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Man at Top of World's Largest Law Firm Still Stays Grounded

By Fred Dickey

April 15, 2013

If Terry O’Malley had a sandwich and you had none, he might offer you his. But if you tried to take it, you’d pull back a stub. And if the sandwich belonged to a client, you’d see those friendly Irish blues turn to cobalt.

That’s the way you have to be wired if you’re going to do the job for as many people as he’s responsible for.

However, maybe when he’s alone in his office on the 17th floor and the phones are finally quiet, maybe after dark on a spring evening — and yes, that’s past dinner time — he might walk over to the ceiling-tall window and look west past the lights of downtown San Diego and out beyond the ocean’s blank darkness.

Then, in solitude, he can gaze out on the horizon’s edge and see a modest frame house in Omaha, perhaps with frosted windows and snow that’s freshly shoveled. Inside, busy doing homework, is his youth.

Or, perhaps he sees himself in the student section of Notre Dame Stadium with the Golden Dome looming beyond the wall as he cheers and moans with his Fighting Irish while coach Ara Parseghian paces the sideline.

Having become acquainted with O’Malley, I can see that happening. Sugar-coated purple imagery? I’ll admit to that if you can tell me you never let your mind wander backward to when your youth commanded the world. Of course you do, and so do I, often. So why can’t the imagination of a leader of the world’s largest law firm?

J. Terence O’Malley is the type of lawyer you’d want defending you before the Internal Revenue Service, or, shudder, arguing your side in a divorce. But that’s not what he does. He’s the boss of 4,400 lawyers, enough to invade a small country. Worldwide, his firm specializes in serving international commerce. Litigation is a bread-and-butter specialty, which means they’ll see you in court. Litigators are the Jesuits of the law, terrier-like defenders of the faith.

O’Malley is global co-CEO of DLA Piper, which occupies four floors in the Wells Fargo building in downtown San Diego, plus offices in La Jolla and the Golden Triangle. His partner CEO is in London and is knighted, which is tough for an American to top at a cocktail party.

San Diego is just one branch of the firm, although a main one. DLA Piper has offices in 33 countries. It is on every continent except Antarctica, and that’s just so far. The firm is the outgrowth of Gray, Cary, Ames & Frye, about as old-line traditional as a law firm could ever be in San Diego.

I ask O’Malley if DLA Piper is, in fact, the world’s largest law firm. “Some days. There’s one other about the same size. The real answer is who came to work today. If we’re not, we’re in a really small car pool.”

He says the growing interaction and complexity of commerce and government make the globalization of large law firms inevitable and mandatory for those determined to grow and prosper.

DLA Piper is obviously intent on staying abreast of trends by specializing in national and multinational corporations, the protection of intellectual properties — i.e., patents, copyrights, and inventions — and the high-tech and large-scale energy industries.

Its list of clients, present and targeted, would go off the page and out the door. It better. Can you imagine the payroll for all those appetites accustomed to eating well and often?

A job such as O’Malley’s bestows prestige and perks that would be easy to take. But the pressure that goes with it would crush most of us like a trip to the ocean floor.

How a local San Diego firm became worldwide through mergers and acquisitions in fewer than 20 years would require a complex flow chart and organizational tree of redwood reach. The details would be a semester-long M.B.A. course. But I’m not going to write about the ship, but of the man at the tiller.

No one could run an operation containing enough lawyers to fill a courthouse, including the washrooms and the broom closet, without having O’Malley’s command presence. Lawyers are not docile bookkeepers or compliant file clerks. The reason some lawyers can hold a briefcase while swimming is they rely on a dorsal fin.

You have but to walk the Piper halls to see that this place is different. There are no plush offices with huge mahogany desks fronting a wall of law books that the comfortable occupants never crack. The offices — including O’Malley’s — are uniformly about 20 by 20 with a large table and no books, but heavily wired for electronics. This is not a law office for a movie set, but a lean legal machine.

I ask him to recite his favorite lawyer joke.

“I don’t have one.” No smile.

Ooookay …

O’Malley is 62 and lives in San Diego’s Mission Hills neighborhood with his wife, Colleen. They have three grown children: Erin, Michael and Patrick.

