Michael Forde and Brian O’Meara

Michael Forde and Brian O’Meara

You’ve had a successful career at Big Law but find there might be another path for you to take. You wait until the moment is right, you build up the courage and then – you leave Big Law to practice with a small group of lawyers who have sterling reputations and strong work ethic. That is precisely the path that Michael Forde and Brian O’Meara chose.

Forde & O’Meara is a boutique firm with a Big Law background. They bring a big firm pedigree and approach to problems, but with small firm flexibility – competitive rates and fewer conflicts. Their deep-rooted relationships in the legal community and commitment to their craft does well to build their book of business – most of their engagements come via referrals from other lawyers. They are one of the first calls for Big Law firms who either need co-counsel in Chicago or are conflicted out of a case and need a firm that can operate at a high level in a wide range of disputes with a focus on commercial litigation and appellate work.

Forde formerly served as co-chair of Mayer Brown’s Commercial Litigation practice, and O’Meara was a partner at McGuireWoods. Forde and O’Meara are not only law partners, but also brothers-in-law. O’Meara married Forde’s sister 19 years ago. These family ties were the beginning of a long story and a collaborative partnership.

While the partners of Forde & O’Meara call Chicago home, they have represented clients in cases throughout the country. For instance, a few years ago, O’Meara had a big win in the 9th Circuit. His client was facing a $150M TCPA claim in the U.S. District of Nevada. O’Meara obtained summary judgment in the trial court, and then argued and won the appeal from that judgement in the 9th Circuit.

Forde’s trial experience is equally varied. He has tried cases of national scope, as when he tried a case in the Delaware Court of Chancery, representing a group of Sprint Corporation franchisees against Sprint. But his trial experience also includes the hyperlocal. When Rahm Emanuel stepped down as President Obama’s Chief of Staff to run for Mayor of Chicago, certain political opponents challenged his right to do so based on his residency. Forde and his father represented Emanuel from the administrative hearing in the basement of the Chicago Board of Elections all the way up to the Illinois Supreme Court (where they prevailed).

The lawyers at Forde & O’Meara are also trusted co-counsel with some of the biggest and most respected firms in the nation such as Gibson Dunn, Bass Berry & Sims, and Morgan Lewis, to name a few.

Lawdragon: How did you come to the decision to leave Big Law and choose to go the path of a boutique?

Michael Forde: In 2012, I had just turned 40 and had been at Mayer Brown for 13 years. I made a lot of great friendships and mentors there and learned a ton. But, I was frustrated with the bureaucracy that comes with being at any 1800-lawyer law firm. Being in a global law firm can be tough for a litigator. We make our living in the courthouses in Chicago, and sometimes Delaware, and federal courts around the country. But we don’t need an office in Singapore, or Frankfurt. The global footprint is an asset for transactional lawyers, but it can be a hindrance for litigators. It’s unwieldy and expensive. The fee structures are often inflexible, and the hourly rates mean pricing yourself out of a lot of work.

Brian O’Meara: I’ve got nothing but good things to say about McGuireWoods, but no matter how great the people are or how interesting the work is, sometimes an opportunity presents itself, like joining this firm, which is just too good to pass up.

There’s a great Steve Jobs quote, “It’s better to be a pirate than join the Navy.” That’s how I see it. We have a lot more fun now and are able to offer a lot more flexibility to our clients.

MF: We also wanted to be more flexible with fees, both the level of the rates themselves and the fee structure. Clients are never happy about being in litigation, so if you’re able to offer a structure that includes something like a success fee, or occasionally take things on contingency, that’s something they really appreciate. So, in the right situation, we might work under a hybrid arrangement. In general, we just wanted to be nimbler. There’s a great Steve Jobs quote, “It’s better to be a pirate than join the Navy.” That’s how I see it. We have a lot more fun now and are able to offer a lot more flexibility to our clients.

LD: And how did you decide to partner together?

MF: My father had always had his own commercial litigation boutique, with which we actually worked on three or four cases when I was at Mayer Brown. In 2012, he was starting to ramp down the amount of work he was doing, so I left Mayer and partnered up with him. And then Brian – well, he’s married to my sister.

LD: Oh! Which relationship came first?

BO: I met Mike’s sister during law school, at Loyola University Chicago, and we got married shortly after, so Mike and I have been brothers-in-law for quite some time. And once he left Mayer Brown, we would occasionally work together. Our approach to client relationships and the practice of law just clicked. He clearly enjoyed working in a smaller firm environment – it was nimbler, less prone to client conflicts, and open to flexible and creative rate structures. After much discussion and reflection, it just made sense for me to join him as a law partner. That was almost 10 years ago, and it has been incredibly rewarding.

