Shawn Maher ('87)
Shawn Maher has been Legislative Director for Senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT) since 1997. He accepted the position after two years of writing speeches and political and policy briefs for Dodd at the Democratic National Committee.
Maher began his Washington career in 1989 as Legislative Director to then-Representative Joseph Kennedy II (D-MA). In 1993, Maher became Staff Director and Chief Counsel for the House Subcommittee on Consumer Credit and Insurance under Kennedy.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1982 and his J.D. from NYU School of Law in 1987, Maher spent two years clerking for the Honorable Mary Johnson Lowe in the Southern District of New York.
Interview with Alumnus/Alumna of the Month
Shawn Maher ('87)
What is your area of specialization and how did you come to work in this area?
My job involves managing and advancing the legislative priorities of my “client”, who is a United States Senator. That description covers any issue that is, or could be before the Senate or one of the committees on which he sits. The issues with which I am most substantively familiar are those most related to his committee work, including financial services, health care, education, homeland security, national security, taxation, and the budget. I came to this position by happenstance. While completing a federal judicial clerkship, I hoped to find work in New York as a public defender or a prosecutor. However, I was offered a position in the Washington office of former Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-MA). I served as his Legislative Director, and then as Staff Director and Chief Counsel of a House Banking subcommittee responsible for issues related to consumer access to financial services. After the Republican Party won control of the House in 1994, I worked for two years at the Democratic National Committee helping to re-elect Bill Clinton and elect other Democrats to state and federal office. Currently, I serve as the Legislative Director to Senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT).
Describe recent legal developments in the arena of tort reform; where do you see this issue in 5 years?
Tort reform is a highly contentious area of public policy. There are those who would like Congress to dramatically restrict the ability of citizens to address all manner of grievances through the courts. At the other end of the spectrum, many oppose any change in tort policy lest important rights be eviscerated. Congress over the past decade has rejected the arguments of both of these camps. It has instead passed reforms in discrete areas, such as securities litigation and class action litigation. It is impossible to predict with any level of certainty how the issue of tort reform will evolve over the next several years. A great deal depends on the political leadership of the Congress and the Executive branch. It is probably safe to say, however, that this will continue to be a contentious area of policy.
How did your years at NYU School of Law prepare you for the career you have had thus far?
I have always felt deeply appreciative of the education I received at NYU. I don’t believe any law school does a better job of preparing its students to be advocates, while at the same time instilling in them a sense of their responsibility to serve the public interest. I am grateful that I had the opportunity, however brief, to benefit from professors and mentors like Stephen Gillers, Peggy Davis, Burt Neuborne, David Richards, and Norman Dorsen.
What was your first job out of law school?
My first job out of law school was to serve for two years as a law clerk to the late Mary Johnson Lowe, who was a judge in the Southern District of New York. She was a wonderful mentor – experienced, brilliant, and very patient with her young clerks. She was also an inspirational figure – overcoming considerable obstacles to advancement by virtue of her status as an African-American woman.
Who are your role models in the legal profession?
My father is certainly my principal role model -- in the law as well as in life. When I was about six years old, he gave up a secure and prosperous corporate practice with a Wall Street law firm and decided to open a small office in rural Putnam County, New York. That decision was all the more remarkable for the fact that he had seven children to feed. For more than thirty-five years, he handled all manner of civil and criminal cases. He worked hard, kept his word, and was a tenacious advocate for his clients, including criminal defendants whose causes were not especially popular. Another attorney who has been a role model is my current employer, Senator Dodd. At a time when political discourse is coarsened by leaders who exploit fear and resort to ad hominem attacks, he appeals to reason, principle, and people’s hopes rather than their fears.
Can you describe some of your most rewarding professional moments since working with Senator Dodd?
Certainly the most rewarding moments in my current position are those where I have been part of achieving meaningful changes in law. These include helping to shape laws to prevent the kind of massive voter disenfranchisement that occurred during the 2000 presidential election, to expand educational opportunity, to improve health care, to expand child care and Head Start, and to strengthen homeland and national security. Of course, none of these moments would have been possible had I worked for a Senator content to give speeches and introduce bills that make purely rhetorical points.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
The most challenging aspect of this job is trying to be proactive rather than reactive. That is particularly difficult at the present time when both chambers of Congress and the Executive Branch are under the control of the party opposite of that to which my employer belongs. It is also especially challenging in an institution like the Senate, where each Senator must be prepared on a moment’s notice to respond to rapidly changing events in the country and throughout the world.
How do you balance work and life?
With great difficulty and with the extraordinary support of a wonderful spouse. Washington is not a city where people move in order to find a nice balance between their personal and professional lives. It’s a place where people come to work. The rhythm of the city is therefore unlike that of many other cities. The work day – particularly on Capitol Hill – cannot in any way be contained within normal channels, given evening sessions of the Senate, conferences, dinners, receptions, and other events that are in some way connected to one’s job. I try to separate what’s essential from what’s not, and to get home every evening at least for the tail end of dinner and to kiss my son good night. Also, one learns never to plan a vacation until Congress is in recess!
If you could chose another profession to be in, what would it be?
I’m pretty sure I’d choose law. Maybe that’s the unimaginative lawyer in me speaking, but I don’t think any other profession would have suited me quite so well. Sure, there are days when I daydream about what life would be like as . . . . but then I realize how incredibly fortunate I am to have a job that is challenging and that satisfies my desire to serve the public.
What advice would you give to current students?
Enjoy your work, your family, your friends, and yourself. Also, use your legal training to serve the less fortunate and the country. These are precarious times for the rule of law and accepted norms of justice. For that reason, our profession has never been more important to our country’s future.