether Lawless had created a conflict of interest when she pursued discipline against a challenger in a Montgomery County judicial race.
The petition against the attorney, Marylin Pierre, accused her of misrepresenting her legal experience and of making “knowingly and intentionally false” statements about sitting judges in Montgomery County during her failed judicial campaign in 2020.
Watts questioned whether Lawless had worked too closely with the sitting judges’ campaign when she launched the investigation into statements Pierre made in campaign literature.
“Do you think these circumstances give rise to a conflict of interest or at least the appearance of a conflict of interest that the Judiciary’s resources are being used to undermine the candidacy of a candidate in a judicial election?” Watts asked.
Kramer, who was representing Pierre, also attacked the decision to prosecute her during the argument.
“What happened here … is that bar counsel took sides in an ongoing election,” he said.
Lawless declined to comment on the case but said during oral argument that there was no evidence of a conflict of interest. A decision from the Maryland Supreme Court in Pierre’s case is pending.
As bar counsel, Lawless argued before the Supreme Court regularly and developed a reputation as a forceful litigator.
“She is one of the most effective appellate oral advocates in the state,” Meredith said. “She does an outstanding job at her appellate advocacy” before the high court.
The search for Lawless’s successor is still in early stages. The Maryland Judiciary posted the job listing a week ago.