Cathy O’Neil, 53: top lawyer who directed, starred in ‘Atlanta Bard’

2:01 p.m Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017 Atlanta Obituaries
Atlanta lawyer Cathy O’Neil excelled in the courtroom and in her other passions, such as arranging theater shows to raise money for charities. O’Neil died after a battle with cancer.

Cathy O’Neil could high-kick the can-can or belt out a song while directing dozens of local attorneys onstage. She could also persuade juries with mesmerizing arguments, earning a national reputation as a top trial lawyer.

As an Atlanta prosescutor, O’Neil brought to justice some of the country’s most notorious narcotics and money laundering organizations. All the while, she held on to her lifelong love of theater, founding the popular Atlanta Bard Shows — scripted two-act musical parodies that raised money for charity.

O’Neil, 53, died Oct. 1 after a 13-month battle against pancreatic cancer.

Her funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Monday at Atlanta’s Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church. Visitation is Thursday, Oct. 5, from 6 - 9 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 8, from 6 - 8 p.m. at the Arlington Chapel of H.M. Patterson & Sons, 173 Allen Road NE in Sandy Springs.

“She was one of those rare people who’s good at everything,” said O’Neil’s husband, Georgia Supreme Court Justice David Nahmias. “Whether it was as a trial lawyer, a choreographer, singing in shows or being a great mother, wife and friend.”

Tom Thrash, chief judge of the federal court in Atlanta, said O’Neil was one of the finest lawyers to appear before him. “Her preparation, her instincts, her performance in court — they were all just absolutely superb,” he said.

As a prosecutor, O’Neil, using no notes, wowed juries with elaborate openings and closings. Of course, she’d already memorized her lines, just like she did as an actress.

O’Neil followed her father Robert, a Hyannis, Mass., attorney, into the law. She met Nahmias at Harvard Law School, where she graduated cum laude. They celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in June.

O’Neil and Nahmias both joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta in 1995. Three years later, when offered to help put together a “follies” show for the Atlanta bar, O’Neil embraced the idea.

In 1999, she produced, directed, wrote and performed in “A Courthouse Line.” Eleven more Bard Shows followed, each becoming more polished and ambitious. Last November, two months after being diagnosed with cancer and undergoing major surgery, O’Neil returned to direct her final show, “Mock The Vote.” Playing a defense lawyer, she sang the Meghan Trainor song, “No,” wisely instructing her client not to talk to the FBI.

As director, O’Neil cajoled and, when necessary, chided prominent lawyers and judges during rehearsals, said Atlanta lawyer Alison Nazarowski.

“It didn’t matter who you were,” she said. “In a Cathy O’Neil play, you might be told to wear tights or dance the can-can.”

Defense attorney Don Samuel had long refused to dance at family functions. But he danced for O’Neil, wearing a bathrobe over his underwear in one play and black leotards in another.

“I think it would be fair to say that Cathy brought out the worst in all of us,” Samuel said. “But of course, it was really our best.”

In 2001, O’Neil and Nahmias moved to Washington, where she would work at the Justice Department and become friends with then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey. (Comey made national news this year when he was dismissed by President Donald Trump as FBI director.)

“She was in a class by herself as a lawyer and a person,” Comey said. “It’s hard to talk about her in the past tense. She was just extraordinarily bright, but also a fundamentally decent, kind and caring person.”

O’Neil returned to Atlanta in late 2004 after Nahmias became U.S. Attorney. She joined the law firm King & Spalding, working on white-collar matters and handling business litigation for clients such as Delta Air Lines.

“We will miss her dearly,” managing partner Alan Prince said. “She was a vibrant presence at the firm and in Atlanta’s legal community.”

Chris Wray, who worked next door to O’Neil at the firm before succeeding Comey as FBI director, said, “She brought almost boundless positive energy to everything she tackled and inspired loyalty, good cheer and affection in all of us.”

Besides her husband, O’Neil is survived by sons Steven and Michael; her mother Gisela; and her brothers, Greg and Bob.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Cathy O’Neil Memorial Bard Show Fund: Atlanta Bar Foundation, 229 Peachtree St., Suite 400, Atlanta GA 30303.

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