When Jim Shea accepted Mayor Brandon Scott’s offer to serve as Baltimore’s top lawyer, he agreed on one condition: that he retire two years into the Democrat’s first term. From that moment on, he said, one of his top priorities became finding an adequate successor.
But the 70-year-old former managing partner and chairman of Venable LLP didn’t have to search far: he quickly decided on Ebony Thompson, who had worked alongside him at the state’s largest law firm. In January 2021, when the now-44-year-old was an associate en route to the plum position of counsel, Shea rang her up, pitching the idea of joining the city’s law department as his deputy before filling his shoes once he retires.
“I knew I had to figure out a way to get here,” she recalled. “Not just because of my love for the city, but the honor to work directly with Jim has just been absolutely amazing.”
Thompson, a single mother of three, took a year to financially prepare for the change to her planned career path before she joined City Hall in January 2022, where she quickly rose the ranks as one of the Scott administration’s most visible and versatile aides. By the time she succeeds Shea early next year, she will have held three of City Hall’s most visible positions.
The transition represents a changing of the guard: Thompson is slated to become the first Black woman to permanently hold the position, as well as the first openly gay city solicitor, while Shea’s retirement marks the end of the career of one of Maryland’s most prominent attorneys.
“It’s time to let the young people do it,” Shea said.
“You don’t select a cheerleader”
While the Baltimore City Solicitor is one of a mayor’s most visible cabinet members — they hold a seat on the city spending board — they do not necessarily adhere to the whims of politicos. Instead, they are tasked with advising the mayor how to best abide by local, state and federal laws. They are expected to provide a legal analysis on new legislation from both the mayor and city council and on emergency matters, such as whether the city can require its employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.
Former mayor Kurt Schmoke called the role of city solicitor a crucially important one, noting that he talked to his city solicitor nearly every single day of his 12-year tenure as mayor.
“You don’t select a cheerleader. You need somebody in that job who’s going to give you objective, truthful advice about the law,” Schmoke said.
Shea and Thompson are united in their belief that the crux of the role is simple: make sure that the city conforms to the law.
“Your client is not a particular person. It’s the city writ large,” Shea said. “Sometimes that means telling the city it’s wrong.”
Other times that means making decisions that may not be popular, he said, such as denying city residents a request for compensation or payment because the law doesn’t require it. But it’s not all naysaying, he added: the city solicitor enables policies to take official shape and become law.
Roger Hartley, the dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs, said Shea’s appointment was largely viewed as a prestigious one.
“The thinking was, if he can manage Venable, you should be able to manage city attorneys and the slew of legal issues they handle,” he said. “His retirement and the appointment of a successor is one of the most major changes in the mayor’s cabinet.”
Shea, whose gentle demeanor turns commanding while discussing the law, served as an executive at the white shoe law firm for more than two decades before stepping down in February 2017 to run for governor. He selected Scott as his running mate, marketing their ticket as experience meets energy. Though they placed a distant third in the Democratic primary, the race elevated Scott’s profile.
While Hartley said most observers were not surprised when Shea joined City Hall, given his public alignment with Scott, Schmoke was.
“That was just a huge get, because a major law firm like his was quite lucrative,” Schmoke said. “But I know how much he cares about the city and I was pleased to see it.”
Thompson, a native Baltimorean with a bright air and a deep smile, first wound up at Venable as an intern while studying at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she graduated magna cum laude.
She’s a Baltimore City College graduate and holds a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a master’s in business administration from American InterContinental University.
As deputy solicitor, Thompson represented Baltimore in consent decree hearings and Gun Trace Task Force settlements. She provided the legal framework for the mayor’s new squeegee plan — which will ban window washing at a half-dozen intersection starting next month — discussing its implementation at community meetings and in boardrooms.
When Scott’s former chief of staff Michael Huber left City Hall in September, the mayor selected Thompson to serve as Huber’s interim replacement while simultaneously holding her law department duties. In a statement, the mayor called her the ultimate team player.
“I’m excited to see her continue to lead in this new role and look forward to her contributions continuing to make us a stronger and more effective administration,” he said.
At a community meeting on how the city should assist squeegee youth at New Shiloh Baptist Church this fall, her ease in both positions were on full display.
She led a discussion on how the city has landed on interpreting a local ordinance that bans panhandling — which many residents have cited while complaining that police don’t arrest squeegee workers — saying that because the Supreme Court has determined panhandling is protected speech under the First Amendment, Baltimore must be careful not to infringe upon panhandlers and squeegee workers’ Constitutional rights.
Multiple City Hall officials who are not authorized to publicly discuss personnel records said Scott was enamored with Thompson’s performance as chief of staff and that he wanted her to permanently fill the role.
“I said, ‘No, absolutely not,’” Shea said. “I believed that her greatest use to the city and the mayor was ultimately to be solicitor, given that she’s a wonderfully well trained and accomplished lawyer.”
His emphasis on a succession plan is notable: Scott’s cabinet has been riddled with high-profile departures, from Huber to City Administrator Chris Shorter, who is set to take a new job in Virginia next year. Huber’s permanent replacement Chezia Cager was announced last month; the next permanent city administrator has yet to be named.
“What makes this an intriguing pick is that she was brought in to get that public sector experience, rather than coming in after without hands-on guidance from her predecessor,” Hartley said.
Thompson said means the department has “so many different ways to show the average Baltimorean how we’re working for them,” Thompson said. “We’ve just got to take advantage of those opportunities. I tried to do that and I intend to do that.”
Those opportunities are lengthy – in the near future, they include administering the mayor’s squeegee plan and overseeing the transition of oversight of Baltimore’s police department from state leaders to city leaders.
A generational changing of the guard
Thompson will first become solicitor in an interim capacity. City charter mandates the solicitor “shall be a member of the Maryland Bar, who has practiced the profession of law for not less than ten years.”
Thompson is about 11 months shy of a decade of bar membership; she was admitted to the state bar in December 2013, after graduating from the University of Baltimore School of Law and holding several legal internships.
In Shea’s view, city law establishes two separate mandates: “One is that the solicitor be a member of the Maryland bar, and then a second provision requires at least 10 years of legal experience.”
He, Thompson and Scott all believe that Thompson is qualified to hold the position permanently, but she asked the mayor to first be appointed in an interim capacity “to avoid any distractions from the thing I am here to do: work.”
Scott plans to nominate her to the position permanently in early 2024, pending approval from City Council members, who historically sign off on mayoral appointments.
Hartley said Thompson’s appointment aligns with Scott’s promise to diversify the upper ranks of city government. He noted that other recent city solicitors were appointed as they neared retirement age, such as Andre Davis, who left a position as federal judge to serve as city solicitor under former Mayor Catherine Pugh.
“That can present its own set of challenges — bringing in someone mid-career instead of nearing the end of that career can bring a burst of energy, a new set of ideas,” he said.
Chief among Thompson’s ideas is utilizing blockchain, a public digital ledger technology, that Shea is quick to quip that many lawyers his age may not consider implementing.
Thompson wants to use the technology to create a one-stop shop for the transfers of land titles, land valuation and permits. Such processes currently involve awaiting signoff from multiple parties, which can greatly drag out the process of tracking how many vacant buildings are in Baltimore and determining what kind of condition they are in, Thompson said.
“If we’re looking at approximately 14,000, 14,500 vacants, we don’t have time to wait,” she said.