Alice Plays Juries as Powerfully as She Plays Beethoven

Alice O'Sullivan transformed from piano prodigy to legal savant

Published in 2009 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2009

Alice W. O'Sullivan may be the only lawyer whose legal career is tied to a piano recital at Carnegie Hall.

The year was 1979. O'Sullivan was working as a paralegal in a California law firm and pursuing a wild dream of performing at the country's premier classical music venue. "I had sent an audition tape," she says, "and was floored when I received a date to play there." Her boss at the time offered her the best of deals: "Promise to take the bar exam, and I'll pay for your family and colleagues to fly to New York."

"When I saw my name on the Carnegie Hall marquee, I just about had a stroke," she says. "It was right out of a movie. I even got a decent review."

Once she came down from the clouds, O'Sullivan put her nose to the grindstone, passed the bar, and paved a prestigious career as a certified specialist in workers' compensation. She credits her father, a master carpenter and business agent for a carpenters union, with teaching her about the labor movement and protecting workers' rights. O'Sullivan has been chief trial attorney with Fortune, O'Sullivan & Hudson since 1996. During that time, she has brought more than 500 workers' compensation cases to trial, while settling another 4,000 cases.

Last year, O'Sullivan was honored at a ceremony marking the end of her term as chair of the California State Bar's Board of Legal Specialization. For the occasion, she wore a red silk suit that, fittingly, her mother, a custom tailor, had made from the cloth of the gown she wore at her piano recital 29 years earlier.

A child prodigy, O'Sullivan made her music debut as a church organist at age 5. As a teenager, she studied piano with the world-famous maestro Egon Petri, who lived in Oakland. Years later, with her husband, Robert, O'Sullivan visited the Japanese Tea Garden, which reminded her of the gardens at Petri's home. On the spur of the moment, they went to see it. When O'Sullivan discovered that it had recently been bought by a Realtor on probate, she asked the Realtor if she could buy it. "It was my teacher's house," she said. "I have to have it." He finally relented, on the condition that she buy it on the spot. Forty years later, the O'Sullivans still live in the redwood house surrounded by tall trees with two dogs and a nine-foot Bechstein concert grand piano.

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