Dan O'Leary is at home on the range
Published in 2008 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine
on November 7, 2008
Updated on April 18, 2009
Dan O’Leary’s idea of the perfect vacation is an 80-degree day with very little dust billowing. He’s riding horseback with his nephew, Michael O’Leary, behind a large herd of Hereford-Angus cattle, slowly moving them from the Fremont-Winema National Forest to the O’Leary Ranch in Lake County.
That’s where the environmental litigator grew up.
“My father started the ranch in the 1920s,” says O’Leary, 71, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine. “My wife [Patricia] and I built a house there 10 years ago, and we like to spend time out there.”
Though he recently sold his interest in the ranch to his nephew, O’Leary still spends about two weeks every September running the cattle from their public-permitted grazing lands to the pastures owned by O’Leary Ranch Inc. for the winter. He does the reverse each spring, sometimes sleeping beneath the stars, sometimes crossing paths with other cowboys running herds.
Cows and the Eastern Oregon landscape are essential parts of O’Leary’s life, even when he’s at work.
Forty-five years ago, O’Leary headed west to Portland, where he graduated from Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College in 1963. Then he joined a litigation firm, where he focused on a wide range of issues, including torts, real estate, and criminal and family law.
But when he earned his master’s degree in environmental and natural resources law in 1993 and came to work for Davis Wright Tremaine, the wide range turned to him.
In a case that pitted 150 cattle ranchers against the state of Oregon over leases for grazing on state lands, O’Leary gained the ranchers increased leasing periods of 15 years, up from the original two. He is the author of the “Lifestock Grazing and Environmental Issues” section of the Oregon State Environmental Deskbook.
Knowing how the legal landscape applies to the rural one, O’Leary frequently defends corporations and individual clients in the livestock production industry who get caught up in federal Clean Water Act regulations and land policies.
“For the most part, people are trying to do the right thing,” he says. “Sometimes they don’t know that what they’re doing is wrong.”
In one of O’Leary’s highest profile cases, he defended a housing developer who had built on a World War II-era Marines hospital found to be contaminated with high levels of asbestos. Some of the affected homeowners sued, and the state and federal governments also became involved. Ultimately, the insurance companies compensated most of the homeowners, and the property was transferred to the U.S. government, which assumed liability for cleaning it up.
O’Leary says working with his clients is his favorite part of the job. Still, he admits sometimes it’s easier to deal with cattle than humans. “It’s more restful.”
Just don’t ask him how many cattle the O’Leary Ranch Inc. has. “Oh, you’re not supposed to ask a rancher that question,” warns O’Leary. “It’s the code of the West.”