Robert N. Eccles

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Last night, (March 6, 2022), we received the very sad news that our former Washington, DC partner Bob Eccles, who had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease, passed away. He was 74.

Bob was an O’Melveny giant. He was the father of our ERISA practice, which he created out of whole cloth, and helped it become the national leader it is today. He was one of the nation’s top ERISA lawyers, trusted by his clients to guide them in this fast-moving, high-stakes area of the law. Consistently ranked Band 1 by Chambers for his excellence in his practice, Bob was also Band 1 in character.

He joined the firm in 1988 after 15 years as an attorney for the federal government, including five years as a trial attorney for the Department of Justice and 10 years as an ERISA attorney at the Department of Labor. During his time at DOJ, Bob served in the Civil Rights Division where he cut his teeth as a litigator trying housing discrimination cases. From 1982 to 1988, he was Associate Solicitor of Labor, one of the most senior legal positions in the department. As counsel for the Employee Benefits Security Administration, he was the government’s chief ERISA litigator.

The leader of our Employee Benefits practice for many years, Bob advised a broad range of ERISA players, including employee benefit plans, plan sponsors, and service providers, with a focus on litigation. His roster of clients included U.S. Trust, Fidelity, CIGNA, Humana, Ford, Verizon, and other prominent corporations, institutions, and individuals. Bob was an ERISA pioneer, trying the first ERISA case brought against a financial services provider for investing its employees’ retirement plans in so-called proprietary funds. Of course, he won that case for his client.

In the late 1990s, when ERISA litigation exploded with multidistrict litigation challenging restrictive managed care practices, Bob led the way for our clients. A few years later, his plans to retire were thwarted when we asked him to stay on; we needed his advice and counsel as litigation over pension plans mushroomed.

As outstanding as he was as a lawyer—Chambers named him a “senior statesman” for his life’s work—and as brilliant as he was as a thinker, he was humble, self-effacing, understated, and utterly without ego. He was an incredible courtroom lawyer, who paired a charming, soft-spoken manner with an intellectual intensity. And when victories were won, all accomplishments were team accomplishments—the rare failures were his alone.

Bob grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, where he graduated from West High School in 1965. His father was a professor of English and a Shakespearean scholar at the University of Wisconsin, and his mother was an editor of the University Press there. Bob attended Harvard undergrad and Harvard Law School, but he remained a diehard Wisconsin Badgers fan.

This is something I share with Bob, and I will cherish that. We’d often meet up outside Camp Randall Stadium for a pre-game beer and bratwurst before we cheered on the Badgers. Bob was a Midwestern boy, proud of his roots, and I will always picture him wearing a faded Wisconsin sweatshirt and blue jeans.

While today is a sad day for so many of us, we can take comfort in those memories of Bob and in his legacy. The excellence of our ERISA practice and the partners who worked so closely with him are a testament to him. Our firm will be inspired by Bob for years to come.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to Bob’s family: his wife, Mary, and their children Robert, Claire, and Nora. We don’t yet know the family’s plans for honoring Bob, but we will share that information when we receive it.

(Bradley J. Butwin, O'Melveny)