Making a Difference, One Family at a Time,
by Seabright Mc Cade
Just a few yards from the hustle and bustle of Euclid Avenue sits a pre-Civil War house, shaded by ancient elms. Home to the O’Brien Law Firm (formerly Greene & Tulley), its well-appointed offices and old-fashioned comfort put clients immediately at ease.
The feeling of continuity from past to present extends to the estate law practice that resides here.
“This is a wonderful success story, and a true partnership,” says Michael O’Brien, who acquired the firm in 2004.
The original practice began in the late 1950s with a handshake between Ralph Greene and Joseph Tulley. “Mr. Greene was a prominent attorney in Willoughby and my dad had been his partner for about fourty years,” says Candace Kermode, Tulley’s daughter and the heart and soul of the firm. “They did a little bit of everything –probate, estate planning, and litigation.”
Eventually, Joseph Tulley became the sole attorney, and his focus was estate planning – wills, trusts, and probate work. When Tulley died suddenly of a heart attack in 2003, the family needed to find someone to take over.
“Most of our clients were Lake County people, and because my dad was older and his clients had aged with him, we had quite a few folks who didn’t want to drive downtown,” says Candace. Michael laughs, “When I’d introduce myself to a client, they’d often look at me and say, ‘You’re not going to make me go down there, are you?’”
O’Brien found them through a chance encounter with a mutual friend. His letter of interest arrived on St. Patrick’s Day. “We were pleased with Michael’s offer,” Candace says. “Since he was committed to keeping the Willoughby practice intact.”
O’Brien not only retained the staff, but also an astonishing 95 percent of the firm’s clientele. He insists it’s not all his doing. “I was just blessed and lucky enough to be chosen to run with the legacy they had established,” he says. “These clients are here because Candy and her father took care of every one of them. I’m here to help them carry on and continue with what they’ve achieved.”
A graduate of St. Ignatius High School and Holy Cross College, O’Brien followed an interest in political science into the law. “I saw the law as a way of making a difference, big or small. That’s exactly what do right here, one family at a time.”
How does he make a difference? “Everything I ever needed to know about estate planning, I learned from being one of seven children, raised with lots of love and very little money,” he says. “Everyone deals with the same issues whether they have a little money or a lot: What am I going to do for my loved ones? What happens if I get sick or die? What about my special needs child? The rules often seem overwhelming.
“We take a very complicated body of law (tax, trust and estate) and break it down into simple, understandable concepts,” O’Brien explains. “So when people walk out of here, they know their family is going to be protected.”
When’s the best time to plan your estate? “People, being human, tend to wait. Nobody wakes up and says – hey, let’s do some estate planning today,” he says. “But planning your estate in the hallway of a hospital is not the best time to start. Wouldn’t you rather do it in a lawyer’s office or at home over a cup of coffee, where you can take your time, and joke about life, talk about things in a nonstressful way?”
O’Brien believes strongly that everyone 18 and over should have, at minimum, a living will, a healthcare power of attorney, and a basic will. “Decide for yourself,” he says. “If, God forbid, any one of us is in a situation where our treating physician determines we are in a ‘permanently unconscious state’ they’ll know your wishes.”
Trust planning is another important service O’Brien’s firm provides. Is it just for rich people? “No,” he says, pointing to pictures of his wife, Dawn, and kids, Darby, Murphy and Miles. “Know why I have a trust? I have three kids. If something should happen, the trust will be there to protect and take care of them until they’re old enough to make adult decisions. Under Ohio law, if there’s no trust in place, then kids inherit everything at age 18. Think about the sort of financial decisions you made at that age, and whether you want that for your children.”
“Life can be unpredictable,” he continues. “Most of us know someone who has died tragically or suddenly. Estate planning won’t prevent that. But what it does do is put a structure in place to help your loved ones. Sometimes those decisions are difficult to make, but when people leave my office, the sense of relief and peace of mind they have is just amazing.”
The spirit of Joseph Tulley remains alive and well at the O’Brien Law Firm – from the pictures of Irish Castle in the lobby, to the continuing and vital presence of his daughter, Candace. “We take a deep personal interest in our clients, and like to think of them as family,” she says. “Our practice is small enough that we can go to people’s homes. We’re committed to showing our clients that their business and their lives are important to us.”
“I never met Joe personally, yet I feel I know him,” says O’Brien. “I feel like I’m walking in the footsteps of a great man, a great father and a great lawyer. He was the kind of person that I want to be. I’m thankful that his clients didn’t have to scatter and start over with other firms, that we’ve been able to give them continuity.”
Candace adds, “Any success my father had, he owed to the people of Lake County, and in particular, the people of Willoughby. He loved practicing law, and we’re thrilled to stay here in this old house. I couldn’t think of a better place to work.”