Unsung Hero

Gaetano Piccirilli, Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg

Gaetano Piccirilli Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg

Piccirilli, a litigation partner with Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg, wears many hats in the legal and business, philanthropic and public service communities. In 2017, he tried and won the largest Act 135 (the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act) filing in Pennsylvania over the Trigen Steam plant.

The plant once fed the Center City Philadelphia steam grid, but has been out of operation for almost three decades. Laden with asbestos and other blighting influences, the plant sits close to the new Reading Viaduct elevated park. As a result of Piccirilli’s work, the asbestos and blight are being abated under court supervision.

Piccirilli is now serving his second term as chairman of the Caring People Alliance, a large social services nonprofit operating in and around Philadelphia.

What career path would you have pursued if you weren’t a lawyer?

After learning that “professional conversationalist” was not specifically a career path, I whittled it down to practicing law or academia. I thought both would be stimulating, involve research and writing, as well as public speaking. I chose law, and, along the way, I leaned that listening was more valuable than speaking.

Name a mentor or someone you admire.

I have been fortunate to have several mentors in my life and career, both family and friends. For different reasons, Albert Mezzaroba, Lisa Washington, Mark Feller, Anthony Merlino and Angelo Valleta. Each has taught me something different about life, family, law and business. Each has taken time out of busy lives to talk with me as I have grown.

In terms of admiration, my parents, Angela and Angelo Morelli, deserve that honor. Through them, I learned perseverance, how to pick myself up, and to check my ego at the door. They also fed me.

What is the best advice you ever received?

There are a few nuggets of wisdom to share, but I’d like to focus on two. First regards work-life balance. For several years after law school, I did not love the legal profession. A former colleague explained to me that while he loved his work, he said it was a means to an end. While I don’t agree, his point of making and enjoying time with friends and family stuck with me. I learned not to resent the long hours at the office and to take command of my out-of-work life. Second, involved not just looking at clients and problems mechanically. But that clients want you to understand, and express that you understand, how they feel about a particular matter. This is especially the case in litigation.

In 50 words or less, what does the legal profession need to do to prepare the next generation of lawyers?

Young lawyers must be given opportunities to fail. I’m not suggesting allowing young lawyers to run away with matters. Training must be gauged appropriately. Give young lawyers opportunities to counsel clients, participate in hearings, take that deposition, or take the lead in drafting an agreement. I firmly believe that success is tied to mistakes and learning from them.

Also, the continued trend of hyper-specialization is not healthy for the growth of young lawyers. For example, too many young lawyers are heading toward partnership having never taken a key deposition or asked questions on the record. These are fundamental skills that must be learned either before or along with specialization.

Power Player

Patricia Hamill, Conrad O’Brien

Patricia Hamill Conrad O’Brien

Hamill’s work in building a regional and nationwide practice litigating against colleges and universities on behalf of college students who have been subjected to campus disciplinary proceedings has made her a standout among her peers.

She has achieved many favorable results, including preliminary injunctions, settlement involving vacating of underlying disciplinary findings, and sanctions against colleges and universities.

How did you develop your practice?

Let me be clear: I have not done this alone but have built this practice over the last four-plus years with other partners and associates who feel as passionately as I do about these issues. But, it all started in small part by luck, in large part by a lot of hard work (both on my cases and in learning this expanding and changing area of law), and by ongoing networking. I got my first Title IX case in 2014 (Doe v. Swarthmore, No. 2:14-cv-000532 (E.D. Pa.)) through a referral from fellow attorney and friend, Ellen Brotman, and it received national attention. At the time, there were not many such cases pending. My team and I got a good result for our client and the result received widespread press coverage. After that, our practice picked up with calls from parents and other attorneys not familiar with these types of cases, and we took on both possible litigation matters as well as the representation of students in the internal university disciplinary setting. I was then lead counsel in the case of Doe v. Brandeis University (No. 2:14-cv-532, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43499 (D. Mass. Mar. 31, 2016)), which was heavily covered by the press when the court issued a key decision denying the university’s motion to dismiss, a decision that has been cited by virtually every subsequent lawsuit filed by an accused student. From there, we built a national practice. Many of our subsequent cases have garnered media attention in publications such as The Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsweek, The New York Times and Philadelphia Magazine. When we took on our first case, I also got to know the other practitioners bringing lawsuits on behalf of accused students with the thought that a good result for one was a good result for all, and that group continues to be a source of mutual support and referrals in our practice today.

I continuously speak to various groups in the Title IX legal landscape. I speak regularly at Title IX summits locally and around the country on how to handle Title IX lawsuits and the ever-changing Title IX law. As I do with other practice areas, I spend many nonbillable hours keeping abreast of legislative and case law developments, especially necessary in this field given the hot-button and evolving nature of the field. I also offer a portion of my time pro bono to students who cannot afford an attorney.

In addition to your advocacy on behalf of clients, you’ve testified before the U.S. Department of Education on Title IX issues and given public speeches on the topic. Do you view your advocacy outside the courtroom as a critical part of your practice?

Yes, I view my work outside the courtroom as a critical part of my practice. This work has been crucial in developing the practice. I also feel strongly about these issues. Sexual assault anywhere, but particularly on college campuses, is an issue that must be taken seriously. As an attorney, I want to see fair processes for all, and fairer processes lead to greater integrity in results, which benefits all parties to these processes. I have enjoyed being part of widespread changes with a larger impact beyond just the case law and my individual clients. I have also been able to meet other key players in the legal and legislative field through this outreach, and I often speak to those who coordinate or manage the Title IX processes in their colleges and universities to give them a view of the world from the accused student’s perspective. I do this not because it will lead to business, but because I hope my efforts and outreach will help improve these processes and make them fairer for all students involved, whether they have counsel or not. I firmly believe that public advocacy is as important as the litigation efforts to effectuate widespread change.

What is the best advice you ever received?

I learned from the best. My mentor and friend throughout my career has been Jim Rohn, our firm’s former managing partner and now chairman. I have modeled my approach to the practice of law after what I saw in him: Put your ego aside and focus on the needs of the client; be a good teammate and acknowledge the efforts of everyone on your team—none of us succeed alone; treat all clients with the same attention and care, whether they are big or small; and give your legal talent without regard to whether it will result in billable hours or business development. If you “do life,” the rest will follow.