Two big screens lit up behind the podium as he took the stage and video clips started rolling, showing TV commentators talking about the kill heard round the world.
“Few thought the real life SEAL who killed Bin Laden would ever be named,” one of the voices said.
“You kept this secret for a really long time,” said another.
At a Quinn Emanuel event at a luxurious hotel in midtown Manhattan, the 41-year old retired Navy SEAL, Robert O’Neill, took the stage.
O’Neill, who claimed he shot and killed Osama Bin Laden and released a book this April, was on his latest speaking engagement in a tour of corporate America.
After the video clips ended, O’Neill diffused the heavy-handed opening with some humor, saying he chose the last clip on the reel because he liked hearing himself called “the great” Rob O’Neill.
The audience ate it up.
The appearance, at the Mandarin Oriental in Columbus Circle on Tuesday, marked O’Neill’s third speaking engagement for the litigation powerhouse, including speeches at events in Los Angeles and Chicago — a role he gladly took on after his 6’5″ lawyer, Lazar Raynal, joined Quinn Emanuel in March from the law firm McDermott Will & Emery.
Raynal, who chaired McDermott’s litigation practice and is currently working out of Quinn Emanuel’s Chicago office, said he proposed having O’Neill speak to the firm and its clients because he felt the messaging behind his speeches would resonate.
“A big part of the theme is never quit,” Raynal told me in a phone interview, hours before the event.
Another thematic similarity he found between O’Neill’s speeches and the firm’s ethos is “don’t rest on your laurels.”
“How do you challenge yourself and get better and not continue to use the same tactics?” said Raynal. “Their competition is mainly terrorists and fighting forces and obviously much different than what we’re doing, but it’s the idea of always striving to get better and not doing things the same way.”
Moments before O’Neill took the stage, Raynal introduced him with great fanfare, noting his client’s experience: two silver stars and four bronze stars with valor, 400 missions post 9/11, with some missions being turned into movies like “Captain Phillips” and “Lone Survivor.”
“He will have the opportunity to meet you, shake your hands… if you want to take a picture with him, with your phone, he’s always very gracious with that,” Raynal said.
Beyond promoting his new bestseller, The Operator, a copy of which was placed at every seat and table in the room, O’Neill was there to speak with some of the world’s top lawyers and their clients about his career with the SEALs and share lessons learned about leadership, communication and dealing with high-stress situations.
In attendance was Quinn partner Philippe Selendy, fresh off securing his $5.5 billion settlement from RBS, the latest in what’s become a $25 billion recovery from banks over Federal Housing Finance Agency claims they sold shoddy mortgage backed securities leading up to the financial crisis.
Others in attendance included Michael Carlinsky, chair of the Quinn Emanuel complex litigation practice who’s recently been seen dueling in Delaware court, and Peter Calamari, the firm’s New York managing partner.
“John Quinn isn’t here but I have had a great time working with him so far,” said O’Neill at the outset of his speech.
He also gave a shout out to several members of the firm’s event and marketing team.
When O’Neill first went public with his role in the Bin Laden raid, he was met with wide criticism from the SEAL community for being self-promotional and that his kill-claiming went against SEAL ethos: “I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.”
O’Neill spoke with Big Law Business before he went on stage. He was fresh off an interview with Howard Stern that morning and I asked him to talk about his decision to speak publicly about killing Bin Laden. He said the main reason, initially, was for the victims of 9/11.
“The main reason was for the city, right here. On ground zero I donated a shirt that I wore in the mission to the memorial. That was an anonymous donation,” he said. “Part of the deal was I got a free tour [of the memorial] before it opened. I didn’t know there was a room at the end; they had a classroom of almost 35 surviving members of husbands and wives and sons in 9/11. I told the story for the first time and to see their reaction… [for them to] have a real person and a real name, it’ll never be closure but it’s healing and it helps.”
At least that was the reason then.
Now, he said, “it’s turned into, this is just a great American story.”
Raynal, who helped O’Neill get his book approved through the Pentagon, declined to disclose any business arrangement associated with O’Neill’s speech, including any possible speaking fee the firm may have paid.
In his speech, O’Neill was a dynamic public speaker, moving around the stage, offering jokes that often produced laughs.
Some of the more serious messages he delivered were: Don’t quit. Complacency kills. And don’t let your fears give way to panic.
In the pre-event interview, O’Neill spoke about his perception of Quinn Emanuel lawyers: “I’m watching the series of Entourage for like the sixth time. Remember Billy Walsh would say, ‘You’re a suit. You’re a suit, you just don’t know it yet.’ They aren’t suits. They are the guys who have the meetings on the golf course and go skiing or whatever. Kind of our version of what Navy SEALs would be if they were smarter.”
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