Verrill Dana’s Partner in Charge Talks Strategic Growth, Trusting His Instincts and Witnessing a Real-life Lawyer Joke
After just two years with law firm Verrill Dana, it’s clear that Kevin O’Connell has made an impression; the firm recently appointed the M&A attorney as its partner in charge. In his more than 27 years of practice, O’Connell has negotiated and closed countless mergers, acquisitions, joint ventures and similar transactions, and gained a lot of insight along the way. In a continuing series of Q&As with Boston area managing partners, Voices of the Bar sat down with O’Connell to discuss his path to becoming an attorney, and what he hopes to help the firm accomplish in the coming year.
What inspired you to become a lawyer?
There’s no Eureka! moment here. I went to Holy Cross as an undergraduate, and other than studying liberal arts and trying to get a broad based education, I didn’t really know going in what I wanted to do when I got out. There were some really smart people that I was going through college with that were focused on law school and talked about it. I like to read and I like to write, and I knew I’d do plenty of that in the practice of law, so I thought “I should look into this.”
What’s your most memorable moment as a lawyer?
I have two, actually. Early on, I was interning with the corporation counsel in DC. I was working with the prosecutor there, and I would spend some mornings sitting in on court arraignments. One morning – and really, I swear this story is true – a man who had been arrested and was sitting in the dock kept shouting “This is mistaken identity! This is mistaken identity!” until the judge finally let him be heard.
The judge asked his name and looked over the file, “Hmm. Indecent exposure. That’s a serious crime. Let me appoint counsel.”
“I don’t need a lawyer! This is just a case of mistaken identity, I swear!”
On cue, the judge said: “So you’re saying the police arrested the wrong man?”
“No, no. I’m not saying it wasn’t me that exposed himself to that lady. It’s just that I thought she was someone else!!”
Another time, when I was a fifth year associate in Manhattan, my firm was representing a public company that was contemplating doing a securities offering in Taiwan. I was given just 12 or so hours to figure out how we, as a foreign issuer, could register an offering. As I’m researching it, I’m realizing that as a foreign issuer, our client cannot can do the kind of offering that was being contemplated. The clock’s ticking and I’m sweating thinking, “I don’t think we are even allowed to do this.”
So I get in early the next day and the meeting is like a who’s who of investment bankers and commercial bankers. There must have been 40 people in the conference room. So I get my senior partner’s attention and explain to him that I don’t think we can do this, that I think it’s unlawful.
He just lit into me, figuring I was wrong, saying “We wouldn’t have 40 people in this room talking about this if it couldn’t be done! I’m not telling them that, you can tell them that.”
So I explained to the assembled group the restriction I found, and I didn’t get too far down the road before the lead investment banker says “well, of course we know that, it would take a special act of the Taiwanese legislature to allow us to do this. We understand that. We’re wondering which lobbyists you’re going to work with to get the laws changed and how long that might take.”
It was a moment when I thought “I know I can do this; I shouldn’t have doubted that I had the analysis right.” And that’s the advice I would give to new lawyers: trust your instincts, believe in yourself, and have confidence in your training and your abilities.
Verrill Dana attorneys are active in the BBA and other non-profit organizations. How does involvement in the community fit in with Verrill Dana’s core values?
I think here partners view themselves not as owners of a business, but as stewards of an institution that means a lot to the communities in which we operate. It’s definitely something we live and don’t just say. There’s a significant premium placed on getting out of the office and giving back. I sit on a couple of charitable boards, and that work means a great deal to me. I was hoping when I came here that I wouldn’t be discouraged from being as involved as I am, and people have been nothing but encouraging.
What do you think makes Verrill Dana stand out?
I moved over to Verrill Dana because some of my clients had grown to the point where they needed a little more than I could provide at a mid-sized firm. I was looking for a place where I could maintain the nimbleness that is afforded by a mid-size firm, but without having to double my billing rates. Verrill Dana has been that place. The depth of expertise here is incredible; it’s basically Big Law, but at a third the size and half the price.
What does success mean for you this year?
I think success in 2017 is strategic growth. Our Portland office has been around for more than a century, and we’ve been in Boston for 11 years. Two years ago we acquired a firm in Westport, Connecticut, and we want to continue to grow the regional footprint. We’re on a great path.
In the short term, I’d like to round out our roster here. When my predecessor, Dennis White, was partner in charge we grew from 12 lawyers to 31. I want to continue his work and grow us strategically as he has. We don’t want to grow just to grow; we want to do it in a way that gives our existing clients what they need and makes us attractive to prospective clients.
Where do you like to take clients in Boston?
Our clients come in from all around the world; my favorite place to show them is Louisburg Square and the whole “Make Way for Ducklings” route, especially if they have kids and they’ve read the book to them. It’s a hidden jewel. And because I grew up in Ashland, I like to take them out along the Boston Marathon route.