O'Melveny & Myers LLP is so conscious of its place in history that it has its own curator, historical archives and even a small museum in its downtown L.A. offices.
There also is a book a detailed two-volume tome written by retired O'Melveny partner William W. Clary that runs 900 pages.
"The firm's self-consciousness, if you will, grew out of a sense of the O'Melveny dynasty, and the feeling that the partners (over time) sort of adopted membership in the O'Melveny family," said Patrick Lynch, a partner who heads O'Melveny's litigation department and penned a biography of long-time managing partner Jack O'Melveny. "It's also true that the firm's growth closely parallels that of L.A."
The attention O'Melveny & Myers pays to its history is more than collective ego. Founded in 1885, it is the city's oldest surviving law firm and has participated in virtually all the important business events that have shaped L.A.
Around the time the firm came onto the scene, Los Angeles was little more than a frontier berg notorious for its lawlessness: killings averaged one a day in a town of 5,000 people; prostitution and gambling went unchecked; and the local judge declined to prosecute the participants of an 1871 race riot in which 19 Chinese immigrants were slain, because he did not deem the victims to be human beings.
Founders Jackson A. Graves and Henry O'Melveny the firm was originally known as Graves & O'Melveny migrated to California from the Midwest in their early adolescence. They were among the first students to graduate from St. Mary's College near Oakland and the University of California at Berkeley, respectively. Few colleges of the day offered a law degree, so both read the requisite handful of books then required to pass the bar exam. (O'Melveny performed the task while teaching in Hawaii.)
Both men practiced law separately for a few years before they decided to partner in 1885.
No doubt today's corporate lawyers would punch holes through the contract that formed the firm, given that it contained only 70 words. The 32-year-old Graves retained three-fifths of the proceeds and the 26-year-old O'Melveny two-fifths "until some other rate of division is agreed upon."
Although they had no support staff, the two young lawyers did show some pretensions toward success, having rented two rooms in the Baker Block, a sprawling neo-classical structure in downtown Los Angeles that cost a staggering $110,000 to build and was then L.A.'s fanciest office building. The rent was a princely $50 a month.
Though L.A. only had a population of 15,000, it was already going through familiar motions. It was a time of a great real estate boom, and parcels of land changed hands daily.
Lawyers handled such transactions, so it took no time for the two young attorneys to find themselves busy processing piecemeal bits of legal documentation.
The firm generated revenues of $9,600 its first year, then $16,700 in its second about the equivalent of $700,000 today.
"I don't think it would be easy to duplicate what happened to them then, but it wasn't just fortuity; these were exceptional guys," Lynch said.
Indeed, the firm's roster of early clients is a virtual Who's Who of L.A. history. It includes Henry T. Oxnard, J.B. Lankershim, the Sepulveda family, Isaac Van Nuys, and the Olvera family.
Though the initial success foretold larger fortunes later, O'Melveny himself practiced a decided frugality: he worked at the same desk for 56 years, until his death in 1941.
In 1888 the fledgling firm took on a third partner, James H. Shankland, who had previously practiced in San Francisco.
Shankland had earlier sent Graves and O'Melveny their first big client: the Los Angeles Board of Trade. Shankland was at first nervous about his move; he initially netted about $750 a month so much more than his practice in San Francisco that he regularly uttered, "This cannot last."
But it did last, and the cash flow and prestige of the clients increased as Los Angeles' place in the world grew. As the firm entered the 20th century, it began involving itself in cases with more corporate clients: Goodyear Tire & Rubber, Richfield Oil, Pacific Mutual Life Insurance, Shell Co. of California, and Pacific Gas & Electric.
Henry O'Melveny's son Jack wanted to join the firm after he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1922. Henry refused, insisting that his son should sign on with one of the then-much-larger New York firms.
Jack persisted and his father finally agreed to give his son a desk in the office. But he stressed that Jack would not be admitted to the firm.
So Jack practiced as an independent attorney. And when Graves, O'Melveny & Shankland lost Shell Oil as a client due to fees that Shell considered excessive Jack snagged Shell by promising to work for half the price of his father's firm.
Jack eventually joined up with his father and again proved his worth by persuading the National Biscuit Co. to hire the firm after Nabisco opened up a division on the West Coast.
Six decades later, O'Melveny & Myers represented RJR Nabisco in its $24.8 billion buyout by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.
Another breakthrough case handled by Jack O'Melveny involved a silent film starlet named Sue Carol, who asked Jack to help her break a $150-a-week contract she had with Fox Studios. (Her manager was getting paid $1,500.)
O'Melveny succeeded in getting her weekly salary upped to $1,500, and he later did the same thing for a young Bing Crosby.
Those initial clients eventually brought in a flood of work from Hollywood, including Paramount Pictures, United Artists, Columbia Records, Decca Records, CBS and NBC. In sports, O'Melveny & Myers represented the Brooklyn Dodgers in the team's successful attempt to secure land for building Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine. It later negotiated the sales of the Baltimore Orioles and San Diego Padres.
By the end of the 1920s, the firm had mushroomed to 29 lawyers and a support staff of 25. Former California Chief Justice Louis W. Myers joined the firm in 1927, eventually lending the firm its current name.
Today, O'Melveny & Myers has more than 600 attorneys in 10 offices throughout the world, generating annual revenues in excess of $250 million.
Lynch believes that preserving the history of the firm can help maintain its high standards and growth.
"One of the great things about this firm is the great internal loyalty, and a great sense of tradition," Lynch said. "Everyone tries to do the best they can, and the atmosphere is not one of outshining a partner. Keeping people aware of these really astounding guys from the past helps to perpetuate that culture."
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