In Memoriam: J. Michael McWilliams, (1939-2021)


Farewell to “A Good Man,” Past MSBA and ABA President

On Tuesday, February 23, 2021, J. Michael McWilliams, a past president of the Maryland State Bar Association and the first Marylander to serve as president of the American Bar Association, passed away from pneumonia. He was 81. McWilliams was born and raised in Annapolis and was the son of Maryland Court of Appeals Judge William J. McWilliams and Helen Disharon McWilliams. His mother died shortly after his birth, and his father remarried Nancy Leighton, who helped raise him. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and his law degree from the University of Maryland. He also served as a lieutenant in the US Army.

He is described as a humble, smart, and funny man by a former law partner. His son, J. Michael McWilliams, of Boston, describes him as “an innately selfless person.” As an undergraduate at Georgetown in 1958, McWilliams dove into the churning rapids of the Potomac at Great Falls Park on the Virginia side in an unsuccessful effort to save two undergrads who had been swept into the rapids. 

He served as assistant attorney general of Maryland before becoming counsel to the Maryland Department of Transportation, where he served for six years. In 1977, he joined the firm of Tydings & Rosenberg as senior partner. His practice focused on national and international complex litigation and transactions. That same year Harry Hughes, McWilliam’s former boss at DOT, tapped McWilliams to help with his successful campaign for Governor of Maryland. After Hughes won, McWilliams led the transition team.

McWilliams then returned to Tydings & Rosenberg, where he remained until 1997 when he established McWilliams Dispute Resolutions Inc. He served as president and CEO of his firm. He also served as president of the College of Commercial Arbitrators and president of the International Academy of Mediators. 

He served as president of the Maryland State Bar Association and, in 1992, became the first Marylander to serve as president of the American Bar Association. 

He retired from practice in 2017. 

Due to the pandemic, a memorial service will be held at a later date.

Survivors include his wife of 50 years, the former Frances Edelen McCabe, two sons, a daughter, seven siblings, and four grandchildren.