John Isbister '77 knows Maryland—the companies that do business in the state, its educational institutions and its many nonprofit organizations. Although he says he’s "not quite a Maryland native," – he was born in South Carolina, but grew up in Bel Air, just north of Baltimore--he went on to do his undergraduate work in College Park and earned his JD from Maryland Carey Law. After clerking for the late Judge David T. Mason of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, he joined Tydings & Rosenberg, a 50-attorney firm in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor whose co-founder, former four-term US Senator Millard Tydings, a 1913 graduate of the law school, left a legacy that has become synonymous with civic leadership in the state.
Isbister is a litigator who enjoys the intellectual challenge of his specialty, highly complex mass tort and class action defense for commercial and product liability clients. His cases demand that you immerse yourself in the underlying facts of all the parties—their business models, products, priorities and—surprising to him initially--the emotional factors that may have influenced business decisions. "As a litigator, you have to be able to understand and explain the moves that clients made in the past," he points out. And then, you have to grasp the emotional filters of the judge and jury listening to your explanation, he's quick to add.
Isbister may have deep roots in Maryland, but his litigation skills have won him a roster of global clients—IBM, Sun Microsystems, and Atlantic Richfield, among them—as well as national recognition. He has been included in the 2010 and 2011 editions of Benchmark Litigation, cited as one of the Best Lawyers in America since 2008 and held a long list of leadership positions at the American Bar Association’s Section of Litigation, including co-chair of its Products Liability Committee as well as founder and program chair of the ABA's National Institute on Class Action.
"I'm a big believer in bar association membership," Isbister remarks. "City, state, national or specialty bar associations—they’re all good." The groups allow the profession to ensure competency and effective administration of justice, particularly in the courts, he asserts. "I'd urge law students and young lawyers to get involved with a bar association. It will make them a better professional."
"Law school was a significant part of my life," Isbister believes. "It prepared me for more than 30 years in a profession that I love. I am grateful for that." To express that gratitude, Isbister serves on the UM Carey Law Board of Visitors and in 2008 he became the first alumnus to match graduating students' contributions to their class gift. Together, they raised more than $65,000 to support ongoing community service projects for future students.
Isbister never expected that four years later young lawyers would seek him out and thank him for his generosity—on courthouse steps, at Baltimore restaurants or anywhere else he may run into them. "It's gratifying," Isbister says. "I'd encourage any alumnus or alumna to do something similar with the law school and its students. It will energize and engage you in ways you can’t imagine."