Well liked by everyone at the Courthouse, former Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Greg O'Connell now practices with the legendary RLS (Rains, Lucia, Stern, St. Phalle & Silver) firm in Walnut Creek. Greg tells us about a case that "went off the rails," and one that stayed very much on track. We'll also explore his education and how he decided to become a lawyer.
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Greg O’Connell – Podcast Transcript
Louis Goodman: Hello, and welcome to Love Thy Lawyer, where we talk to real lawyers about their lives in and out of the practice of law, how they got to be lawyers and what their experience has been. I'm Louis Goodman, the host of the show, and yes, I'm a lawyer. Nobody's perfect. We're joined on the pod by Greg O'Connell.
He's a former Alameda County Deputy District Attorney. He spent several years at the Dolan Law Firm and he's now with Rains Lucia Stern St. Phallae & Silver. Greg. Welcome to Love Thy Lawyer. Thank you very much for joining me today. It's a real privilege to have you on, I know a little bit about your practice. And I know about your history in the Alameda County District Attorney's Office.
And in general, it's a really a stellar career. But tell me about a case that you had that really went off the rails.
Greg O'Connell: Lou. Well, thank you for having me and yeah, just one case that goes off the rails there. There's probably a few that come to mind. You know, the first one I'll share with you, it involves the locomotive, like completely fell off the bridge in addition to just sort of popping off the rail.
Louis Goodman: Well yeah, that's the, those are the best ones.
Greg O'Connell: I was in the district attorney's office at the time I was prosecuting a case out of the Fremont courthouse, the individual who I was prosecuting, his name escapes me, but he was charged with assault with a firearm, and he had brandished a firearm on the freeway during the aftermath of a road rage incident.
Eventually witnesses saw this and tracked down the license plate number, apprehended, the suspect. And then, you know, of course found the firearm. He was shaking during cross examination. He became really upset, very uncomfortable started speaking in his native tongue, the deputies took him down to the ground, called for backup. Multiple deputies rushed into the courtroom that handcuffed him.
And at this point he starts having what I think was a seizure, his eyes roll back into his head and he's foaming at the mouth kind of drooling. And this is all in front of the jury, lo and behold, they convicted him, not much longer after that. However though, I think he did have the last laugh because he was successful in, in his appeal.
So, yeah, I would say that's pretty much off the rails and off the track.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. Yeah, I guess so where, where are you from originally?
Greg O'Connell: So I grew up in the city of Alameda.
Louis Goodman: Did you go to a high school there?
Greg O'Connell: No, I did grade school through, K through eight in Alameda. And for high school, I went to Bishop O'Dowd.
Louis Goodman: But you were still living in Alameda?
Greg O'Connell: Yes. So living at my parents' house in Alameda, in fact, they're, they're still there.
Louis Goodman: What did you think about O’Dowd? Did you have a good time there?
Greg O'Connell: I loved O’Dowd. I had a great time, a good education, you know, a lot of committed young students. and it was a good place to learn and kind of go through that.
Louis Goodman: After you got out of O'Dowd, where’d you go to college?
Greg O'Connell: After O'Dowd I went to UCLA down in wonderful Westwood and that was an excellent time of my life. Los Angeles was a lot of fun. UCLA campus is beautiful.
Louis Goodman: Yeah, it really is. Yeah. And were there any specific activities or anything besides going to the beach that you enjoyed down in Los Angeles?
Greg O'Connell: Well, as you know, that's a tough question. There are so many positive areas about that school, the student body, student life, the classes where the classes were good. A lot of, you know, kind of high profile instructors who do lectures and write books, wonderful guest speakers.
Louis Goodman: When did you start thinking about becoming a lawyer?
Greg O'Connell: The thought initially crossed my mind when I was a senior in high school. And part of it came about when I began applying to colleges, I had to figure out what I was ultimately going to major in, you know, kind of the short answer is I wasn't really sure. Law school seemed like a good fit for me, as I always enjoy debate and argument, I did debate in high school and I also did debate when I was at UCLA. So arguing and presenting was always, always something that came second nature to me. And, you know, on the advice of my parents, if I was going to make a career out of something, it should be, you know, something that you're, you're pretty good at, or at least something that comes somewhat effortlessly.
