Maritime lawyer Richard Ogrodowski goes from part-time janitor to full-time partner
Published in 2010 Pennsylvania Rising Stars magazine
on May 20, 2010
Updated on May 21, 2010
E. Richard Ogrodowski began his legal career with a vacuum cleaner in one hand and a garbage bag in the other. It was in elementary school. He was helping his mother clean the offices of Washington, Pennsylvania-area businesses, which included a couple law firms. He went up and down the hallways, cleaning floors and dusting shelves, and soaked up the atmosphere. Something clicked. “I can’t really pinpoint to one thing,” he says today. But he just knew. He would work in a place like this someday.
Today, he not only works at a law firm, he works at his law firm: Goldsmith & Ogrodowski. The only sweeping up he does these days is of client raves.
In April 2006, at the age of 29, he and Fred Goldsmith launched Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, located in a renovated office building in Pittsburgh’s historic Firstside District. Along with motorcycle law and railroad law, they handle maritime law, representing the operators of commercial vessels and pleasure boats, of which there are many on the waters of Pittsburgh’s three rivers. Their offices even overlook one of those rivers, the Monongahela, where they can see towboats and cabin cruisers passing by and where the tourist boat The Majestic is docked.
“Sometimes I’m embarrassed that my name’s on the door given how young I am,” says Ogrodowski. “But at the same time, this is what I’ve always wanted to do.”
He met Goldsmith when he was at Burns, White & Hickton, where Goldsmith was building a maritime practice. Goldsmith asked Ogrodowski to write briefs for him, and came away impressed. “He would write the brief and I wouldn’t have to change a word on it. He’s a great writer,” Goldsmith says.
When Goldsmith became a partner at another Pittsburgh firm, Blumling & Gusky, Ogrodowski went with him. Soon they were sharing notes on starting their own firm. “We’re both really interested in helping everyday folks with their problems and we have the same kind of outlook on things,” Goldsmith says. “When I want to do the right thing, I ask myself, ‘What would Rich do?’ He’s really good that way.”
Client Steve Acierno senses it. “He always makes me feel very comfortable,” says the construction company owner. “He pays attention and is always tuned in.”
He’s been that way since he was young.
Ogrodowski grew up in a family of coal miners in Washington County and never had to look far for motivation to work hard. At one point in the late ’70s, eight relatives—including his father, maternal grandfather and other extended family—all worked at the same coal mine in Marianna. That was, he says, when “coal was still king” in southwestern Pennsylvania. “There are still coal mines, but it’s not like it was when I was born,” he says.
Ogrodowski’s maternal grandfather, George McNurlen, who contracted black lung disease and died at age 77, had a profound impact on him. “He was always telling me when I was growing up that education is so important”—he wasn’t able to attend college himself—“and so it never crossed my mind that I wasn’t going to go,” Ogrodowski says.
Ogrodowski enrolled at Westminster College in New Wilmington and that’s when he met his wife, Shawn, although they didn’t start dating until two years after they’d graduated. (Today, they live in Oakmont, a northeast suburb of Pittsburgh. Married since 2003, they have two children, son Drew, 3, and daughter Ryland, 1.)
An economics and political science major, Ogrodowski says he studied more than most of his friends, with the exception of one buddy, who also became an attorney. “Our friends joked that whenever we passed away, they were going to dedicate two chairs down in the basement of the library at Westminster to both of us.”
Ogrodowski worked hard outside of class as well. “During college, I spent a couple of summers at a warehouse unloading tobacco products and chewing gum,” he says. “At the end of the day, my back would be killing me, my hands were ripped up. And I only did it for a couple of months. Guys do that their entire lives. I respect those guys and the guys who work on the river and in the steel mills and the coal mines.”
After Westminster, he went on to the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. During the fall of his second year, he took a job as a law clerk with Burns, White & Hickton, where he stayed, eventually moving up to associate, until June 2005. Then a year at Bluming & Gusky, and then his own firm.
Ogrodowski, who had started his career handling the claims of injured railroad workers, found the transition to maritime pretty easy. At it turns out, injured workers in both industries file claims under closely related federal statutes, “so it doesn’t matter if it’s a seaman or a railroad worker, generally you have the same law that’s applicable,” Ogrodowski says.
Maritime lawyers who know what they’re doing can stay busy in Pittsburgh since “we’re one of the busiest ports in the country—there’s a lot of product that’s moved along the rivers in this area.” Hence, a lot of potential for accident and contract disputes. That’s where Ogrodowski and Goldsmith come in. They produce two newsletters on both maritime and rail issues, Admiralty Update and Rail Update. Ogrodowski in particular admires the work ethic of his maritime clients, who exhibit a similar take-charge mentality. “They may have 20, 30, 40 employees and they’re still out there also fixing the barges or working on a towboat,” he says.
It inspires him in his own life, with his own business. “Here, you take the initiative, it’s all on you. Success or failure is on Fred’s shoulders and it’s on my shoulders. That’s what I like most about it; I have some control over the success of the firm.”