Stephen Antion is a partner at O'Melveny & Myers, L.A.'s oldest and largest law firm as well as a part-time traffic cop.
Antion's specialty is working with emerging growth companies in mergers work, or public and private offerings of debt and equity. But he also must steer those businesses in a variety of legal issues, whether it's a tax matter or bidding on a federal contract.
"I attend (client) board meetings, or meet clients regularly, and it's not billable time," said Antion. "It all comes under the banner of knowing your clients and knowing what industry they're in."
Antion is hardly alone. In the public imagination, a law firm's rainmakers bring in the business by rubbing elbows with other bigwigs, and then making stellar presentations to potential clients.
There's some of that at O'Melveny, but more often the process of attracting and holding onto business is anything but genteel.
It's a complex, time-consuming matter of non-stop networking, counseling clients often at no charge and all the while looking for referrals.
"We have the brochures, the Web site, we speak at seminars, the modern-day advertising. We belong to clubs. But I don't know how much that all is worth," said Robert Siegel, an O'Melveny & Myers labor partner.
"I think the way to generate business is to just work very hard, and become a very good lawyer in a substantive area of the law," he said.
The trick, says Siegel, is to be sure the clients recognize that work and recommend O'Melveny to their associates. "Referrals. That's how you get business," he said.
As is generally true among many of the top L.A. firms, O'Melveny is going through a good period. This year, the 112-year-old firm will rack up an estimated $275 million in billings world-wide, an all-time record.
Behind those numbers is a structure in which attorneys are allowed to practice law and expand their business with greater independence than at many firms, said Charles Wharton, O'Melveny's executive director.
"In many ways, we are a business," said Wharton. "We have sales, an accounting department, all the divisions any business does but there is a difference. We are a very lateral organization. The firm still views itself as more a profession than a business."
Or as John Niles, an O'Melveny partner, puts it: "Lawyers are pretty much in charge of their own destiny."
One byproduct of this approach is that profit and revenue targets are not set by top management. Rather, individual departments are free to hire associates as they see fit, in response to the level of business.
This makes the issue of client referrals all the more important.
Antion, for example, often serves as a legal traffic cop for his clients, directing them to O'Melveny & Myers experts as the situation requires. That's a form of rainmaking.
Antion also develops relationships with the major accounting firms, or commercial and investment bankers, who might refer clients to him.
He meets regularly, for example, with officials at Bank of America, a lucrative mine of potential clients.
"The key is timely referrals," said Antion. "A referral doesn't do much good if an executive is already comfortable with his legal counsel."
Antion returns the favor as his clients expand, he frequently suggests an accounting firm, or a higher-profile banker. "On one occasion, I had a client who needed new financing fast. I referred him to a banker I knew, and we managed to get the loan funded and the banker now has a new client," said Antion.
For all the power of referrals, flying the flag at industry events is still necessary, said Seth Aronson, O'Melveny & Myers class-action defense litigator. 'I speak at bar functions, I'm on the board of the state association of business trial lawyers, I'm on the board of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which gives me a certain visibility," said Aronson. "You try to keep a profile."
In many regards, O'Melveny & Myers lawyers have an immense advantage in professional life the O'Melveny shingle is often considered as good as it gets in Southern California.
The name will get at least a foot in the door whenever new, major business is up for grabs.
For example, in big-league white-collar criminal defense practice, "there are maybe six or seven firms in town that can handle this kind of work," said James Asperger, O'Melveny's top white-collar defense partner.
Typically, a client will hold a "beauty contest," among O'Melveny & Myers and rival firms, such as Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, or Latham & Watkins.
"The presentation can be a pretty intensive interview process; they want to know what is your strategy on crucial matters," said Asperger.
And in white-collar criminal work, winning the beauty contest is critical. "This is not an area of law in which you can count on repeat business," said Asperger, formerly chief of the major fraud section of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles.
He successfully prosecuted such high-profile miscreants as Barry Minkow of the ZZZZ Best carpet cleaning fame, and Michael Parker, a one-time Orange County Businessman of the Year taken down on racketeering charges.
Asperger's years in the U.S. Attorney's Office are a form of instant credibility, but he also maintains ties with an informal fraternity of ex-prosecutors, who refer business to each other.
As with Antion, Asperger often finds that his clients generate work for the firm. "A criminal investigation (into a client) somtimes crosses over into tax law, or securities law, international law we often draw on other (O'Melveny & Myers) lawyers for their expertise," said Asperger.
The strength of the O'Melveny & Myers shingle, was evidenced earlier this year when the Los Angeles Dodgers sought counsel on their pending sale.
Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley summoned several legal teams up the hill to Dodger Stadium to make presentations. O'Melveny won.
"Our strategy was to sell them on our team approach, and our expertise. We have had several different baseball team as clients, as well as a substantial family-run business practice," said Ken Bishop, an O'Melveny partner who heads the firm's Century City office.
And as Bishop and other rainmakers point out, success often breeds success.
As the region's largest law firm, it stands to reason that O'Melveny & Myers will more often have in-house expertise on any given area of law than other law firms.
Not only does Bishop make a good impression, he can form teams of experts to rival or eclipse all competitors, due to O'Melveny & Myers huge roster of lawyers.
One business strategy not employed at O'Melveny & Myers is competing on price.
"Pricing is always an issue in getting business, but we never compete on price," said Antion. "We sell our experience, what we charge relative to what we are worth."
Which, at the highest level, can run $400 an hour.
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