James Shea
James Shea (Courtesy photo)

James Shea, who stepped down as Venable’s chairman in February after 23 years in firm leadership, might need to cut out the legal work altogether. Last week Shea was outed as a potential candidate for governor of Maryland, spurred partly by his disdain for President Donald Trump.

The move could mean a delicate professional choice for the corporate litigator. As the relationship partner for several major Venable clients, Shea had lately been building his billable hours back up from the days when he was managing the firm.

“I’m going to have to sort that out over the next few months. I’m in an exploratory phase now,” the Democrat, who lives outside of Baltimore, said of his campaign.

Shea has never run for public office previously. He became Venable’s managing partner about two decades ago, and then was elevated to chairman in 2006 to succeed Benjamin Civiletti, the former U.S. attorney general. In his earlier days in management, Shea still tried a major case every year or so, and he began to bill more hours in recent years. Clients include Marriott International Inc., Verizon, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield and Johns Hopkins University.

He said he came close to billing 1,500 hours last year.

If his political bid turns serious, Shea would need to transition his legal clients to others at the firm.  

“Venable has a history of having its lawyers enter politics on both sides of the aisle,” current chairman Stuart Ingis said on behalf of the firm. “Jim led our firm for many years, and we are proud that someone of his exceptional intellect and integrity is pursuing elected office.”

Venable has been in the middle of a political race before. Karl Racine, who served as managing partner starting in 2006, ran for D.C. attorney general in the inaugural election for that office. It previously was a position appointed by the mayor. Racine has served as the attorney general since 2015.

Shea said he hadn’t thought about a gubernatorial bid until after his tenure as Venable’s leader had ended. “I know that’s hard to believe, because the timing is extraordinary,” he said. “If I were still chairman, I would resign and run.”

He said he feels a “significant amount of stress” about the current Republican ascendance, from the Maryland governor’s house to Trump’s White House.

“I don’t think you can be silent in the face of attacks on American institutions,” Shea said. “We need a governor who will stand up to the federal government.”

His main areas of political interest include how education factors into economic development, and Maryland’s transportation policy. Shea is a proponent of public transportation, especially now that the proposed Purple Line that would connect Maryland suburbs to the D.C. Metro and Baltimore’s proposed Red Line appear to be quashed.

He has served as chairman of the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents and the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, among other development-focused local groups.

“I think the work at Venable has given me deep experience over a long period of time in how to run and build large organizations, and in that sense I feel qualified to be governor,” he said. Venable is among a tiny group of Am Law 100 firms that has never weathered a year of per-lawyer revenue or profitability decline in the last decade. Profits per equity partner in 2016 reached $1.1 million, while revenue per lawyer hit $815,000 at the 600-lawyer firm, which was historically tied to Baltimore but now has its largest office in Washington, D.C.

Shea views the firm as a nonpartisan institution, with both Democrats and Republicans on staff, he said.

Doug Gansler, the former Maryland attorney general, is another Big Law affiliate who’s rumored to be interested in the Maryland governor’s office. Gansler, a Democrat who’s now a partner at BuckleySandler, said he is considering running but hasn’t decided yet. “It’s still very early,” he said.

Gansler had only praise for Shea, his potential primary opponent, noting his reputation in the legal industry and devotion to community organizations and activities.

“Right now, it’s hard to wake up under the Trump administration and not want to do something about it,” Gansler said.

The Maryland gubernatorial election is set for November 2018. Current Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican popular in a largely blue state, is eligible to run for a second term but faces fierce opposition from the left. Hogan’s relationship to the Trump administration may also be an obstacle: One political scientist called Trump the “proverbial cloud on Larry Hogan’s horizon.”

Another Venable lawyer, Justin Fairfax, is seeking statewide office in neighboring Virginia this November. He’s running for lieutenant governor as a Democrat.