Louis Goodman: After you got out of UCLA what did you do then?
Greg O'Connell: Right out of college, I began law school. I went to Golden Gate School of Law. I started in the fall of 2005 and was there for three years.
Louis Goodman: And during law school, was it a conscious decision to come back to the Bay area?
Greg O'Connell: It was, it was during, during my summers, at UCLA, I would be at home and living at my parents’ house in Alameda, and I began volunteering at the Alameda County District Attorney's Office in between my sophomore and junior year of college. So it would have been the summer of 2002, I volunteered there. I was interested in becoming a DA and volunteered there for the three subsequent summers, 2002 three in 2004.
Louis Goodman: Tell me about some of your early experiences in the DA's office.
Greg O'Connell: So during that first summer, I primarily volunteered at the Alameda Courthouse.
So the one that's there on, I think it's Shoreline Drive. Right now, now I think they only do civil matters out of there. but years ago they had a single courtroom devoted to criminal. And I worked under the tutelage of John Jay and Eileen McAndrew.
Louis Goodman: You tried ultimately serious felony cases.
Is that correct?
Greg O'Connell: I did.
Louis Goodman: Yes. And then you also, after that, you went on to deal with the Department of Insurance Division of the District Attorney's Office.
Greg O'Connell: That's correct. After I did a felony, I was on the felony jury trial team for two years. After that, I transitioned into our Consumer Fraud, Environmental Protection Division where I worked in the Insurance Fraud Unit. So it was prosecuting different types of insurance fraud, whether homeowners, automobile insurance fraud, and even doing some workers' compensation fraud. You know, the type of stuff where the guy wears a boot all day until he gets to the gym and then takes it off and goes and plays basketball claiming he has a bad foot.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. Those cases are interesting. The other cases that I like are the crash and buy cases.
Greg O'Connell: You know you would think that would be easier to pull off if you just simply planned, you know, set down a timeline and stuck with it,
Louis Goodman: Explain crash and buy cases. Cause it's a term that you and I know, but maybe some people don't know.
Greg O'Connell: Sure. So, typically this occurs, we'll say on a Monday morning at 8:00 AM and somebody is involved in an auto accident, that person then calls the police. Makes a police report at approximately eight 30 gives all their information, says they were involved auto accident. And then probably about 10:30 in the morning, maybe 11 in the morning they get the pride idea, oh shoot, I don't have car insurance. Maybe I should go buy it. So then hours after the accident, they go buy their insurance policy. And, you know, I just don't understand how people can
Louis Goodman: make a claim on it.
Greg O'Connell: Oh yeah, of course. And then, you know, in the, they never have the patience to wait more than a day, you know, sometimes they'll just call right back 20 minutes later and make the claim.
Louis Goodman: Of course that doesn't raise any right flags over at the insurance company.
Greg O'Connell: Not enough red flags could go up on that book.
Louis Goodman: What are you doing now? What sort of work are you doing now, Greg?
Greg O'Connell: So in 2017, I made a, a tough decision deliberated it for quite a bit to leave the DA's office. And I wanted to explore, civil litigation.
The opportunity that was given to me right out of the DA's office was working at Chris Dolan's Law Firm. Dolan is kind of a master of personal injury cases. He does a lot of civil lit, mostly with personal injury, some medical malpractice. So I made the transition into civil litigation.
Louis Goodman: How was that transition for you coming out of the DA's office then going into a civil firm?
Greg O'Connell: You know, I think there's an old saying that it, you know, it's tough for old dogs to learn new tricks, and for the first time in my life, I actually felt like it dog trying to learn a new trick.
I was in the DA's office eight years, some of the procedure and the rules, you just come second nature. You don't realize how much you've actually learned. And remember it without having to think about it, when all that goes out the window and you're dealing with a new set of rules, a new procedure, it's, you know, there's a learning curve and it, it was difficult for the first couple of months.
Louis Goodman: What did you do to get over that curve?
Greg O'Connell: The only way I think to really get over that curve is to just put in extra time, read the code. Try not to fall asleep while you're reading it. Make notes, flashcards, test yourself. Think about it. you know, I, I would download YouTube podcasts and discussions on procedure and listen to it during my commute.
