Lawyers Journal

Doing the right thing is a full-time job

Bill O’Keefe is a dead man walking. He is less than a year removed from being run down by a drunk driver in a crosswalk on Broadway in Somerville’s Ball Square. Chevy Blazer. O’Keefe’s body was jettisoned 35 feet, and when he landed, his skull was fractured. No vitals. He was gone.

O’Keefe came to rest on the sidewalk outside a restaurant — and that’s when fate intervened. An EMT, a nurse and a firefighter were dining at a window table. The trio resuscitated him and stabilized him for transport to MGH and, ultimately, saved his life.
There’s a story inside the story. O’Keefe was hit as he was leaving a fund-raising function for his alma mater, St. Clement’s High. That’s who Bill O’Keefe is. What’s more, he’s cheated death before. That’s who Bill O’Keefe was.

“I grew up in a tough neighborhood in Medford during a pretty tough time,” says O’Keefe, 32, a project manager in the Citizen’s Bank Corporate Security Dept., who passed the bar in 1999. “When I was 14, a lot of my friends had kids. Now, a lot of my childhood friends are either dead or in jail. When those are your roots and you survive it, you become more aware.

“That experience taught me that doing the right thing and helping others is the most important part of your day. It’s just what you’ve got to do. And kids need more help than anyone.”

Fact is, O’Keefe spends plenty of time helping just about everyone. Most of his lawyering is done on a moonlighting basis and much of that is gratis for family, friends and acquaintances. Whether it means lending a suit to a closet-full-of-overalls contractor for a court appearance or advising the friend of a friend on divorce proceedings, O’Keefe, who also executes legal services for hire, doesn’t type up many invoices. It’s simply not his nature.

“It’s about networking them through the system without letting it take advantage of them,” he explains. “I had a friend whose parents died recently and a lawyer wanted to charge him $5,000 to open their probate case again because they found a box of bonds. This lawyer was supposed to be a friend of their family. So I walked the heir down to the courthouse and had him apply for the administratorship that was already on file. The form giving him authority to cash all those bonds cost $10.

“The thing that kills me is these just-out-of-school lawyers who hang their own shingle and charge people $100 or $200 an hour no matter the situation,” he adds. “I kid with those guys. I ask them to name a job they made more than 12 bucks an hour at before they finished law school. You’ve got to remember where you come from. Have a little compassion. Just because you’re an attorney doesn’t mean you have to become a creditor. Some legal services are well worth that kind of money. Not all of them.”

O’Keefe’s passion for helping for the sake of helping started early. While attending Suffolk University as an undergraduate, he took an internship at the Charles Spillane House in Dorchester, a halfway house for substance abusers. O’Keefe stayed eight years. Volunteering right through graduation, his first 9-to-5 job (at UPS) and law school. He finally moved on when his mentor and Spillane House director, Paul O’Brien, retired.

O’Keefe is still giving back more than his share. Last spring, he concluded his second season as the head baseball coach at St. Clement’s High in Somerville, where he himself played as a kid. In June, he coordinated a fourth annual memorial basketball tournament honoring childhood friend Arthur “Skipper” Lynch, who committed suicide in 1998. The event, which O’Keefe created, raises funds for scholarships at Medford High as well as for programs that promote suicide-prevention-awareness education.

“I’d rather get kids young and influence them then,” says O’Keefe. “You kill them with kindness, make them understand someone cares, and you get them out of their bad habits. I’m not there to discipline them or take the role of a parent. I’m there to give them an extra ear (so they can) express themselves in a professional setting and a confidential manner.

“You can give them an outside opinion or an objective opinion about their goals. Make them feel good they got it off their chest and give them a couple options. When I was younger, I had people to go to. I had a lot of questions I asked and needed answered.”
For a guy in the business of being suspicious — O’Keefe oversees risk-assessment analysis of any new facility and new or existing devices relating to security at Citizen’s Bank — O’Keefe has an abundance of faith in human nature. It is, perhaps, his faith in his own nature that permits that.

After graduating Suffolk, he started out moving boxes at UPS, bumped up to human resources, then lobbied his way into the loss-prevention department, ascending to district security representative. He earned his law degree in order to join the company’s corporate legal department, but soon discovered he’d rather leave that type of law to other lawyers.

“In bank security, you’ve got two kinds of customers — internal customers, who are the employees, and external customers, who come off the street,” explains O’Keefe. “You have to watch everybody. You’re friendships change when you’re in the business (of peeking) even though you haven’t changed. When you mention it to people, they tighten up. They watch what they say in front of you. I think being involved in so much volunteer work creates a great balance for me, because I spend a lot of my day mistrusting human beings.

“You’ve got to have trust, but you’ve got to have your guard up at all times too,” he adds. “Even within the relationships you build with the people you’re helping on a volunteer basis. Working in a halfway house is Life 101. You can’t open yourself up too much or you get emotionally involved. If they relapse or die of an overdose, you feel like they let you down.”

Idealism, it seems, doesn’t preclude realism. But the common denominator for Billy O’Keefe is volunteerism.

“Billy was with me as an intern through college and law school,” confirms Spillane House ex-director O’Brien. “It was a very high crime area, but he just kept sticking with it and staying on. He’s a kid that came up the hard way. He got involved publicly and he’s done a great job. You’ve got to give back and Billy came to understand that at a different level than most folks.”

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association