Biglaw, Money, Musical Chairs, Partner Issues, Real Estate, Tax Law, Weirdness

Why Did John O’Brien Leave Sullivan & Cromwell?

John OBrien John J OBrien headshot Sullcrom Sullivan Cromwell partner.jpgBack in April, we wondered about the departure from Sullivan & Cromwell of John O’Brien, a highly regarded and well-liked corporate partner who focused on M&A work. This development captured our interest because it’s unusual for lawyers to leave the (highly lucrative) partnership of a top firm like S&C.

When partners leave a place like Sullivan & Cromwell, there’s often a story behind the departure. E.g., Carlos Spinelli-Noseda (partner left S&C after billing clients and firm for more than $500,000 in fraudulent travel and entertainment expenses).

In addition, word on the street was that O’Brien was escorted from the building by security personnel. Partners are being asked to leave their firms with increasing frequency during the recession — but they’re not usually walked out by muscle.

So we decided to do a little digging.

Sullivan Cromwell LLP new logo Sullcrom.jpgMultiple sources inform us that John O’Brien left Sullivan & Cromwell due to an issue relating to his taxes. We understand that this alleged tax problem is personal in nature, unrelated to his work for the firm. So S&C and its clients are not implicated in the way that they were by L’Affaire Spinelli-Noseda.

We’d like to provide more details about the situation, but we are not in a position to do so at this time. Right now there are more questions than answers. For example, we don’t know whether the potential tax issue is civil or criminal, related to income tax or property tax, or state or federal in nature.

It also seems odd for a corporate — er, “general practice” — partner at S&C to get in trouble over a tax matter. First, and most obviously, one would expect a corporate partner at a top-tier firm to know a lot about — and follow — the law. Second, Biglaw partners usually receive a great deal of assistance in preparing their tax returns from the administrative / accounting staff at their firms (especially since they must file in all jurisdictions where the partnership does business).

Could the issue that led to John O’Brien’s departure have implications for his bar membership (just as Spinelli-Noseda’s fraud was followed by his bar resignation)? We looked up O’Brien in the New York State attorney directory. He was supposed to have reregistered with the bar — i.e., coughed up the $350 registration fee and submitted his continuing legal education (CLE) certification — in June 2009. It is now December, and it appears that he has yet to reregister.

In addition, O’Brien’s NYS attorney directory entry does not provide information for a new employer. Our quick online research similarly failed to locate employment info for the “John J. O’Brien” in question (although we did find another one, younger and cuter, in the Philadelphia office of Morgan Lewis). It would seem that the S&C John O’Brien is still in search of a new professional home (assuming he has not left the practice of law).

John OBrien townhouse East Village.jpgWe have made several efforts to contact O’Brien for comment. Because we didn’t have email or telephone contact information for him, just a home address, we had to resort to in-person visits and snail mail.

Late last month, around Thanksgiving, yours truly and intrepid girl reporter Kashmir Hill dropped by O’Brien’s apartment, housed in an East Village townhouse (photo at right; click to enlarge). O’Brien’s digs are unusual for a former Sullivan & Cromwell partner. First, he lives in the East Village — a bit bohemian for a Biglaw baron. Second, he doesn’t inhabit the whole building; judging from the mailboxes, it seems he has just one out of three or four apartments in the townhouse.

UPDATE: A fun real estate tidbit, from a knowledgeable reader:

I have no info concerning the focus of the story, but for local color on the brownstone, you might be interested to know that the corner house on the left in your photograph is owned by the composer Phillip Glass and the one on the right, with just a bit of an outside elevator lift showing, was owned by the recently deceased publisher of the Amsterdam News, Bill Tatum.

We rang the doorbell. The intercom was answered by a British voice (and this wasn’t Talk With A Fake British Accent Day). The Brit informed us that O’Brien was “away for the holidays,” but he agreed to take our business card on O’Brien’s behalf. We left our card with the British fellow — who looked like a young Ricky Gervais, but with black hipster glasses and an earring — and asked for a return call. That was before Thanksgiving; we did not hear back.

Last week, we dropped a holiday card in the mail for John O’Brien, enclosing another copy of our business card, and requesting a return phone call or email. Still no response.

We requested comment from Sullivan & Cromwell and its chairman, H. Rodgin Cohen, back when we first wrote about John O’Brien’s departure. We did not receive a response. We repeated our inquiry last night, but have not yet heard back. If we do, we will let you know.

If you have more information, please email us (subject line: “John O’Brien”). Thanks.

Earlier: Another Sullivan & Cromwell Partner Has Left the Building

(hidden for your protection)

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