The Voice

Philip O’Brien speaks well inside the courtroom and inside the booth

Published in 2005 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine

By Rebecca Brown on October 12, 2005


When Philip O’Brien was 7 years old he would tag along with his father to the local television station and sit quietly inside the booth while his dad did live voice-overs for the 6 and 10 o’clock news. Some evenings he was lucky enough to follow his father upstairs to the radio station for more of the same. “I would see him do takes,” remembers O’Brien. “He would teach me things — like always know how to pronounce the names of people and places. Always ask, always get it right, always be meticulous.”

O’Brien, now an employee benefits attorney with Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren, remembered his father’s tips when he became a disc jockey for Marquette University’s radio station as an undergrad. But then law school overwhelmed, and O’Brien’s voice work was set aside for mock trials and depositions.

Until five years ago, that is. He was reading an article by a lawyer who was also a voice-over artist. He contacted her and she put him in touch with a voice-over coach. After training, he was able to secure agents in Milwaukee and Chicago, and now O’Brien does commercial work on video and radio and narrative work for documentaries and industrial films. No regular gigs; he has to audition for every role he gets. “The people who do have a regular gig are the luckiest ones in the voice-over business,” he says.

A few favorite voice-over stints include commercials for Benadryl, Park Bank and an infomercial for a George Foreman product that, unlike the famous grill, hasn’t gotten a wide release yet. His ideal role? “Narration for a show like Frontline. The guy who does it is fabulous. He has an authoritative voice; it doesn’t give away any bias one way or another. He has the ability to inflect on particular words that makes you want to listen and pay attention.”

O’Brien’s natural voice sounds airy and slightly monotone. But switch to voice-over mode and he is able to make himself sound smooth, friendly and a little folksy — a perfect bedtime story voice. He can also take it up a few notches and infuse it with energy, making his voice lively and chaotic.

“The one thing that surprises you,” O’Brien admits about voice-over, “is it’s a lot more tiring and a lot more work than you imagine, especially if you’re sitting in a studio for an hour. Even if you’re asked to do only two lines, they’re always asking you for a different inflection, they’re asking you for a different volume. It’s very challenging.”

While his father inspired him to put his voice to use, it was a movie that sparked his interest in law. “I saw To Kill a Mockingbird and thought lawyering was an honorable profession,” he remembers. He hasn’t changed his mind. He has spent most of his career “protecting the rights of individuals who work hard for a living, provide for their families, want to have a better life for their kids, and want to have a measure of comfort and protection when they get older.”

O’Brien feels that his jobs complement each other. With both, he says, “You must be as succinct as possible, as direct as possible and as understandable as possible.” But does he ever take his voice-over voice into the courtroom? Not consciously, he says, although he’s sure he adapts his voice in many ways. “A lawyer’s words, how they’re expressed and how they’re used in an argument on behalf of the client is vital,” he says.

His father couldn’t have said it better.

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