Cathy O’Neil practiced law at a high level while also entertaining her colleagues in the bar with energy, talent and grace.
O’Neil, the guiding spirit for the Atlanta Bar Association’s long-running, all-lawyer, musical comedy revue, “A Courthouse Line,” and a partner in the special matters and investigations practice at King & Spalding, died on Oct. 1 after a yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 53.
“Cathy was one of those rare people who was good at everything,” said her husband, Georgia Supreme Court Justice David Nahmias. “She was not just an extraordinary trial lawyer and leader of organizations, but an accomplished director, choreographer, producer. But what she was best at was being a mother and wife and friend.”
“Her legacy will live on in everyone she touched,” he said.
“It’s hard to imagine someone with that much energy no longer being among us,” said Kent Alexander, who hired O’Neil at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia in her early days as a lawyer.
“Cathy just had that extra something, aside from being a truly great lawyer and very analytical and tactical,” Alexander said. “She was brilliant, the energizer bunny. She hit the courtroom running, as if she’d been trying cases all her life. I wasn’t surprised when I saw her onstage, because I’d seen her in court—and she was so good in court.”
O’Neil described herself as “ultra-organized” in a 2006 Daily Report profile. “All my life I’ve had to figure out a way to keep different balls in the air,” O’Neil said in the profile. As a teenager growing up in the Cape Cod hamlet of Hyannis, Massachusetts, she juggled competitive figure skating with ballet, drama club and the debate team—plus academics.
Many in the Atlanta legal community remembered her more for her determination, tenacity, humor and generosity.
“She brought almost boundless positive energy to everything she tackled and inspired loyalty, good cheer, and affection in all of us,” said FBI Director Chris Wray, who first knew O’Neil as a fellow federal prosecutor in Atlanta. The former King & Spalding partner recruited her to the firm’s special matters practice a decade later, where she had the office next door to his.
“Cathy was a dedicated public servant, devoted wife and mother, a spectacular trial lawyer—and a dear, dear friend for more than 20 years,” Wray said.
“She is inimitable. You couldn’t not love her,” said Atlanta Bar president Maggie Vath, who went on to produce every one of O’Neil’s Atlanta Bard shows after O’Neil cast her in the second one.
“When Cathy asks you to step up, you do it,” Vath said. “No one can control a roomful of 70 lawyers like she can. With a snap of her fingers, she has judges and lawyers standing at attention ready to do exactly what she wants. … Everyone had complete and utter faith in her abilities as a director.”
O’Neil helped launch the first Bard show in 1999 after a conversation with then-Atlanta Bar president Greg Smith, a federal defender at the time. He noticed the posters in her office from shows she’d done at Harvard Law School and pitched the idea of a musical revue as a bar fundraiser.
O’Neil directed and choreographed most of the shows, while also co-writing the irreverent and witty scripts with lawyers, including Atlanta’s newest U.S. attorney, BJay Pak. And she still managed to appear in a dance number or two.
“So GRATEFUL for my one show experience with Cathy. What a light and what a force,” said one lawyer, Will Davis of Holland Roddenbery, on the Atlanta Bard’s Facebook page.
The shows have fostered community among the dozens of Atlanta lawyers who’ve worked on them over the years. “The bar comes together like a family—with a lot of crazy aunts and uncles, as well,” Nahmias said at an Atlanta Bar luncheon in February to recognize O’Neil with a leadership award for creating the Bard show, which is the Atlanta Bar Foundation’s biggest fundraiser.
O’Neil and Nahmias became a team soon after meeting at Harvard Law School. They married and moved to Washington where O’Neil was working at Davis Polk & Wardwell and Nahmias as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, then at Hogan & Hartson, when Alexander, the new U.S. attorney in Atlanta, got in touch.
“Cathy and Dave were my first two AUSA hires. I made a ‘joint and several’ offer in 1994,” Alexander said. “Happily for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Atlanta and Georgia, they decided to make the move,” he added.
O’Neil spent eight years in Atlanta prosecuting high-profile drug cases, then the couple returned to Washington in 2002—O’Neil as associate director for the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), which she went on to head, and Nahmias to coordinate terrorism prosecutions for the Justice Department’s criminal division.
At that point, O’Neil had directed the first three “Courthouse Line” shows—a feat she mentioned on her application for the OCDETF job. “I wrote that getting 65 lawyers all to dance on the same foot was a remarkable testament to my organizational skills,” she said in the Daily Report profile.
The couple moved back to Atlanta after Nahmias became U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia in late 2004. He went on to become a Georgia Supreme Court justice in 2009.
By then, their team had expanded to include O’Neil and Nahmias’ young sons, Steven and Michael.
O’Neil initially continued working for OCDETF, commuting to Washington where she was in the middle of a budget fight in Congress and shepherding through new case performance assessments. She joined King & Spalding in 2005, where she handled government investigations and complex business litigation.
“She was a vibrant presence at the firm and in Atlanta’s legal community. We will miss her dearly,” said Alan Prince, King & Spalding’s Atlanta managing partner.
O’Neil was diagnosed with cancer the week before rehearsals began last year, just before Labor Day, for the 2016 Bard show, “A Courthouse Line XII: Mock the Vote,” which ran right after last November’s presidential election.
“The Bard family was there for me in every way,” O’Neil said when she accepted the Atlanta bar’s leadership award.
“This show, more than any other, reflects my view of leadership,” she added, noting how many other people pitched in to help keep the show going while she was undergoing cancer treatment.
“If you provide the vision and a plan, people will step up—especially lawyers,” O’Neil said. “When we come together truly with a common purpose and vision, we can accomplish great things. We can dance in unison, make people smile—and bring out the best in the profession.”
Before oral arguments at the state Supreme Court on Monday morning, Chief Justice Harris Hines noted Nahmias’ absence from the bench and explained that O’Neil had died the day before after a “courageous battle with cancer.”
Addressing new members of the Supreme Court bar, Justice Nels Peterson dispensed with his usual talking points and remembered O’Neil, with whom he worked at King & Spalding. He urged lawyers to follow her example and stay focused on their family and community as well as their careers.
“Unless you do that,” he said, “you may be successful lawyers, but you won’t be a successful person.”
O’Neil is survived by her mother Gisela O’Neil; her two brothers, Greg and Robert; Nahmias, their sons Steven and Michael; and numerous extended family.
The family is holding visitations Thursday, Oct. 5, and Sunday, Oct. 8, from 6-8 p.m. at H.M. Patterson & Son-Arlington Chapel. The funeral will be at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church at 11 a.m. on Oct. 9 with a reception to follow.
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations be made to the Atlanta Bar Foundation, directed to the Cathy O’Neil Bard Show Memorial Fund.