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2-Room Office to Lofty Perch : The 100-Year Odyssey of L.A.'s Oldest Law Firm

The Real L.A. Law: Second in a series. Next: A modern Los Angeles law firm in the 1980s.

September 28, 1987|WILLIAM OVEREND | Times Staff Writer

Amid the skyscrapers that tower over the legal and financial center of modern Los Angeles, one 25-story building stands as a symbol of both the city's past and future.

The bronze and granite structure, completed in 1983 at a cost of $95 million, is the headquarters of O'Melveny & Myers, the first major law firm in the United States to build its own skyscraper home.

Today the firm, the oldest and one of the most prestigious in Los Angeles, has grown into one of the giant legal firms of the nation, with almost 400 lawyers competing for supremacy in the booming Southern California economy.

Among its thousands of clients are some of the largest corporations in the world. Its influence extends from its hilltop perch on Bunker Hill to Washington and New York, and as far away as London and Tokyo.

But it was a different world that spawned O'Melveny.

Los Angeles was a tough, brawling frontier town of 5,000 people in 1869--plagued with gambling, prostitution, armed vigilantes, several murders a week and occasional lynchings.

Among the town's newest residents was Harvey O'Melveny, a judge in Illinois who had come west for health reasons. He soon became one of the town's most prominent citizens, serving as president of the town council and one of the first judges of Los Angeles County, formed just two decades earlier.

Harvey O'Melveny's son, Henry, was 10 years old when his family arrived in California. Following in his father's career, he became the most prominent lawyer in Los Angeles for decades. When he died in 1941, he was eulogized both as dean of the California Bar and one of the men most responsible for the cultural and economic development of Los Angeles.

In recalling his life, however, Henry O'Melveny said his most colorful memories were of the early period in Los Angeles--the years that shaped both the city and the boy.

Rife With Violence

"From 1850 to 1870 Los Angeles was undoubtedly the toughest town of the entire nation," O'Melveny wrote. "It contained a larger percentage of bad characters than any other city and, for its size, had the greatest number of fights, murders, lynchings and robberies."

At the age of 11, the youth witnessed the last public lynching in Los Angeles. Other boyhood remembrances included the looting of Chinatown and the murder of 19 Chinese by a mob of 500 men a year later.

Because of his father's prominence, Henry O'Melveny also was a witness to the political maneuvering that produced one of the most important developments in the young city's history--the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

In 1872, Southern Pacific was threatening to build its main line from San Francisco through the Cajon Pass, north of Los Angeles, toward San Bernardino instead of into Los Angeles, bypassing the town and perhaps dooming its future.

The railroad wanted $600,000 to come to Los Angeles, and O'Melveny's father was the chairman of a 30-member committee that worked out plans for a $377,000 bond issue and 60-acre land grant to meet the demand. The plans, however, were subject to a special election, with opposition from many residents.

"You will realize that the population of the city was then over 80% Mexican," Henry O'Melveny wrote decades later. "The Mexicans not only did not understand the questions submitted at the election, but they did not care. It was just the common, ordinary practice to buy their votes. . . .

"On the night before the election, the anti-railroad people had impounded in a corral two or three hundred Mexicans whose votes they had purchased.

"The pro-railroad people, during the night, offered a larger price and bought the votes."

Henry O'Melveny's legal career began after graduation from UC Berkeley in 1879. Few lawyers went to law school in those days. O'Melveny taught himself from lawbooks and passed oral exams in 1881.

Small-Time Cases

Before starting his own firm, O'Melveny worked with two of the half-dozen other tiny firms then flourishing. His first case--a successful $175 damage suit against a man whose bull had gored a horse to death--reflected the cow-town legal practice of the day.

There were 80 lawyers in Los Angeles in 1885 when Henry O'Melveny became the junior partner of a two-lawyer firm founded by Jackson Graves and known as Graves & O'Melveny. They worked out of two rooms in an office building on Main Street called the Baker Block, then the center of the town's legal world, now buried under the Santa Ana and San Bernardino freeways.

From the start, O'Melveny's practice was built around banking and real estate. His father's political ties and his own friendships included many of the city's most prominent families: Dominguez, Sepulveda, Van Nuys, Hollenbeck, Slauson and Lankershim--an impressive list of early clients.

Then came the first great economic boom in Los Angeles, with the city's population exploding from 11,000 in 1880 to 50,000 in 10 years.

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