“Everyone loves a comeback” is one of the most enduring maxims in showbiz, and if there’s ever been an attorney who embodies both that saying and the industry, it’s Variety’s Billion Dollar Litigator, Pierce O’Donnell.
Fresh from his role at the center of the stunning 2014 success-from-shame story of Donald and Shelly Sterling’s sale of the Los Angeles Clippers sports franchise for $2 billion, O’Donnell exhibits a bigger-than-life color and zeal for litigation that has characterized his four-decades in the courtroom.
The lawyer’s happy warrior spirit has not only aided him in high-profile, high-stakes cases involving adversaries that include major motion picture studios and the U.S. government, but it also must have helped him through his own professional crises that include two misdemeanor convictions for illegal political campaign contributions, the second of which led to a short stint behind bars in 2012 and could have led to disbarment.
Cut to the famed attorney’s big comeback.
When he joined Greenberg Glusker early last year, the law firm’s legendary partner Bert Fields described O’Donnell as “a world-class litigator,” and it didn’t take long for O’Donnell to prove the veracity of his colleague’s assessment.
As O’Donnell recounts the origins of the history-making Clippers sale, in April 2014, “Shelly Sterling walked into my office. We connected. She hired me.”
What followed that meeting was a fast-moving legal tale that O’Donnell describes as “the epitome of so much: sex, power, family, greed. It was a family drama played out on a world stage.”
Since the Greenberg Glusker team had represented Shelly in the preparation of the revocable trust that became the center of the litigation long before Donald Sterling’s girlfriend V. Stiviano dropped a bomb on the family and by extension the Clippers franchise in the form of recordings of Donald spewing racist rants, O’Donnell entered the fray armed with his team’s knowledge and expertise.
One of his first challenges was to go one-on-one with the National Basketball Assn.’s commissioner, Adam Silver, who was leading the NBA charge to ensure a change of ownership. Shelly and Donald Sterling’s doctors were to prove essential to paving a path to change, so O’Donnell went into the meeting with confidence as well as a battle-seasoned litigator’s steely resolve.
“I had an olive branch in one hand, a tomahawk in the other,” recalls O’Donnell. “But once Adam and I started chatting, I sensed we had a rapport and I made an audible. I told him ‘For the good of the Clippers, the city of Los Angeles and the NBA, to litigate would be Armageddon.’ You could see his body language relax.”
Over the summer the Greenberg Glusker team, led by litigator O’Donnell, racked up one win after another, convincing a judge to fast-track a probate court trial date, prevailing against Donald Sterling’s challenges to Shelly’s community-property rights and to his incompetency ruling, putting the team’s sale book together over Memorial Day weekend, culminating in the Steve Ballmer $2 billion bid that was almost four times the price that the Milwaukee Bucks had obtained only weeks earlier.
With that victory in the rear-view mirror, O’Donnell continues his work for Shelly Sterling in her case against Stiviano over the ownership of approximately $2 million in “gifts” she had received from Donald.
But when asked which of his many court battles he’s most proud of, surprisingly O’Donnell cites one where his skills failed to win the day.
In 2009, O’Donnell was lead counsel on a legal team that sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for gross negligence in their stewardship of the flood control system in New Orleans that led to the tragic consequences of Hurricane Katrina.
“I represented 250,000 citizens in a potential class action suit and in the 5th Circuit we won three consecutive decisions unanimously,” he recalls. “The U.S. government had $100 billion on its books in case we prevailed.
Later, their decision was vacated. No one understands this change of mind. It was the same three judges, en banc, and this was an unprecedented move.”
The word that is most often used by O’Donnell’s colleagues as well as by those in the legal community who’ve faced him in court is “passionate.” As he explains the stakes in this failed litigation, it’s the word that best describes the courtroom veteran’s countenance.
“I was committed to this case because America’s 35th largest city was drowned by the federal government,” says O’Donnell, “and this turned out to be a case where economic justice did not prevail. It was a conspicuous failure of the judicial system. But in the struggle was the triumph.”