(Photo by John Gibbins, Pool / AP Photo)
CORRECTIONS: 4/7/14, 11:45 p.m. EDT. The 13th paragraph of this story misstated the length of time O’Donnell spent at a halfway house and the length of his initial law license suspension in California. We regret the errors.
Former Kaye Scholer litigation partner Pierce O’Donnell, a legendary Los Angeles trial lawyer who held on to his California law license despite serving almost 60 days in prison two years ago after pleading guilty to campaign finance violations, has agreed to join Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger.
News of O’Donnell’s hire by Greenberg Glusker was first reported Friday by The Hollywood Reporter’s Eriq Gardner and subsequently confirmed by the Los Angeles–based boutique, which announced in a press release that the 67-year-old O’Donnell would join the firm as of counsel on April 1.
“Pierce is a uniquely talented lawyer who is brilliant, imaginative and articulate,” said a statement by another longtime L.A. litigator, Greenberg Glusker partner Bertram “Bert” Fields, in announcing the hire of O’Donnell. “He has the proven ability to persuade judges and juries regarding novel legal theories and is truly a world-class litigator. I’m proud to call him a friend and delighted that he is joining Greenberg Glusker.”
Fields told The Am Law Daily in an email that he and O’Donnell opposed one another in some cases and worked together on others. “In every situation, I was impressed with Pierce’s brilliance,” Fields says. “He’s a very special lawyer.”
Born in upstate New York, O’Donnell has long-standing ties to Hollywood. He cowrote 1999’s “Home Team” and is the brother of actress Mary Eileen O’Donnell. His ties to the movie industry—O’Donnell has his own page on IMDb.com, the world’s largest film database, which picked up news of his move to Greenberg Glusker—stem from his representation of humorist Art Buchwald in a seminal suit against Paramount Pictures over the classic 1988 film “Coming to America.” Buchwald claimed that Paramount stole his idea for the movie.
The dispute eventually settled, leading Forbes to call O’Donnell the new “Perry Mason of Hollywood” in a 1990 feature story, and O’Donnell later discussed his battle with Paramount at length in a 1992 book he coauthored about the case. The litigation helped boost O’Donnell’s stature, and he went on to defend high-profile corporate clients such as Firestone Tire & Rubber, Lockheed Martin and Pfizer in other cases before leaving Kaye Scholer in 1996 to branch out on his own as a plaintiffs lawyer. In 2000, sibling publication The National Law Journal named O’Donnell one of the nation’s 100 most influential lawyers.
But O’Donnell’s once bright career soon began to crumble. As recounted in a May 2010 profile of O’Donnell appearing in The American Lawyer’s Litigation Supplement, his first fall from grace occurred in June 2004, when he was accused of making illegal campaign contributions to James Hahn’s successful 2001 bid to become mayor of Los Angeles. (Hahn was defeated in a reelection battle in 2005 and is now a judge with the Los Angeles County Superior Court.)
O’Donnell pleaded no contest to the state charges in February 2006 and agreed to pay $155,200 in fines and penalties and accept three years’ probation and a three-year ban in political fundraising. Later that year, O’Donnell formed his own practice O’Donnell & Associates in Los Angeles, but his legal troubles were not behind him.
In July 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted O’Donnell on charges of illegally reimbursing his law firm and employees for contributions they made to former U.S. Sen. John Edwards’ unsuccessful 2004 Democratic presidential campaign. (Edwards, of course, would later go on to have his own legal troubles before spurning politics to return to the practice of law late last year in Raleigh.)
O’Donnell won a brief reprieve when the criminal charges were dismissed by a federal district court judge in June 2009. Later that year, O’Donnell was named an Am Law Litigator of the Week for his work representing plaintiffs in a suit seeking to hold the Army Corps of Engineers liable for damages from Hurricane Katrina. The litigation, most of which was dismissed last year, led some Louisiana plaintiffs lawyers to claim that the campaign finance charges filed against O’Donnell were politically motivated by a Justice Department angered at how the cases were proceeding against the government in New Orleans.
As it happens, Republican heavyweight and current Morgan, Lewis & Bockius government investigations cochair George Terwilliger III—he joined the firm from O’Melveny & Myers in 2012—represented O’Donnell in the campaign finance case filed by the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, along with former Jones Day partners Brian O’Neill and Frederick Friedman, the latter of whom remains of counsel with the firm. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reinstated the election law charges against O’Donnell in June 2010, and in August of the following year he pleaded guilty to reimbursing 10 people $2,000 apiece for contributions they made in 2004 to Edwards’ presidential campaign.
But in November 2011, a federal judge in Los Angeles rejected the deal, calling provisions that he spend six months in prison too harsh for the lawyer who once suffered from bipolar disorder. A new agreement reached with prosecutors in early 2012 called for O’Donnell to spend 60 days in prison and pay a $20,000 fine while allowing him to retain his California law license.
O’Donnell was released from prison on Aug. 3, 2012, according to records on file with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and reported to a halfway house in Hollywood to serve out the remainder of his sentence. The NLJ reported at the time on a federal judge’s ruling releasing him from the halfway house early so he could undergo hip replacement surgery. O’Donnell never returned to the halfway house but had three months of home confinement as part of an agreement with prosecutors in early 2013. His California law license, which had been suspended for four months in 2011, was suspended for another six months last year before being restored on Dec. 30, 2013, according to state bar records.
O’Donnell did not respond to a phone call and emails requesting comment about his decision to return to the large-firm world. While not in the Am Law 200 ranks by attorney head count, the 85-lawyer Greenberg Glusker is one of the top firms in Los Angeles, having picked up the bulk of dissolving local firm Rutter, Hobbs & Davidoff two years ago.