LD: And you’ve been taking on some great cases. What’s one of the latest?

MF: We were just hired to represent a Charlotte-based family office in a case against Boeing pending in federal court in Charlotte. It’s a very interesting, business tort case, with very substantial damage claims. But what makes it most interesting, in the context of our discussion today, is that Boeing is represented by Mayer Brown – in fact, some of my old friends, and some of the best lawyers, at Mayer Brown. So, it’s very civil but very competitive. There’s nothing like playing against your old teammates to hone your competitive instincts.

LD: What other cases are keeping you busy these days? What does your practice landscape look like?

BO: There’s a lot going on right now. We just settled a case we were handling for one of the biggest private equity firms in the country. This was a big post-closing dispute in Chicago, and we were co-counsel with Gibson Dunn. We also just settled a busted real estate deal lawsuit we were handling on the plaintiff’s side for Sean Conlon, a well-known real estate developer and CNBC personality. We are currently representing a group of investors in the Maple & Ash restaurant group against the group’s founder and management company.

LD: It sounds you have an acumen with working with the press, as well, which can often be hindered in the Big Law environment.

It’s very civil but very competitive. There’s nothing like playing against your old teammates to hone your competitive instincts.

MF: That’s a great point. A lot of our practice tends to be pretty high-profile. One of our core competencies is our ability to litigate on behalf of a client while keeping one eye on the real world outside the litigation – the public narrative, the investor relations facet, the regulators’ view, and so on. I like to think we do that piece as well as anyone. In the Rahm Emanuel case, for instance, in two months we did a full-blown trial and three levels of appeals. This occurred right in the midst of a very heated mayoral campaign in which our client was the frontrunner – but at one point they were literally printing ballots without his name on them. So, every litigation decision was colored not just by getting the right litigation result, but also with an eye towards how things would look to voters, fundraisers, press and political leaders around town.

LD: How has the firm grown since you opened?

MF: We’ve added other lawyers with big firm pedigrees, including two from Mayer Brown: Ellie Carey, a litigator, and Lisa Saul, who runs our real estate transaction practice. Last fall we brought on John Ransford, who was a judicial clerk at the Illinois Appellate Court. Another of my old Mayer Brown colleagues is joining us in February. She’s a Harvard Law grad with great clerking and big firm experience. So we’re not growing for growth’s sake, but when someone talented gets on our radar and it seems like a good fit for building the firm in a strategic way, we’ll try to get them on board.

BO: The track record of this place is that people like working here and stay. We are very proud of that. We like to be selective about the people who work here, in terms of personality and work ethic, to make sure it’s a good fit for them and us. As we continue to grow, we make sure our new attorneys are invested in our clients and the firm and share the same commitment to the practice of law.

MF: We’re invested in our people. In the summer of 2019, Ellie told us that her husband was taking a job in Seattle, and asked if we could attempt having her work remotely from there. At the time we were virtually certain that it would never work – this was pre-Covid, when every court appearance and deposition was done in person, and remote work was pretty rare. But she’s an excellent lawyer, we hated the idea of losing her, so we decided to give it a six-month trial run. Well, six months later, the whole world was working remotely, and it has stayed that way. So, she’s still working remotely, we’re still lucky to have her, and it’s worked out great for everyone.

LD: It’s became the new normal.

MF: Right. She’s doing great work and has actually moved to Portland now. She came to us with the idea for a class action case – a consumer fraud class action involving prescription pet food. It was dismissed in the district court but reversed by the 7th Circuit. The district court just certified the class, so she's doing excellent work out of Portland now.

LD: What has been the biggest adjustment moving from Big Law to boutique, as you have?

MF: It's a different set of challenges. It really is. People ask if it’s easier or harder, in terms of the things you worry about. The truth is it's neither easier nor harder. Maybe it's harder. But it's certainly a different set of challenges. There have been times over the past 11 years when I've had to write a check to cover payroll. That never happened at Mayer Brown! Your income is lumpier, which is okay, as long as the lumps are big enough and frequent enough.

BO: Agreed. I didn’t know whether it was going to be a very good decision or a very bad decision. But what I did know was that I was going to be working with outstanding lawyers and terrific people. So, I wasn't just going it alone. And while it was risky, it was worth it.

Being at a small firm, you have to be willing to get out of your comfort zone and embrace new challenges. But I’ve found that being able to overcome those challenges has brought the most enjoyment and success. After all, you miss all the shots you don't take and in 10 years, you don’t want to kick yourself and say, "What if?”

LD: I love that. And would you say you’re having more fun now?

BO: I’d say so, yes.

MF: No doubt about it.