Thomas L.P. O’Donnell A.B. ’47 (’46), LL.B. ’49

Tom O’Donnell, former managing partner of Ropes & Gray, has forged a remarkable career that combines lawyering with civic leadership, charitable endeavors, and hard work for Harvard.

In his labor and employment law practice O’Donnell has represented manufacturing companies and financial and educational institutions, negotiated for TV and radio stations, and counseled Boston newspapers in their dealings with a variety of unions. “I’ve especially enjoyed serving Harvard as counsel,” says O’Donnell, who has advised the University on union matters and employment issues for over 40 years.

In the town of Hingham, Massachusetts, no name is more familiar than Tom O’Donnell’s. As the elected town moderator since 1967, O’Donnell presides at town meetings and appoints principal town committees.

He has also held numerous leadership posts in civic and charitable organizations. He is currently chairman of the board of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and has served as chairman of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, the Trustees of Reservations (which preserves open space and historic places), and the Massachusetts Land Conservation Trust.

A loyal HLS graduate, O’Donnell was instrumental in raising funds to endow the Ropes & Gray professorship. “Mr. Gray taught at HLS in the morning and practiced law in Boston in the afternoon,” he says. “Many distinguished teachers at the school since have also practiced at R & G, including Archie Cox, Lon Fuller, Jim Casner, Bill Andrews, Jim Vorenberg, and Bob Clark. And HLS is still by far our largest source of new associates.” O’Donnell explains that he “wanted the firm to do something to recognize these strong connections,” so he did “some encouraging” with extraordinary results: all 75 active or retired R & G partners who were HLS graduates contributed to the professorship. “We are all delighted that Al Warren is the first Ropes & Gray professor,” says O’Donnell.

In 1997 O’Donnell received The Harvard Medal for his dedication to the University, including his service on the Harvard Board of Overseers and the visiting committees to the Kennedy School, the Divinity School, the School of Public Health, and HLS—the last two as chairman.

The native of Taunton, Massachusetts, entered Harvard College in July 1943. His studies were accelerated by service in a Navy officer-training program and he graduated, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1946. O’Donnell’s strong interest in public policy led him to HLS, where two professors and classes in particular would influence his professional life: Archibald Cox in labor law, and Henry Hart in legislation.

In 1949 O’Donnell joined Ropes & Gray but in 1952 was recalled to serve as a Navy lieutenant in Washington until 1954. After returning to Ropes & Gray, O’Donnell began to specialize in labor law. In 1962 he became a partner. He joined the Policy Committee in 1976 and served as chairman from 1984 to 1990, a period of unprecedented firm growth.

In 1991 O’Donnell cochaired the Boston Bar Association’s Conference on the Advancement of Women in the Law. He says: “The advancement of women is the most important, and clearly the most positive, change in our profession in the last half century. I have been an ardent supporter of recognizing the talent of women in every area of R & G.”

Last year O’Donnell became of counsel to his firm. Characteristically, he immediately filled the free time this created. He not only increased his volunteer work; he also commenced studies at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology to pursue his longstanding interest in the role of religious values in public affairs.