Kevin Daniel O'Connell '65 has dedicated his entire 45-year professional career to helping those most in need of legal defense. As the former legal director at New York County Defender Services (NYCDS), O'Connell was the 2016 winner of the American Bar Association's annual Dorsey Award for outstanding work in the government and private sector. Now retired, O'Connell remains active and sits on the organization's board of trustees.
O'Connell ended up at Hotchkiss by chance. "My father had gone to Andover, the first in his family to go to boarding school or to college. I always thought I would end up at Andover, too. We looked at other schools, but on visits to see my father's Yale classmate Robert Osborn, who lived in Salisbury (and taught art at Hotchkiss from 1930-1935), we'd drive past Hotchkiss. I remember asking, 'What is that place?' So we visited, and I really liked the campus and the big Main Building with the long corridor with everything concentrated in one area." O'Connell found Hotchkiss academics a bit challenging, especially the sciences, but he prevailed. When asked about his teachers, he notes, "Faculty members were far less approachable in the 1960s, but I was in awe of a few of the legends like Richard Gurney and Robert Hawkins." From Lakeville, O'Connell went on to Lake Forest College in Illinois where he had a great experience. "I was lucky to get in there, and they prepared me well. It was there that I began thinking about doing something truly meaningful - becoming a lawyer."
Upon graduation from Lake Forest, O'Connell decided on Boston University Law School. "I ended up in what was referred to then as 'poverty law,' in order to represent the people who needed it most. This was sort of what I set out to do, through my vague idea of wanting to help people, just like my father did as a surgeon and obstetrician who cared a great deal about his patients. Some physicians dictated to their patients, but my father always listened and would do his best to get his patients the best possible care on an individual basis. So as a lawyer, I focused on helping individuals, too, albeit not quite in the same way."
Fresh out of law school, O'Connell took his first job as a criminal defense attorney for New York's Legal Aid Society, an organization that provides attorneys for those who cannot afford one. He wasn't really surprised at the inequity of the criminal justice system and the legal aid world, where money can buy you a defense. "I experienced a series of cultural shocks in my life that prepared me in a way, being raised in the suburbs, going to Hotchkiss, attending private college, and then working as a summer camp counselor for the Boys Club of New York. I also worked in the Brooklyn Criminal Courts, and there I saw the way the system was geared to process indigent people through as quickly and as cheaply as possible, without really looking at the actual persons themselves or how they ended up there." O'Connell decided that one way to slow down the process was to listen to the clients who demanded their day in court. He began a very active trial practice and realized that trying cases before a jury was something he had an aptitude for. After two years he was promoted to the Major Offense Bureau of the Brooklyn Office, one of the youngest lawyers to be so designated. In that role, he tried numerous serious felony trials to verdict.
In 1997, O'Connell helped to found the New York County Defender Services, where he served for over two decades as the legal director, teaching new lawyers the ropes and nuances of trial litigation. The organization has long since outgrown its original quarters at 225 Broadway, where 13 attorneys joined together to provide free, quality legal representation to clients. Today, 68 attorneys, forensic social workers, investigators, and administrative staff members work together to provide quality legal defense to their clients. In its 20-plus years of existence, the firm has provided a robust defense to more than 300,000 people. In his role as Legal Director, O'Connell also continued to try homicides and major felonies. In addition, he began to involve himself in various Bar Association activities, working to lobby for changes to New York State's "antiquated and one-sided (i.e. prosecution-oriented) criminal justice system." As a result, he was elected President of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in 2012.
O'Connell is pleased to see many more young women choosing to go into law. "Throughout my career as a public defender, including time spent at training courses at two law schools and a trial advocacy program, I have seen the number of women grow dramatically over the years. Shortly after starting New York County Defender Services, we had about 60 people total, with approximately 5-7 of them women. As time passed, it became evident that women were not only going to law school, but also going into various other public service roles. Many of the women on the law track that I have worked with are more willing to be client-centered and less interested in the career-building that happens to many people at private firms. Today, New York County Defender Services is more than 50-percent female."
Sometimes frustrated by those who demean the talent and professional abilities of public defenders, O'Connell points to the old adage, "You get what you pay for," and the fact that this is sometimes applied to these attorneys. "There is a tendency to look upon the legal work done by public defenders as somehow less valuable than work done by a for-hire attorney. Most judges know this to be untrue. Public defenders are very informed, and they are in court almost every day, practicing and developing the skills and knowledge they need to best represent their clients. Though most lawyers who go into this pro bono work don't stay for their entire career, ending up in private practice, many return to this work eventually. It is a 'cleaner' practice in many ways. The only thing you as a public defender need to worry about is obtaining the best possible resolution for your client. It is a true freedom."
O'Connell isn't the only one in the family with a tendency to get involved. "We are a total social-service family, and our paths have crossed. My wife worked in an inner New York City high school, where she was running the day care for the babies and children of students. She had previously worked at the YMCA and had extensive training in first aid. One day there was an incident outside of the high school, and she ended up on the street giving first aid to one of the victims of a fight. Two weeks later, my group was representing the suspect."
At the end of the day, O'Connell feels proud of the work he has done. "I tried well over a hundred cases and did my best for each and every client. At NYCDS, we were started by two individuals, with three lawyers, including myself, joining them in 1997. We built an office that delivers a very high-quality defense for people and which is now part of a groundswell of emphasis and reexamination of the entire criminal justice system. We are proud to be involved in this effort to change both statutes and attitudes."
As for Hotchkiss, O'Connell recalls vividly spending three depressing fall seasons on the old Baker Field as a member of the varsity football team. Though undefeated his prep year, the team lost every single game over the next three years. "In hindsight, there was great significance in that," he says, "because I learned to 'keep struggling,' which turns out to be a metaphor for working as a public defender! Public defenders experience few triumphs during their careers. Society as a whole may not understand or approve of the aggressive defense we provide for our clients, and our adversaries are generally better financed, with more community credibility. But in focusing on the difference you can make in each individual client's life, you find great value and satisfaction."