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William J. O'Brien, 77, prominent trial lawyer

Remember the 1993 movie “Philadelphia”? A lawyer played by Tom Hanks is fired from a Philadelphia law firm after it is revealed he has AIDS.

Remember the 1993 movie "Philadelphia"?

A lawyer played by Tom Hanks is fired from a Philadelphia law firm after it is revealed he has AIDS.

William J. O'Brien, one of the city's premiere trial lawyers, had a similar case in 1994. He represented the law firm of Kohn Swift & Graf, which was sued in federal court by a 30-year-old lawyer who contended he was fired by the firm because he had HIV. Both the real case and the movie case wound up being settled out of court.

For a lawyer renowned for his work on commercial litigation, involving such fields as product liability, insurance fraud, malpractice claims, government relations and the like, Bill was involved in a number of high-profile cases that made headlines. Another concerned the sensational 1996 murder of a wrestler by DuPont heir John E. DuPont at his farm in Newtown Square. Bill O'Brien represented DuPont in a wrongful-death suit brought by the widow of the wrestler, David Schultz — also settled out of court.

Bill also was involved in a salacious 1993 case in which a female lawyer sued prominent lawyer and politician Richard H. Glanton in a sexual-harassment case described in one news report as "a tale of sex, power and intrigue." Bill made sure Glanton's law firm, Reed Smith Shaw & McClay, was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Other cases handled by Bill O'Brien in his 30 years of legal practice, although not so notorious, made powerful impacts in many fields and resulted in legal precedents with long-term influence.

William J. O'Brien, founding member of the law firm of Conrad O'Brien, and a much-honored advocate and teacher who passed on his knowledge and experience to future lawyers at Temple University, died Monday after a long illness. He was 77 and lived in Chestnut Hill.

He was often called a "lawyer's lawyer" by colleagues and clients.

"Bill's trial skills were legendary," said Jim Rohn, chairman of Conrad O'Brien, who worked with Bill for more than 23 years. "It was his ability to connect with people that made him so effective and unique."

"Bill could get along with everyone," said Nancy Gellman, who worked with Bill at his first law firm, Pepper Hamilton & Scheetz, and was with him when he founded Conrad O'Brien. "He taught us what civility really means."

"Part of his charm was his sense of humor and storytelling ability," said Howard Klein, who tried many cases with Bill. "Every day for all the years I worked with Bill, we found something to laugh about. More than that, Bill had enormous goodwill with the bench and the bar, and there was never any of the acrimony one hears about today. His word really was his bond, and he instilled that value in everyone who worked with him. Working with Bill was the highlight of my career."

Bill O'Brien graduated from La Salle University and Villanova University School of Law.

Over the years, Bill represented a wide variety of clients — Fortune 500 companies, law firms, hospitals and individuals, including physicians and lawyers. In his last jury trial, he obtained a defense verdict on behalf of a major law firm in a legal malpractice action claiming more than $20 million in damages.

Bill was a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers. He was past president of the Philadelphia Association of Defense Counsel, and recipient of its Distinguised Service Award. He lectured extensively on trial advocacy and served as an adjunct professor of trial advocacy at Temple University School of Law, now the James E. Beasley School of Law.

He is survived by his wife, Lillian; a daughter, Nancy O'Brien Weidner; a son, William J. O'Brien Jr; two brothers, James and Joseph; five sisters, Mary DiCondina, Susan Zimmerman, Kathleen Ferguson, Mildred O'Brien and Fran O'Brien.

Services: 11 a.m. Thursday at Our Mother of Consolation Church, 9 E. Chestnut Hill Ave. Friends may call at 9:30 a.m. Interment will be at a later date.

Contact John F. Morrison at 215-854-5573 or