Working at O’Melveny & Myers means long and often uupredictable hours of hard work, dressing formally for meetings with big Fortune 500 clients, keeping your nose to the grindstone for hours on end, and hoping that good work will one day pay off with a partnership at L.A.’s oldest and largest law firm.
Working at O’Melveny & Myers also can mean taking a whitewater rafting trip in Northern California, playing in miniature golf tournaments in the hallways, dressing down on Fridays, and relaxing after a pressure-cooker week by heading for one of the regular Friday happy hours in the company dining room.
According to current and former O’Melveny partners and associates, the corporate culture at one of L.A.’s premier law firms contains its share of time-honored traditions, tinged by the firm’s own efforts to adjust to changes in society and the business world.
Managing partner Charles Bender puts aside notions of a stodgy old boys’ network resistant to change. “This is an old firm by Los Angeles standards, but it’s not an old firm demographically,” said the 61-year-old Bender. “Out of the 560 or so attorneys, only nine of us are 60 or above.”
Still, the majority of those 560 attorneys are white males, with 155 women and 73 racial minorities. Of the firm’s 199 partners, only 25 are women and 12 are racial minorities, according to Bender.
While women and minorities may seem scarse, one source familiar with the local legal scene said O’Melveny’s diversity program is at least as good as those of other major L.A. law firms.
As for the old boys’ network, Bender said: “I don’t think I’ve ever been in an old boys’ network, and that type of network, which I’m sure existed in this town at one time, has gradually disappeared and broken down. There are bound to be some remnants, but the community and its institutions today are so much more diverse that they’re causing the disintegration of the old boys’ network.”
Which is why a recent article in American Lawyer magazine raised some dust. In it, former O’Melveny lawyer Kathleen McGuinness, now with Times Mirror Co.’s legal department, is quoted as saying that women and minorities were “not offered the same career opportunities” at the firm.
Bender declined to speak about the American Lawyer article, but noted that the firm has long prided itself on its recruiting of minorities, pointing out that O’Melveny in the early 1970s elected its first black woman partner, Cheryl Mason. Mason is a senior partner in the firm’s litigation group and was a member of its management committee for four years.
Bender said he and three or four of O’Melveny’s minority lawyers head for Harvard University and other top law schools each year to recruit more minorities.
According to several women lawyers at O’Melveny who were interviewed for this article, gender has never been an issue for them at the firm.
“I saw what was in the American Lawyer article,” said Pam Westhoff, who has been at O’Melveny 11 years. “I can only say that what was said about Katy McGuinness hasn’t been true for me. I have always felt that I’ve been dealt with fairly here, and I’ve been given some of the best assignments in the department. I feel that I’ve been rewarded for my initiative.”
Gender “literally hasn’t been an issue,” said Allison Keller, who said she left the firm when she was recruited away by Mayor Richard Riordan but returned last year when O’Melveny wooed her back.
According to one former O’Melveny lawyer who has left the firm, O’Melveny is probably “much less stodgy and formal than most people might realize,” although it is nowhere near as entrepreneurial as smaller firms or as companies in other industries.
“It’s not Netscape,” he said, “but it’s not the big, stuffy institution that a lot of people probably imagine it is.”
Says another partner at a smaller L.A. law firm: “To the extent that there is a blue-blood law firm in Los Angeles, it’s O’Melveny.” But that same lawyer says O’Melveny probably doesn’t differ significantly in corporate culture from other large law firms.
“Law firms of that size typically go through an evolution,” he said. “When they’re small, they’re closely knit partnerships where every individual makes a big difference. When they get to a certain size, they become more institutionalized. They have to.”
What O’Melveny has evolved into, according to outside observers, is a fairly typical, large, modern law firm trying to ensure its corporate future by adjusting to the changing business scene.
One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the demanding work load.
Westhoff, who is in her second year as a partner in the real estate division, says she finds it tough to juggle her duties as a wife, mother of two and a lawyer.
“It is difficult to balance big firm law practice with raising children. It is a big time commitment. People who leave, whether they are men or women, often go to jobs as in-house counsel so they can have more manageable schedules,” said Westhoff.
Keller said the work schedule at any big law firm is demanding.
“It’s not a punch-the-clock type of job,” she said. She and the other O’Melveny lawyers who were interviewed said that despite the long hours the firm doesn’t pester them about billable hours a nuisance at some firms.
Lynn Jansen, an associate in her fourth year in the corporate law department, said it’s “a very collegial environment where you can ask somebody for help or spend some of your time helping another associate without worrying about it. The firm isn’t fixated on billable hours.”
Jansen, Westhoff and Keller said the work is enjoyable because O’Melveny is, in Westhoff’s words, “a pretty casual group” in the way partners and associates relate to each other.
Westhoff, who was pregnant with her first child when she got her start at O’Melveny as a summer intern in 1985, admits that the thought crossed her mind, “Wow, is it going to be a bunch of senior, white male partners ruling the world?”
But half of that year’s summer interns were women, said Westhoff, who later spent two years running O’Melveny’s summer associate program.
One tradition of the program is a camping and hiking trip taken by about 50 lawyers and summer interns to the mountains of Northern California.
The trip is conducted as a way for firm members and summer associates to get to know each other outside the office without the pressures and deadlines of a daily work schedule. Other events that provide relief include the miniature golf tournaments, the happy hours and the softball game.
Some other examples: a day designated for everyone to bring in pictures of their children and a day when everyone in the department is encouraged to wear a hat.
Westoff said she’s not sure how much the O’Melveny culture differs from that of other law firms, where former law school classmates tell her that they, too, do some of the same things to unwind.
“In the end, my feeling has always been that a lot of the work you do as a lawyer in a large corporate firm is going to be the same with respect to whether you’re working in the banking industry or real estate or some other specialty. What defines it and makes it different is whether you enjoy your work life every day,” she said.