Benjamin Moore Hires New Lead Counsel After Axing Legal Staff

Sept. 22, 2021, 9:52 PM

Benjamin Moore & Co. has hired Jennifer O’Neill in a lead counsel role nearly a year after firing its entire in-house legal team and outsourcing the work to the labor and employment-focused law firm Littler Mendelson.

Jennifer O’Neill, a former general counsel at a health care company who went on to work for Phillips Nizer in Hackensack, N.J., joined Benjamin Moore this month as lead counsel, according to her LinkedIn profile. Her move comes a month after Montvale, N.J.-based Benjamin Moore posted an online job listing for the role.

Benjamin Moore didn’t respond to a request for comment about O’Neill’s hire, nor did Talia Griep, the company’s chief financial and administrative officer, who has oversight for its legal function. An employee directory at Benjamin Moore confirmed O’Neill’s title and contact information. She didn’t respond to a request for comment.

O’Neill leads Benjamin Moore’s “legal team in providing cross-functional counsel promptly, professionally, and collaboratively in this dynamic, innovative, and time-honored consumer goods company,” according to a description of her new in-house position on her LinkedIn profile.

She joins Benjamin Moore almost a year after the company parted ways in late 2020 with its entire four-lawyer legal department, a mass layoff first reported by Corporate Counsel. The move came on “National Love Your Lawyer Day,” an annual event slated for the first Friday of November.

Benjamin Moore, which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., subsequently began outsourcing its legal work to Littler and independent contractors, according to Corporate Counsel. Littler handled more than 22% of Benjamin Moore’s U.S. federal litigation caseload in the past three years, per Bloomberg Law data.

The company hired O’Neill after she spent the past year as a corporate contract counsel. That role, per O’Neill’s LinkedIn profile, saw her serve as an interim in-house counsel for companies “engaged in global retail, commercial, and consumer sales.”

O’Neill’s registration with the New Jersey State Bar Association shows she worked for Hire Counsel Inc., a New York-based legal staffing and electronic discovery services provider. She had previously been counsel at Phillips Nizer, having joined that firm in November 2019 when it absorbed Wyckoff, N.J.-based Piekarsky & Associates.

During her four years at the Piekarsky firm and Phillips Nizer, O’Neill specialized in both corporate and litigation matters with a focus on employment and health care-related legal issues. Prior to that time in private practice she spent almost another four years as general counsel for Compassionate Care Hospice Inc., which was sold for $340 million in 2019 to Amedisys Inc., and nearly five years as a senior corporate counsel for The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. Inc., a now-defunct grocery chain.

Legal Turnover

O’Neill, who also previously spent more than five years as an assistant professor of management at Ramapo College’s Anisfield School of Business in Mahwah, N.J., takes over an in-house legal group at Benjamin Moore that’s now had at least four different leaders within a decade.

JoAnn Glaccum spent 20 years at Benjamin Moore, where she was the company’s general counsel prior to her exit in 2013. Mark Boyland, a New Jersey lawyer who battled brain cancer, succeeded her as legal chief but left after two years in 2015 to join DLA Piper. AeroFarms LLC announced its hire of Boyland as general counsel earlier this year as the Newark, N.J.-based vertical farming outfit prepared to go public through a $1.2 billion merger with a special purpose acquisition company.

Among those dismissed from Benjamin Moore last year were former general counsel Eric Finkelman, deputy general counsel Ira Lakritz and Karyn Jefferson, and assistant counsel Marianna Codispoti. Finkelman spent nearly four years as Benjamin Moore’s top lawyer prior to his departure in November 2020. All four lawyers either declined or did not respond to requests for comment about their departures.

Their respective LinkedIn profiles show that several have landed new jobs. Jefferson, who focused on labor and employment work, joined media company Urban One Inc. as a vice president of litigation, labor, and employment in January. Lakritz was hired as an associate general counsel in April by home security company ADT Inc. Freshly Inc., a meal delivery startup recently sold for $950 million to Nestlé SA, added Codispoti as a director and associate counsel in June.

Corporate Counsel, citing an anonymous source familiar with Benjamin Moore’s operations, reported last year that the company chose to outsource its legal work for financial reasons. Benjamin Moore executives and procurement department staffers must also grant permission to employees seeking access to company lawyers, the trade publication reported.

Berkshire Hathaway, the company’s parent, has a history of relying on outside counsel to handle traditional in-house functions.

Benjamin Moore’s decision to terminate its entire in-house legal team also came amid a key ruling in a dispute involving former deputy general counsel Paul Sangillo, who in a lawsuit filed against the company last year claimed he was fired for raising concerns about the dumping of hazardous waste.

Court filings show that Littler, the firm which has received outsourced legal work from Benjamin Moore, also represented the company in the litigation with Sangillo. The company successfully petitioned a New Jersey state court judge to send the dispute to arbitration, according to a ruling on Oct. 5, 2020.

Sangillo is now vice president of legal for Innovative Cosmetic Concepts LLC, a Clifton, N.J.-based manufacturer of cosmetic and personal care products. Sangillo hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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