This article originally appeared in The Legal Intelligencer on June 21, 2019.
Over the past couple of years, the firm has established and expanded its Title IX, due process and campus discipline practice area led by Patricia Hamill as chair and Lorie Dakessian as vice-chair.
Conrad O’Brien doesn’t shy away from taking on complex cases.
In an important win for the insurance industry in 2018, the firm, representing successfully argued to the Pennsylvania Superior Court that general contractor overhead and profit was not required to be factored into two homeowners’ actual cash value settlements with their insurer for water damage to their properties. The court agreed with Conrad O’Brien that its client’s policy language clearly provides that GCOP will not be paid until that expense is actually incurred, and that Pennsylvania law does not require a different result based on public policy.
Meanwhile, the firm continues to represent the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in ongoing and future litigation, including civil cases alleging sexual abuse by Archdiocesan priests or employees currently pending in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Beginning in 2011, the firm was engaged to represent the archdiocese in over 20 such civil cases. Following criminal convictions of certain clergy, the civil cases were reactivated in phases. The firm successfully resolved the majority of cases against the archdiocese, generally within policy limits. Two of the remaining cases concluded in 2018; both settled in spring 2018 within a few days of trial.
The firm’s Title IX group, which focuses on representing students and faculty accused of misconduct, also continues to grow. The team has represented students and professors against over 70 colleges and universities across the country.
Questions with Nicholas Centrella, Managing Partner:
The Legal Intelligencer (TLI): What were some of the department’s most satisfying successes of 2018, and why?
Nicholas Centrella: Conrad O’Brien’s commercial litigation practice has continued to handle the high-profile cases and provide the exceptional client service that we have become well known for since the founding of the firm 35 years ago, but our firm has had notable litigation success in three specific areas over the past year.
First, the firm represents a Pennsylvania religious institution in litigation, specifically in civil cases alleging sexual abuse by priests or employees as well as in premises liability cases, employment claims, nursing care abuse and wrongful death claims, school disciplinary issues, and tort claims involving juvenile delinquent homes, senior centers, and low-income housing. This year, the firm also worked with the client to develop legislative alternatives to reviver legislation (“window legislation”) which allows time-barred plaintiffs to file personal injury suits, so that the proposed legislation does not solely focus on religious or private institutions, but instead focuses on the global problem of child sexual abuse. In connection with that work, the firm has worked considerably on constitutional issues in drafting legislation in relation to the remedies clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Second, over the past couple of years, Conrad O’Brien has established and expanded our Title IX, due process and campus discipline practice. The firm’s nationwide practice involves litigating against colleges and universities on behalf of college students who have been subjected to campus disciplinary proceedings or who have been suspended, expelled from, or otherwise disciplined by their colleges following campus disciplinary hearings for alleged sexual misconduct or other alleged student code violations. The firm’s Title IX group has undertaken such representations, often attempting to resolve the cases behind-the scenes and avoid litigation, and, where resolution cannot be achieved, filing lawsuits against the colleges. The group also represents professors accused of code of conduct violations and their related tenure issues. The practice focuses on an evolving area of the law shaped by litigation against colleges and universities to push for greater due process or contract rights for accused students. The firm has represented students and professors at over 70 colleges and universities across the country.
Finally, we continue to be known for our legal malpractice work. We have been representing lawyers and law firms for more then 25 years. Conrad O’Brien has established itself as the insider’s law firm—the lawyers to call when an AmLaw 100 law firm or its attorneys are facing critical litigation. Within the last year alone, we represented seven major law firms in litigation. Several of these cases have already resolved favorably for our clients.
TLI: Is it a penchant for efficiency, or a willingness to go the distance as effective trial advocates, that gives the litigation department its reputation?
Centrella: At Conrad O’Brien, the nature of the case will require our attorneys to strike varying balances between these two forces of a “penchant for efficiency” and a “willingness to go the distance as effective trial advocates.” Our firm prides itself on our agile and collaborative approach to litigation to solve our clients’ problems. Our size allows us to be nimble and flexible with respect to staffing and the small teams of attorneys allow us to handle cases efficiently and cost-effectively, often leading to early resolution. However, with any particular matter, we have the ability, experience, and resources to go the distance while still maintaining our commitment to lean staffing and effective resolutions for our clients.
TLI: A prospective client in crisis calls and asks why your team should be retained—what is your answer?
Centrella: After understanding the nature of the crisis, and confirming it is something we have the legal expertise to handle (i.e., professional liability, complex commercial litigation, Title IX related, or personal injury), we would discuss our approach to litigation. This includes our ability to amass a team and a case strategy quickly, but also a willingness to shrink our team back down to essential personnel as the matter proceeds to subsequent phases.
We would develop a comprehensive case plan and proposed budget for the case to outline our legal approach. We also discuss with prospective clients not only the immediate needs and desired outcomes to the present crisis, but additionally look towards any future or collateral issues that could be triggered. We like to understand the impact of any litigation for our clients and their businesses and livelihoods, and so will look toward any future consequences when developing litigation strategy and exploring possible resolutions.
TLI: It’s a challenging litigation market, with flat or declining demand, rate pressures, and other factors. From a business perspective, what does it take for a litigation department to succeed in this environment?
Centrella: Top legal work is still primary in our practice. However, value and efficiency are also forefront for most of our clients in today’s market. In order to partner with our clients effectively and efficiently, we find that it is important to understand our clients and their businesses. We develop litigation plans and budgets so that we can maintain an efficient approach, manage expenses, and are not operating haphazardly. We also proactively raise the idea of alternative fee arrangements (AFAs) with our clients as many clients find AFAs to be a valuable way of approaching litigation. Clients are increasingly more in touch with their legal spend and are looking for ways to tailor the costs to their needs, while always looking for top quality legal work.
TLI: What is the firm doing to ensure that future generations of litigators are ready to take the helm?
Centrella: The firm’s size allows us to ensure future generations are ready to take the helm. While our size allows us to be efficient and nimble in staffing litigation, it also ensures that the younger attorneys are actively building their practice and legal skills and learning about the firm’s institutional clients. The firm’s associates are given hands-on training and experience and, as needed, work closely with a partner on any legal representation. They are involved early on with face-to-face client meetings and complex tasks, without extra costs to our clients for training. Additionally, we have a robust training program for our associates, with training sessions focused on legal writing, practice tips, deposition and negotiation skills, client service and business development.
The firm also has an executive committee that is responsible for developing recommendations for the firm’s strategy and the implementation and execution of firm policies. In addition to overseeing the firm, the three-person executive committee was formed with an eye toward succession planning to ensure Conrad O’Brien is well-positioned for the future.
General Litigation finalist: Conrad O’Brien. Standing, left to right, Christopher Lucca, Lorie Dakessian, Kevin Kent, Patricia Hamill, Meghan A. Farley and Joseph Jesiolowski. Seated, left to right, Stacy Orvetz, Nicolas Centrella and Louis Fryman.