Nelligan Law senior partner Allan O'Brien remembered as a 'lawyer's lawyer'

O'Brien, 75, leaves a legacy of advocacy and dedication to excellence in his field
o'brien

The Ottawa legal community has lost one of its finest.

Allan O’Brien, a respected litigator and senior partner at Nelligan Law, passed away on the evening of Easter Sunday after being diagnosed a little more than two years ago with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer of the plasma cells. He was 75.

Like any good lawyer, O’Brien put up a fight and maintained an optimistic outlook. He continued to practise law when he could, and was reportedly working as recently as last week, settling a couple of cases. 

The news of his passing hit his firm hard. Several colleagues who had worked with O’Brien for more than 40 years considered their colleague not just a dear friend but also family. He was smart and funny, collegial and friendly, and a very dedicated and hardworking lawyer.

“It’s a terribly sad day for us,” said Nelligan Law partner Peter Cronyn. 

“It’s a huge loss,” echoed Janice Payne, who said she feels certain that, if not for the illness, O’Brien would have followed in the footsteps of his mentor, the late John Nelligan, and continued working until well into his 80s. “People call him a lawyer’s lawyer. He was absolutely dedicated to the excellent practice of law. The man represented excellence.

“He was just such a solid, decent human being and a joy and a privilege to work with.”

obrien
Allan O'Brien, a senior partner at Nelligan O'Brien Payne LLP, attended the Forty Under 40 awards gala in June 2017 to support his son, Craig O'Brien, also a partner at the firm and a recipient of an award that year. Photo by Caroline Phillips

O’Brien was born and raised in a large Irish-Catholic farming family of six children in the town of Alexandria, about an hour east of Ottawa. Nobody in his family had gone to university, but O'Brien was very intent on leaving the farm.

“We produced more stone fences than we did milk,” O’Brien once quipped.

After a brief stint as a teacher, O’Brien decided law school might be for him. With the support of his wife, Gail, he enrolled through the University of Ottawa. 

By 1973, O’Brien began articling at Nelligan Power and was called to the bar in 1975, becoming the sixth lawyer to join the firm. Nelligan was the co-founder along with Denis Power, who went on to become a Superior Court judge. It was a much smaller law office back then and not the team of more than 50 lawyers that it is today.

“He was always someone I could turn to for support, right from the very beginning,” said Payne, who joined right after O’Brien and became the first woman to make partner at the firm. “You knew exactly what you had with Al. He spoke honestly and directly; there were no games.

“He also used humour to communicate effectively.”

'Concise and precise'

Cronyn, who’s been practising at Nelligan O'Brien Payne since 1979, described O’Brien as “probably one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known; very, very smart and very, very strategic. He was a great advocate. He was always extraordinarily well-prepared and he was economical with his writing and his speech. Everything he did had a purpose. He was very concise and precise.”

In other words, he knew not to say more when he could say it in less.

Through his work with professional liability insurance provider LawPRO, O’Brien became “one of the go-to lawyers” for representing other lawyers facing negligence claims, said Cronyn.

“All of the people whom I’ve ever spoken to, who had (Allan) as their lawyer, would say that they felt incredibly protected by him.”

“All of the people whom I’ve ever spoken to, who had him as their lawyer, would say that they felt incredibly protected by him.”

In 2017, O’Brien was the recipient of The Advocates’ Society’s John P. Nelligan Award for Excellence in Advocacy. The award recognized his reputation in the legal community as maintaining a high level of professional integrity and for being very client-focused. Retired vice-admiral Larry Murray spoke at the award ceremony dinner about how O’Brien guided him and protected him through a very difficult process during the Somalia Inquiry.

O’Brien had also been appointed as a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers in 2005, and was previously inducted into uOttawa’s Common Law Honour Society.

“He liked to solve problems for clients,” said Payne. “He certainly was happy to litigate, and was a very capable litigator, but he liked to find a solution so people could get on with their lives, and he used his interpersonal skills to do that.”

obrien
Allan O'Brien was known for his active lifestyle and staying fit.

Cronyn says he’ll always remember O’Brien with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

“He really enjoyed life. He worked hard, he played hard. He expected a lot of himself and those around him.”

It seemed unfair that O’Brien got sick, especially when he paid so much attention to his health. He was incredibly fit. He enjoyed being active and spending time at his cottage, on Lac Heney near Mont Ste. Marie.

He was also famous for always finding an Irish pub, no matter what foreign city he was visiting.

“He liked a good pint of beer,” said Cronyn.

Along with his wife Gail and their grandchildren, O’Brien leaves behind sons Scott and Craig and daughter Lauren. Craig became a partner at Nelligan O’Brien Payne in 2014 and is past-president of the CCLA (County of Carleton Law Association).

Nelligan Law is planning to hold a celebration of life in honour of O’Brien. It will likely be in the fall, once COVID-19 vaccines are widespread and people can gather again.

“We will carry on but we will remember him, and we will take care of his legacy, that’s for sure,” said Payne.