For one of the state's most prominent lawyers, Gloria Cordes Larson doesn't spend much time immersed in the actual practice of law.
But Larson is not the typical lawyer. She is a partner at Foley Hoag LLP in Boston and co-chair of its Government Strategies Group, a role in which she advises clients on a number of federal, state and local regulations and business development plans. She advises clients on specific issues that include real estate development, energy, insurance, environmental permitting, transportation, advertising and Internet privacy. "I consider it a miserable failure if we get to litigation," she said about representing her clients. "Negotiated solutions are almost always the best."
Her real expertise comes from her political savvy and expertise navigating the typically treacherous waters of Massachusetts politics and development. She advised Institute of Contemporary Art Director Jill Medvedow, helping the ICA win the right to build its striking new museum on the Boston Waterfront's prized Fan Pier parcel.
A typical day for Larson is largely spent on the telephone or in meetings advising clients on strategic thinking on projects, and sometimes helping them decide how best to get involved in community work.
"I mostly advise clients on how to think about problem solving. Many of them come to me because I have that broader perspective (about how the public process works)," she said. "While I like the practice of law, I find strategic thinking more and more interesting."
From Foley Hoag's offices on the 16th floor in World Trade Center West, she can appreciate both the new ICA and the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, an $800 million project she helped steer to a successful opening in 2004.
She's carved a niche for herself as a not-always-behind-the-scenes player in Massachusetts politics. And she's been a pivotal figure regardless of whether the corner office on Beacon Hill is occupied by a Republican or Democrat. She's even been mentioned as a potential candidate for public office from time to time.
"I've never felt a particular partisan bent," she said, describing herself as either a "liberal Republican" or simply, "a centrist." The flexibility and ease she exhibits in working with both Republicans and Democrats has kept her in high demand since Gov. William Weld recruited her to Massachusetts in the early 1990s, including serving as the Massachusetts secretary of economic affairs from 1993 to 1996.
Now, she's an enthusiastic supporter of Gov. Deval Patrick, having chaired his business cabinet while he was a candidate, and then, after his election, co-chairing his transition committee. She's proud of helping put together what she believes is the state's most diverse cabinet ever. Larson said she had known for a year that she wasn't going to support Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, but she hadn't decided who she would endorse.
Then, a month before the Democratic primary, she was struck by the enthusiasm Patrick's campaign evoked in a couple of young Foley Hoag lawyers she respected. She says she's happy to serve Patrick's administration in whatever way she can, largely because she sees Patrick as the right candidate at the right time for Massachusetts.
"This governor is all about making the state better for everyone," she said. "That gives me goose bumps just thinking about it." But it's not politics that matters to Larson, but rather, public policy. Which is why she doesn't see herself ever running for office.
"I think there's a misperception about my genuine interest," she said. "I've had the chance to do something that I consider broadly important" by serving as the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority chair and helping set the tone for public policy debate through MassINC. "I'm not inclined to run for office because I've found a different avenue to serving. There are other ways to serve. And the older I get, the less interested I am with running for office."
Not surprisingly, finding enough time for herself her husband and their two Labrador retrievers is a dilemma. Larson recalled how Harvard Pilgrim Health Care President and CEO Charles D. Baker sent her a Christmas card that advised her to "take more time to have some fun," laughing at the notion that the head of one of the state's largest health care providers was advising her to slow down.
Larson and her husband have lived in Yarmouthport for 20 years, where she enjoys hiking, swimming and bicycling. But personal time is something of a luxury for someone working for one of the city's most prominent law firms, "moonlights" as the head of the state's convention center authority, and sits on the board of groups like the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Jobs for Massachusetts, Roger Williams University School of Law, the Massachusetts Technology Council, the Massachusetts Women's Forum and MassINC, the think tank that publishes CommonWealth magazine.
Public policy and service have always been strong interests for Larson. After earning her bachelor's degree, with honors, from Vassar College and her law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1977, her first job reflected that. While many of her law school classmates headed off to high-powered, high-paying jobs in Washington, D.C. and on Wall Street, Larson chose a different path, serving as the director of a statewide program in Virginia that provided legal services to low and moderate income senior citizens.
"I wanted to do something different, something in public interest," she said. "That's been a longstanding interest of mine: the ability to work out public policy issues."
She's involved in a number of community organizations, including sitting on the advisory board for the Harbor Island Alliance and co-chairing Rosie's Place Annual Benefit ("I'm a devoted fan of everything they do to help women," she said.)
She's also one of a half-dozen honorary chairs of the Massachusetts Conference for Women, which organizes a one-day program attended by 4,500 women this year.
Crucial to her success has been the support of Foley Hoag.
"I have a wonderful day job," Larson said. "The firm has been exceptionally generous. There have been periods of time where I'll disappear."
A few years back, she dedicated months to keeping the Convention Center project from collapsing. Gov. Paul Cellucci had appointed her as chair of the MCCA in 1998 (she was reappointed by Gov. Mitt Romney in 2003). She and her team overcame a projected $100 million deficit - and intense public and private criticism - to open the new convention center on time and on budget in 2004.
Most recently, she signed on with the Patrick campaign after the Democratic primary.
"I was very part-time (at Foley Hoag), at best," she said. "I'm making up for lost time. I owe a lot of people a lot of favors."