Aaron R. Gelb is a partner and head of Conn Maciel Carey LLP’s Chicago office where he leads the firm’s Midwest OSHA workplace safety practice. He has more than 25 years’ experience advising and representing clients in relation to inspections, investigations, and enforcement actions involving federal OSHA and state OSH programs and managing the full range of litigation against OSHA. In support of the firm’s Labor and Employment practice, Aaron defends employers in equal employment opportunity matters in federal and state courts, having tried multiple cases to verdict and obtained the dismissal of more than 300 discrimination charges before the EEOC and fair employment agencies nationwide.
Aaron is frequently asked to speak at conferences, seminars, and industry-specific forums, covering numerous workplace safety and employment topics for events and organizations nationwide including the American Bar Association, the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois, the American Trucking Associations, and the Chicagoland Safety Conference to name a few. Aaron currently leads the Illinois Manufacturers Association’s workplace safety and health education series which includes quarterly webinars and 4 programs during each week of June, which is safety month. Aaron also helps curate the firm’s annual webinar series – the OSHA Webinar Series and the Labor and Employment Webinar Series and is a frequent contributor to CMC’s blogs – the OSHA Defense Report and the Employer Defense Report.
In addition to his legal practice, Aaron works closely with CMC’s founding partners to help them realize their vision for the firm’s future, acts as a mentor to new partners and associates, actively recruits lateral partner and associate candidates, and helps craft the firm’s strategic marketing plan, including the firm’s social media efforts. Passionate about ensuring equal access to justice for all, Aaron is an active member of the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and is a frequent participant in the Northern District of Illinois’ Settlement Assistance Program in which he presents pro se litigants in court-led settlement conferences. At the height of the pandemic, Aaron served as a panelist during a program focused on compliance and legal concerns facing Black-owned small businesses struggling to survive in the face of COVID-19.
Get to Know Aaron!
Where is your favorite vacation spot?
I find it difficult to give a single answer to many of these questions, so like a true lawyer I will give a slightly different answer than I was asked to provide. My favorite family vacation spot, without question, is Nantucket. I went there every year when I was young but stopped going before high school. When I got married, my wife and I went there for our honeymoon as she had never been and now, we go there every summer and rent a house. There’s no place like it. Looking outside the US, I love traveling to Italy; I studied Italian for seven years and used to speak it almost fluently. I took two month-long foreign exchange trips to Bari in high school, explored Rome, Florence, Bologna and Venice with my parents, but really enjoyed spending time in the upper (old) city of Bergamo—a magical place where you feel transported back in time with cobblestone streets barely wide enough for a car to drive down and people stirring giant pots of polenta in an ancient restaurant kitchen.
What was your first job?
Like many teenagers, my first job was in retail, working in the shoe department of a sporting goods store. There’s nothing like getting down on your hands and knees, sliding a pair of shoes onto a stranger’s feet and knotting their shoelaces to teach you the meaning of customer/client service.
I enjoy spending time with my family whenever possible, whether that means dining out with my wife or finding time to walk the dogs with her between conference calls, going out to breakfast with my youngest daughter on the weekend, or surprising my other daughters with tickets to a basketball game at their respective colleges. As far as something I do for myself it would have to be cycling. I used to do sprint distance triathlons, but I mainly stick to the roads now, going on long (50+ mile) rides every weekend when the weather allows here in Chicago. Besides the great views of Lake Michigan and palatial lakefront mansions that we pass on our ride, there’s something about being able to singularly focus on the road and unplug for 3-4 hours every weekend. Other than cycling, I am a die-hard Texas Longhorn sports fan having attended law school in Austin and make sure to catch at least 1-2 football games each Fall—in Austin and, if possible, on a road trip to a campus I’ve not yet visited.
If you could share a cup of coffee with one individual, living or dead, who would it be?
This is another question to which I must give multiple answers. The living person with whom I would most like to have a cup of coffee is Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (and of Just Mercy fame). I visited his National Memorial for Peace and Justice and museum in Montgomery, AL, watched his Ted Talk, read his book, and have seen him speak in person, but having the opportunity to talk to him at length about the causes to which he has dedicated his life would be incredible. As far as a person who is no longer alive, I think I’d have to go with Teddy Roosevelt. After majoring in American History at the University of Chicago, I still enjoy reading biographies of US presidents and I tend to think that TR is one of the most fascinating people to have held the office given his varied interests, hobbies, adventures and professions both before and after he was president.
We just finished After Life with Ricky Gervais, and it was amazing, as well as Ozark’s most recent season. We are now working our way through Narcos on Netflix and As We See It on Amazon Prime.
