A soldier, a cop, a deacon and a lawyer walk into a bar—and they're all Francis Laws
Published in 2009 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine
on December 19, 2008
Updated on April 18, 2009
Francis Laws almost got kicked out of college.
Given everything he’s done since, that feels like a punch line. But it certainly wasn’t funny back in 1971 when Laws, then 20, was a student at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. “I was one semester away from being asked to leave,” he says. “And my draft number was 13.”
So, counterintuitively, he joined the Army toward the end of the Vietnam War, landing a lucky assignment after scoring high on an aptitude test. (His 1.9 college GPA clearly wasn’t a reflection of intelligence—”just a lack of interest,” he says.) He was sent to Monterey, Calif., to study Mandarin Chinese for the Army Security Agency, then to Thailand, where he was a translator at a military listening station. “We detected Chinese military activity on the North Korean border,” he says. “It turned into a national news story.”
Now chair of Thomas & Libowitz’s labor and employment group in Baltimore, Laws has forged a career path marked by distinction, high stress and unpredictability. And he’s more than once worked the midnight shift.
He returned to the States in 1974, when the U.S. was in a recession and the city of Baltimore was hiring hundreds of police officers amidst a police workers’ strike, and he joined the SWAT team. “While the day shift could be really boring,” he says, hostage situations, which occurred once or twice a month, were the thrill of his job. One time, his team was deployed to a row house containing a man with a gun, and Laws was positioned outside a second-floor window, ready to shoot whenever his officer gave the word. “It was the eeriest feeling I can remember,” he says, “sitting with that guy in my sights, waiting for the command to squeeze the trigger.” To his relief, he didn’t have to.
When not scouting Baltimore’s rough Cherry Hill neighborhood, Laws completed his college degree and held down another job unloading trucks at a fish market. “You work all night,” he explains, “and then get home and smell terrible, so I’d always shower in the basement before I went upstairs [to my family].” He also found time to take the LSAT and apply to the University of Baltimore School of Law.
“I had a wife and kids [to support], but my boss insisted, so I went,” he says. “When the chief of patrol denied me leave of absence, my boss had his secretary type up my letter of resignation. He said I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to further my education.”
To graduate in two and a half years, he worked the midnight shift as a security guard at Johns Hopkins Hospital. (“I drank a lot of coffee,” he says.) He took his law degree to Venable, Baetjer & Howard in 1982, requesting to work for Sam Cook, who was in the papers for representing Johns Hopkins Hospital during a recent strike. He got his wish, and, at 31, dove into employment law—albeit with a unique advantage. As an officer, he had testified as a chief witness in more than 1,000 trials, where he learned that “no one tells the truth all of the time,” he says. “You can pull over the neighborhood minister, and he’ll make up an excuse as to why he was speeding.”
Laws knows the ministry, too. He’s a permanent deacon in the Roman Catholic Church and is currently pursuing a master’s in theology. “I got to perform the wedding ceremony for both of my daughters and the baptisms for my five grandchildren,” he says. “Those were easily some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever done in my life.”