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Leading Law Firms--a History of Minority Bias

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

A pattern of discrimination against Jews, blacks, Latinos and women marked the leading corporate law firms of Los Angeles for most of their history.

Jews were the first to enter the mainstream of the legal profession in the mid-1950s, followed by the first significant numbers by women in the late 1960s and blacks a few years later. The first Latinos were hired in 1977.

Among the firms confronted with increasing pressure to change anti-Jewish policies during the 1950s was O'Melveny & Myers.

Ironically, Henry O'Melveny's first associates in the early 1900s had included two Jews--the brothers Joseph and Edwin Loeb--who moved on in 1909 to found their own firm, Loeb & Loeb, one of the city's leading entertainment firms for decades.

Except for the early 1900s, however, Jews were excluded by the most prominent Los Angeles law firms. Some of O'Melveny's senior partners were strongly anti-Semitic, but they ultimately bowed to pressure from the city's Jewish legal community, the firm's growing number of Jewish clients and their own more liberal partners.

Socially Prominent

The first Jewish lawyer hired by O'Melveny--in 1956--in almost 50 years was Richard E. Sherwood, a Harvard graduate and law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Sherwood today is among the most socially prominent O'Melveny lawyers in Los Angeles.

"The move to integrate the downtown firms was led partly by Martin Gang, one of the city's top Jewish lawyers. Maynard Toll of our firm was also involved," Sherwood said. "I had the sense there was a shift of view in the legal profession as there was throughout the country."

The first female O'Melveny partner was Diane Walker, 46, who joined the firm in 1969 and was made a partner in 1976. She had graduated third in a class at UCLA that included about 10% women.

"I didn't get the sense from O'Melveny that they were looking for women," said Walker, a financial specialist. ". . . Most of our women lawyers joined in the 1970s. It was part of the move of women out of the home and into professions, and the law was a natural avenue."

The first black lawyer hired was Gilbert T. Ray, a 1972 recruit who made partner seven years later.

Howard Graduate

Ray, 42, a municipal bond lawyer who graduated from Howard University in Washington, said Los Angeles firms did not recruit at black universities in the early 1970s, so he wrote letters to five of the city's leading firms asking for a job.

"At that point, numerous opportunities were becoming available for black lawyers," Ray said. "The East Coast was a couple of years ahead of Los Angeles. I think there was one black lawyer at Gibson. I was the first at O'Melveny. What impressed me was they seemed interested in my merits as a lawyer, not my race."

While Warren Christopher and other O'Melveny leaders today play down any suggestion of blatant racial or religious discrimination during their association with the firm, one former O'Melveny lawyer who subsequently rose to prominence portrays the firm as a hotbed of racism into the late 1950s.

U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt, among the most outspoken liberals on the federal bench, was an O'Melveny associate for two years from 1957 to 1959. By that time, Reinhardt says, both he and the law firm were happy to part company.

Politics Troubling

Reinhardt says he first went to Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, where the reception was "noticeably chilly." He says he was told that the firm had no problem hiring Jews, but the fact that he was also a Democrat would be troubling to senior partners.

"Then I went across the street to O'Melveny," Reinhardt said. "Gibson had told me O'Melveny hired women, but not Jews. O'Melveny said they did hire Jews and didn't really hire women--just one or two. They were very nice and seemed to want me. It sounded fun."

Reinhardt discovered, however, that he did not like entertainment law, many of the other lawyers in the firm and, most of all, the attitudes he detected on racial and social issues.

"Life was hell," Reinhardt said. "It was a very stiff, unimaginative place that didn't tolerate differences. Most people were very similar. It was hard to tell them apart. It was even hard to tell their wives apart."

Reinhardt said that on one occasion he was assigned a research project for Homer Mitchell, a conservative partner and a former commodore of the Los Angeles Yacht Club, who was upset with the Internal Revenue Service.

Upset by Excise Taxes

"The yacht club members didn't want to pay federal excise taxes for mooring fees," Reinhardt said. "He had a theory that because you couldn't tax people without yachts, you couldn't tax them with yachts."

"I never could understand the theory, but I actually found two Supreme Court cases that upheld taxing country clubs," Reinhardt added. "I wrote a memo to Mitchell. He said, 'But those are Jewish country clubs. The Supreme Court must have known they were Jews.' "

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