What is your greatest accomplishment (personal and/or professional)?
Sticking to the theme of giving multiple answers, there are two accomplishments that stand out. The first was a case that I tried in federal court before a jury. We should have gotten summary judgment and the judge almost granted our motion for judgment at the end of the plaintiff’s case but chose instead to let it go to the jury, which rendered a verdict we felt was clearly contrary to the evidence. When the client asked whether I recommended settling or proceeding with the post-trial motions and appeal, I suggested the latter without hesitation as I was confident in our interpretation of the law. The trial court not only vacated the jury verdict, but then entered judgment on behalf of my client; when our victory was later appealed to federal circuit court, a 3-judge panel entered a great opinion affirming the lower court’s decision with language that confirmed we should have prevailed at summary judgment and trial. The second accomplishment of which I am most proud is opening CMC’s Chicago office and, in four short years, building what I think is the premier OSHA practice in Illinois (and the Midwest) along with an outstanding Midwest L&E practice led by my partner, Mark Trapp. Going from a 300+ lawyer firm with deep Chicago ties and name recognition to a boutique firm that was not widely known in the Chicago business or legal community presented a challenge, but we soon discovered that there is a wide array of opportunities for a firm like ours to carve out a niche in the market. Despite having only been open for two years when COVID-19 hit, we’ve managed to grow our team by adding an associate attorney and build a thriving OSHA, employment, labor, and pension withdrawal liability practice all while working remotely.
What is your most embarrassing lawyer moment?
I’ve had my share of disappointing moments, like losing a trial (the one described above, so the disappointment did not last long), getting the occasional “bad” ruling on a motion, or learning that a client is going out of business. Fortunately, I cannot recall any truly embarrassing lawyer moments, but there is one episode that I wish I could go back in time to change. When I was a relatively new partner trying to manage one of my first client relationships at a prior firm, one of my friends who was in-house with a large employer retained us to do a project on a flat fee basis in a practice area that was not my own. The partner who was doing the work was late with the deliverable, went over budget and threatened to not finish the work if I wrote off their time. Being young and naïve about client service, I went back to the client and asked them to pay additional fees above the promised flat fee rather than going to firm leadership to resolve the matter internally. The client paid the additional fee and then took their business elsewhere when the work was finished. It was a painful but important lesson that I learned about fighting for your clients even if it means disagreeing with your colleagues. Fortunately, I’ve never had an issue like that at CMC and know that I never will, given the type of lawyers and people with whom I am fortunate to work.
What advice would you give to a law student?
Find an area of the law that interests and excites you. Don’t pick an area based on money or prestige. Practicing law requires long hours, hard work and focus. If you are practicing in an area that you find rewarding and fulfilling, you’re more likely to be successful and fulfilled than if you simply chase a buck.
What do you like most about working at CMC?
Without a doubt it’s the people. I am tempted to say the culture because it’s unlike any other place I have worked, but our firm culture reflects the amazing people with whom I am fortunate to work with each day. Work seems a lot less like work when you spend your days working with people who are not only amazing, hard-working, and brilliant lawyers but also people you look forward to spending time with both in and out of the workplace. Indeed, my two favorite work “events” each year are the firm holiday party where we gather for drinks, dinner, a white elephant gift exchange and, sometimes, karaoke, and the OSH Committee meeting where the entire OSHA team rents a house together and we get to nerd out talking about OSHA next to the pool, over coffee and/or cocktails and entertain our friends and clients.
Connect with Aaron
On Wednesday, April 21st at 10 a.m. CT / 11 a.m. ET, join Aaron R. Gelb for a webinar regarding Preparing and Managing an OSHA Investigation: Building an Effective Toolkit Preparing and Managing an OSHA Investigation: Building an Effective Toolkit.
OSHA has broad authority to conduct workplace inspections and issue citations against employers found in violation of safety and health standards.
OSHA will likely ramp up enforcement significantly in the coming year with more programmed inspections, higher civil penalties, more citations characterized as “willful” or “repeat,” more criminal referrals and continued use of public shaming press releases.
Join us as OSHA attorney & IMA member Aaron Gelb takes us through the steps you need in your Toolkit to prepare and manage OSHA inspections:
- Overview of an OSHA Inspection
- Developing & implementing a comprehensive Safety and Health Program – what must be included
- Inspection Protocols
- Training staff to understand OSHA standards applicable to your workplace
- Protecting Employer Interests When OSHA Arrives
- OSHA’s Inspection Rights
- And more!
You’ll leave with valuable tools to add to your Toolkit!