Just anything to kind of get my brain thinking about it and committing it to memory. So it becomes second nature.
Louis Goodman: What kind of cases did you handle at the Dolan firm?
Greg O'Connell: When I was at Dolan, it was all personal injury. I guess not all. I did do one jury trial while I was there at the firm, that was a breach of contract case, but most of the cases were personal injury.
Louis Goodman: What did you think of that work?
Greg O'Connell: I enjoy it. A personal injury case is very client centric. So if you have a, you know, a very sympathetic client who's been injured dramatically and his or her life has just been altered permanently, it is very easy to get behind the client.
Get to know the client. Cause not only are you working to get a big settlement, which of course is going to help you personally, you're doing this because the client actually needs it. And a lot of times, you know, he or she is not going to be able to work. They're not going to be able to earn a living and they're going to have future medical care, which is very expensive, especially nowadays.
Louis Goodman: In 2018, you left Dolan and went to your current assignment. Is that right?
Greg O'Connell: That's right. I had left, Chris Dolan's firm and I accepted a position at Rains Lucia Stern St. Phallae & Silver. You know, they have five people on the credenza. They do have a civil litigation division that does personal injury and medical malpractice.
As well as employment law, labor law, Michael Rains though, was, you know, kind of the, the heavyweight there who really gave Rains Lucia Stern its name, and of course that is done in the defense of police officers. That defense comes in either criminal proceedings, civil proceedings, but most often administrative proceedings.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. Officers sometimes get in trouble too. Don't they.
Greg O'Connell: They definitely do. Police officer is really just like anybody else and they can have lapses in judgment. They can find themselves in difficult situations needing to make immediate decisions. And sometimes that's just a recipe for trouble to happen, and I think that goes for anybody, not, not necessarily only police officers.
Louis Goodman: So you've been there. What about two years now?
Greg O'Connell: About two and a half. Yeah.
Louis Goodman: And what sort of work have you been doing there?
Greg O'Connell: I’m in the civil litigation division? There is still some personal injury. There's also, I've been working on something called A Shareholder Derivative suit, something called a Key Tam suit, which is a whistleblower retribution type case. I also do, contract law as well as, employment law. and then of course, personal injury, pretty much anything. Where litigation is required. We also take over a lot of cases for other firms or smaller practices when it's actually time to go to court.
Louis Goodman: Now that you've had more experience with the civil stuff, and I assume that you now have much greater familiarity with civil procedure than you did when you first left the DA's office. have you found that your experience as a Deputy DA and your work in the courtroom has now really been able to transition into helping you out in civil litigation?
Greg O'Connell: Yes, it has. It mostly, pays off when you're kind of close to the finish line, in civil. Typically there's not a lot of hours logged in court, up until an actual trial. So I, you know, anytime I've got into the trial department, that's when it starts to pay off. all of the time.
And usually it can be sometimes two years, three years before a case gets to trial. It's a different beast in the civil world. Attorney's behavior differently. There's different types of tactics and strategy, and a lot of that has to do with the simple fact. It's usually I'm representing I'm on the Plaintiff side, so I'm representing a single person.
And I'm going after a larger insurance company. Nobody's in custody, you know, nobody's losing any rights, unlike criminal, where the consequences of a verdict are much more severe. So there are different tactics that play out that simply did not exist in the DA's office.
Louis Goodman: Now, in addition to practicing law, I know that you have some outside interests.
What sort of things do you like to do recreationally?
Greg O'Connell: Traveling is ultimately at the top of my list. I know right now that's difficult to accomplish. maybe even impossible. I was fortunate enough to go to Italy, in February, with my girlfriend. We went for about two weeks.
We were glad to get that in. but now, you know, traveling is difficult and it's just, you can't really do it. so, you know, exercising, believe it or not coordinate, Lu I undertook the task of remodeling my backyard during this pandemic. And it's been difficult and it's taken up a lot of time, but it's nice work.
It's simple work and it's different, completely different than law. So it's nice to engage in that just to take my mind off of things.
Louis Goodman: What are you growing?