He says he’s “passionate about my family, Irish heritage and Notre Dame. My sons had to learn that on Saturday afternoons, dad would be yelling at the TV. And if the Irish lost, it would take me until Sunday afternoon to get over it.”

O’Malley savors fine wines and is intrigued by the study of wine making. To enjoy many of the wines he appreciates, you can’t look at the sticker price. However, he says he’s tried Trader Joe’s “two buck Chuck” (now $2.49) and likes it.

His beginnings were modest. “It was explained to me that when I became 14, I was going to have a job every summer, and I did. I worked in a snack bar, in a factory, and I worked construction as a laborer. It was the right way to learn about hard work.”

A return to Omaha was not part of his plan. “At Notre Dame, I kept track on the wall by my bunk of the consecutive days I had gone without seeing the sun. I got to 30 and said, ‘That’s enough.’ I sat on the floor of my dorm room and planned the rest of my life. I figured out that San Diego had the lowest mean temperature variation and was one of the fastest-growing cities. And you could go to Mexico in 10 minutes and drink beer. It sounded like a pretty good deal, so I decided I would end up in San Diego.”

O’Malley went through Notre Dame and graduated high on the list from Stanford Law School in 1975. That tells you something. He then immediately came to San Diego to work for Gray, Cary, Ames & Frye. He left to become executive vice president for Noble Broadcast Group for five years before returning to his previous employer in 1992.

What is it about you that would surprise the people who work for you?

“Not much, because with me, what you see is what you get. If you want to know something, you just have to ask, but you may not like the answer.”

He talks about the intense, unending pressures on lawyers in today’s climate, where you cannot hide from cellphones and emails, even on vacation or weekends. But he also says the rewards for those hired by top firms, and those who lead those firms, are eye-blinkingly bountiful. A new graduate would start at approximately $150,000 and a senior partner of a 100-lawyer firm would earn about $500,000.

“That income reflects the willingness of clients to hire you to do very complex tasks. I tell young lawyers this is a very hard job. Seven days a week, you are on call.”

O’Malley takes a personal interest in his firm’s donated services. He says DLA Piper provides millions of dollars of pro bono (free) work per year, including running a law school in Ethiopia to teach emerging countries the value of the rule of law. The firm wrote the constitution for Kosovo following NATO military action there. It has also given millions of dollars to disaster relief, including after Hurricane Katrina. The DLA Piper Foundation, of which O’Malley was founding chairman, gave $450,000 to nonprofit groups last year.

“In San Diego, we’ve done a lot with veterans and particularly homeless veterans,” he says. “We’ve set up an event in (Balboa Park) twice a year; essentially a legal shop to bring them in and get them going on their veterans’ benefits, and to clean up their records so they’re employable.”

O’Malley is a former president of the San Diego Taxpayers Association, and that reflects his concern for the self-indulgence of government, including the city of San Diego.

“Government has gotten too big. It tries to do too much and controls too much of people’s lives. People in government like to be in charge, and left to their own devices, politicians will always pass more laws — which makes it harder and harder for everyday people.”

O’Malley says he’s bothered by the lack of fiscal responsibility that he sees on a daily basis, because in every level of government the deficit gets bigger and bigger, to the point of being immoral.

“There are (government workers) in San Diego who are paid twice in their pensions than what they earned on their jobs. There is outrage among citizens, but it doesn’t translate into political results because of the influence of money.

“(Mayor Bob) Filner got elected in large part because of support from the unions, whose members are beneficiaries of those pensions. And he’s made no bones about the fact that he didn’t support the efforts at reforms; he didn’t like the proposition passed by citizens trying to rein in those costs.”


Upon meeting O’Malley, it’s quickly clear that this is a tough man. But tough is not the same as hard. Tough means being willing to crash through walls. Hard means erecting walls.

Though he no longer tries cases, if you should ever be in court sitting at the defendant’s table and you look across at the plaintiff’s table and see O’Malley sitting there …


To keep my perspective unawed on the infrequent times I interview the glitterati or the captains of politics or business, I always tell myself that he or she is just another guy. Well, that’s true of O’Malley, too, but he’s a friendly, purposeful and hugely successful guy. Though his head is on the 17th floor where the sun is most bright, his feet are on the ground where the footing is most firm.

Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at

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