Melvin Hirshman, who was bar counsel for the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland for nearly three decades, died Monday of lymphoma at Anne Arundel Medical Center. He was 85.
“He handled the job so very, very well. It’s a difficult job, and you have to make important decisions … for the entire bar, bench and the justice system,” said Joseph F. Murphy Jr., former chief judge of the state Court of Special Appeals, who later served as a Court of Appeals judge from 2007 until retiring in 2011.
“Mel had the perfect talent and temperament for the job. He handled a very difficult job at times so very well,” said Judge Murphy, who now is a member of the law firm of Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin & White LLC. “He wanted to help lawyers avoid problems and was generously proactive.”
“He was an institution in and of himself as bar counsel. He served the commission well for so many years,” said Linda Lamone, who has been a member of the Attorney Grievance Commission for 22 years and is now the currently chair.
The only child of Samuel Hirshman, a cabdriver, and Sarah Mendelson Hirshman, a federal government worker, Melvin Hirshman was born and raised in Washington, where he graduated from Roosevelt High School.
He obtained a bachelor’s degree in history in 1952 from American University and his law degree three years later from the Washington College of Law at American University.
He served in the Navy from 1955 until his discharge in 1961 as a corpsman at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Mr. Hirshman was admitted to practice law in the District of Columbia and in 1965 became a member of the Maryland bar. He established a general law practice in 1956 in Adelphi.
“We used to call it the ‘Mom & Pop Cop Shop,’ and he did a little criminal work,” said his wife of 47 years, the former Nancy B.Goode, a paralegal and mediator.
Because of the nature and variety of his legal practice and membership in lawyer-ethics organizations, Mr. Hirshman was appointed in 1981 by the Court of Appeals as bar counsel to the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland. He succeeded the late L. Hollingsworth “Holly” Pittman, the first bar counsel after the commission was set up by the Court of Appeals in 1975.
Mr. Hirshman supervised a staff of eight attorneys, six investigators, two paralegals, an office manager and 10 administrative personnel.
The role of the bar counsel is to investigate complaints against Maryland’s lawyers and, if necessary, bring disciplinary action.
One lawyer used to write letters to him “addressed to Gestapo,” Mr. Hirshman told The Daily Record in a 2009 interview.
“I don’t take any of that personally. It’s just something that has to be done because the object is to protect the public,” he said.
“I always felt that a lawyer should not disgrace the diploma he has on his wall and, more important, that he not harm the clients that he learned in school he is supposed to help,” Mr. Hirshman told The Baltimore Sun at the time of his appointment.
“When the bar was smaller, most everyone knew everyone else, and there was a tendency among lawyers to protect one another,” Mr. Hirshman told The Sunday Sun Magazine in a 1982 interview.
“I don’t think that’s true any more. With a greater number of members of the bar, there’s more impersonality and it’s easier to find one lawyer willing to file suit against another,” he said.
“He spent a lot of time engaging attorneys in the field, making sure the rules … of the law were followed,” Ms. Lamone said. “He was a no-nonsense type of guy for sure, and members of the commission liked and respected him.”
Marianne J. Lee has been executive secretary to the commission since 2001 and considered Mr. Hirshman a mentor.
“Mel had a big passion for the job as bar counsel and was the first person at work and the last to leave,” Ms. Lee said. “He had a real and genuine interest in lawyers, and he looked at them as people,” she said. “He was honest, had lots of integrity and was fair. He had a lot of pride in his work. He was very hardworking and a class act.”
“About 67 percent of complaints [against attorneys] are screened out because they do not violate that state’s rule of professional conduct,” Mr. Hirshman told The Capital newspaper of Annapolis in a 2007 interview. “Many clients are just not happy with the outcome of their cases and take it out on their attorney.”
In 1998, The Sun reported that “even lawyers who were arrested and prosecuted by state’s attorneys — and convicted in criminal court of stealing huge sums from their clients — rarely have to serve much time in prison. Instead, they are ordered to repay what they’ve stolen, but often fail to do so.
“The second chances granted by the system of discipline can have disastrous consequences for people who unwittingly hire those lawyers.”
Mr. Hirshman, who was quite familiar with repeat offenders, told The Sun in the interview, “My favorite expression, and my assistants know it, and everyone else knows it, is: If you’ve got a bad lawyer, he will be back.”
But Mr. Hirshman said in a 2004 interview with The Daily Record that financial irregularities remained the biggest cause of disbarment for Maryland lawyers.
At times, Mr. Hirshman could exude a somewhat gruff exterior.
“Form my perspective, Mel was a lovable, crusty character, who reminded me of my father: astute, fair and always reaching to forge a consensus,” said Jeffrey P. Ayres, an attorney with Venable LLP., and a longtime member of the commission.
Mr. Hirshman retired in 2010.
“The commission was the love of his life, next to his family,” his wife said.
The Annapolis resident enjoyed playing tennis, listening to classical music and was a “voracious reader,” his wife said. He was also a fan of Broadway musicals and liked taking courses at Anne Arundel Community College.
He was a member of Kneseth Israel Synagogue in Annapolis, where funeral services were held Wednesday.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons, Robert Hirshman of Laurel and Jefferson Hirshman of Washington; two daughters, Tiffany Jackson of Millersville and Kimberly Michero of Altadena, Calif.; and eight grandchildren.website.