Greg O'Connell: So I have a lemon tree. I have a peach tree, a cherry tree, and I've also, I'm trying to grow chili peppers on my deck, but, that hasn't been working out. The lemons are coming in great though.
Louis Goodman: Let me get back to the, the court system for a minute. Do you think that the court system is basically fair?
Greg O'Connell: Yeah. Yeah. I think it is basically fair, you know, it's obviously a very subjective question. And I think people's answers differ based on kind of how things work out for them personally, you know, so a lot of criticisms of the court system I think can be fickle and sometimes I'm informed. But you know I'm not a complete defender of the court system because I think it's archaic in many ways and it is too slow.
Louis Goodman: Besides being a lawyer, is there some job that you think you'd like to have?
Greg O'Connell: I've jokingly said, you know, I would love to own the San Francisco 49ers.
Louis Goodman: Yeah, that'd be good job.
Greg O'Connell: That would be my favorite job. But you know, now if I didn't go to law school I probably would have gone to medical school,
Louis Goodman: If a young person who was in college and thinking about a career, asked you about whether being a lawyer was a good idea or not. What, advice would you have?
Greg O'Connell: Okay. You know, I would probably tell them no, do not become an attorney.
Louis Goodman: Why?
Greg O'Connell: The cost of law school is very high. Running a law school, the idea of running a law school has become more of a business and less of a sanction for learning in an academic institution.
It really no longer that anymore. It's a business.
Louis Goodman: Say you came into some real money, you know, real money, a couple of billion dollars, billion with a B, what, if anything, about your life, would you change?
Greg O'Connell: You know, I would probably start working less. That would be the first thing I would change. After that, I've learned to live a under my means I become better and better at saving. So in all honesty, you know, I would not need that much money. And so I would probably donate some certainly not all of it. I guess the first thing I would change is probably pay my mortgage and get rid of it. So I’d have a little more freedom.
Louis Goodman: Well, Greg you had talked to us about a criminal case that went off the rails. Can you tell us about a civil case that perhaps ended up with a better result?
Greg O'Connell: It involved a, a young man in his mid to late thirties. He was 37 at the time. He was driving his car on the side street down in San Jose, near a construction site.
The construction site was active. There was a large forklift that picked up a huge, what they call steel trench plate. It's something that covers the ditches in the road at night, so people can drive over it. And then in the daytime that construction workers cordoned off the street, open up the plate and can access the ditch without cars having to drive in and meet their while they were lifting up one of these large plates.
The it fell off the forklift and crashed onto the guy's car, crushing his head. He ultimately, I should say they ultimately, but at the scene, what was, was fine, miraculously, it wasn't until about three or four months later, he began right. Losing his vision and yeah, over a period of about a year, he completely lost his vision.
And he was diagnosed with a very rare brain disorder, as his actual eyeballs were perfectly fine and healthy, but his brain was unable to process the images and then kind of transmit, what was being perceived into what was actually happening. So his brain was injured even though his speech was fine.
His mannerisms were fine, his coordination was fine. It was a very difficult case because it had an extremely late diagnosis. Usually if somebody goes blind, it happens immediately. It's an explosion. So that goes in your eye. you know, it's very obvious. This was a tough case and, you know, I've worked on it for two years, and it's settled well into seven figures, ultimately changing this young man's life. I wouldn't say for the better cause, you know, he would rather have his sight rather than all the money, but we set him up in a very good position where he'll have the adequate care. And be able to afford the treatment that he needs, to begin his life as a blind person now.
Louis Goodman: Yeah, it really feels good. When as an attorney, you can help somebody out in what for them is a really terrible situation and you never make anybody whole but you can sometimes make things a little bit better.
Greg O'Connell: Yeah. And that's exactly what happened and yeah, that feels good,
Louis Goodman: Greg, thank you so much for joining us today on Love Thy Lawyer.
I appreciate your time. I appreciate your stories and I appreciate your insight. Thanks so much for being here. And it's good to talk to you.
Greg O'Connell: Lou. Thank you for having me. I enjoyed it. I appreciate it.
Louis Goodman: Thanks for joining us today on Love thy Lawyer.