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."

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