Elizabeth Harris, '95

Under the dome in Annapolis: Richmond alumna is top legal counsel to Maryland's governor

April 27, 2010

Elizabeth Harris, ’95, chief legal counsel to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, said her rise to success was due to hard work, good luck and the interdisciplinary approach to problem solving she learned at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

According to the “Maryland Manual On-Line,” the chief legal counsel serves as senior legal advisor and criminal justice advisor to the Office of the Governor. Harris helps the Governor exercise his executive powers such as pardon and parole, monitors important state litigation, reviews executive orders, assists the Governor in the appointment of judges and serves as liaison to the Judiciary, the Office of the Attorney General and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland.

“We deal with everything legal that the governor and his staff need,” Harris said about the Office of Legal Counsel staff. “We give legal advice on every subject imaginable.”

When record snow storms hit Maryland in 2010, Harris and her staff advised Gov. O’Malley on when to declare a state of emergency and when to ask FEMA for help.  

Harris said the critical thinking skills she developed at Jepson helped her tackle many issues and work with different people to get things done. “[Jepson] prepares you for a breadth of experiences in a broader way,” she said, “and that’s helped me with the career I’ve had, which requires the ability to work with a range of people, from elected leaders to constituent groups.”

Harris' career path started with her major in leadership studies with minors in French and business. She received her Juris Doctorate in 1998 from the University of Maryland School of Law. She was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1998 and served as a judicial clerk for the Honorable Irma S. Raker on the Court of Appeals of Maryland for a year. 

For the next five years, Harris was a civil litigator at Hogan & Hartson. In 2004, her boss, Ralph Tyler, was appointed city solicitor by then Mayor O’Malley and she went with him to the City Law Department to help run the office and do legal work. When O’Malley was elected Governor in January 2007, Tyler became chief legal counsel and Harris served as deputy legal counsel until she took over for Tyler in September 2007.

“There were points in my professional life when I felt I knew exactly what I wanted to do and there were points when I hit a crossroads,” Harris said. “If you had asked me 10 years ago I never would have imagined I’d be so fortunate to be able to do this.”

In regard to those just starting their careers, Harris said there are many things that can’t be controlled – the state of the economy, unemployment rates, employers’ belt tightening – but one thing people can control is working hard to be top-of-mind when opportunities present themselves.

“My experience has been if you put your focus on your work and at every opportunity put your best work forward, good things flow from that,” Harris said. “I think some people look for the ideal opportunity but sometimes you have to get your foot in the door and by working hard excel to other opportunities that might suit your skill set.”

When it comes to career networking, she said, it isn’t about going to events and talking to as many people as possible, it’s about capitalizing on relationships with those who know you and understand the talents you bring. She said to build a network based on quality work and a reputation for working hard and being successful. Eventually there comes a time when it’s not just about networking upward but starting to form a group of colleagues who have strong work ethics and great potential for success, she said.

“If you’re not happy in a job you shouldn’t be afraid to go out and try something new,” Harris advised. “It’s important to be happy; you shouldn’t build a lifestyle where you don’t have flexibility about the next opportunity.” 

If all goes well, Harris will have the opportunity to continue as chief legal counsel after O’Malley’s reelection in the fall.  “I love my job and I’d love to continue in it,” she said. “In the future when this job isn’t available to me any longer I’ll have to decide on the next chapter.”

Harris resides in Howard County, MD with her husband Scott, who works in technology, and her stepsons Ben, 12, and Sam, 14.

ARTWORK CREDIT: This image of the dome of the Maryland State House in Annapolis is from the collection of the Maryland State Archives.