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Lawyer-Diplomat Answered Adversity in Rising to the Top

September 29, 1987|WILLIAM OVEREND | Times Staff Writer

Warren Christopher, the lawyer-diplomat who heads O'Melveny & Myers, made it the hard way.

Christopher, 61, was born in Scranton, N.D., a town of 300 people, and grew up during the Depression. His father, the cashier at the local bank, suffered a stroke when the bank almost collapsed in 1936.

When Christopher was 13, the family moved to California because of his father's failing health. They settled in a bungalow court in Hollywood. His mother worked as a sales clerk and Christopher delivered newspapers.

"I carried papers for the Hollywood Citizen-News up Beachwood Canyon to the Hollywoodland sign," Christopher recalled. "The second summer, I got a job as copy boy and started covering sports at 10 cents an inch (of copy). When I graduated from Hollywood High School, they offered me a job at $25 a week. I was close to taking it."

Christopher, cautious in discussing almost any subject, becomes even more reticent when talking about himself.

In a 1982 commencement address on "Adversity" at the University of North Dakota, for example, Christopher made no mention of his family's problems, speaking instead of his "warm memories of prairie sunsets and the emergence of crocuses in spring."

"But there are not so many lessons in glad times," he added. "Adversity is by far the better teacher. Adversity will be a part of almost all our lives. So it is not in escaping adversity, but in answering it, that our character is defined."

Recently, in the 15th-floor office of the 383-lawyer firm he now runs, Christopher talked about the less pleasant times of his youth: "I remember going around with my father to foreclosure sales--his bank would have to sell the belongings of people he had known all his life. I think that gave me a good deal of my sympathy to people and my liberal leanings. I live simply and cautiously, and that goes back to the childhood days."

At a personal level, Christopher projects an image of reserve. He has strong critics as well as supporters. Some see him as shy and considerate, while others view him as tough and manipulative.

"I think he's a very devious guy," one lawyer at a rival firm said. "He can be a ruthless son of a bitch. That's not disparaging. He can do what has to be done."

A different assessment comes from Patrick Lynch, one of O'Melveny's top trial lawyers.

"My belief is he is a very decent, honest, thoughtful and considerate person with some, for him, unfortunate traits," Lynch said. "As long as I have been around here, there has been a perception of him as secretive and manipulative. I find that unfair."

Christopher's response is that he is sometimes secretive, a trait he views as a necessary part of a lawyer's job.

"I'd have to confess to playing it close to the vest most of the time," he said. "When you're dealing with people's lives, I think that's a lawyer's obligation."

Christopher attended Redlands University on scholarship, later transferring to USC. He graduated at 19 with a Navy commission. He spent the final months of World War II on a fleet oiler with a former USC classmate, John Ferraro, now president of the Los Angeles City Council.

"Ferraro was a good friend to have," Christopher recalled. "I was a 140-pound, 19-year-old ensign. John was an All-American tackle on the USC football team, about 240 pounds. It was a tough crew, and he sort of looked after me."

It was during Christopher's Navy days that he began thinking of becoming a lawyer. A campus visit to Stanford University during a shore leave convinced him. He was editor of the first Stanford Law Review in 1949, then clerked for a year for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

"He could be devastating when he was displeased with you," Christopher said. "I remember one time when I had failed him on something. He looked at me with those blazing blue eyes, no smile, and I still remember his words: 'I depend on you to an extent perhaps you do not realize.' "

Christopher shared Douglas' liberal views, and after joining O'Melveny, a law firm dominated by Republicans, he was quick to establish his own liberal Democratic leanings. One of his first acts as a new O'Melveny associate was to organize a letter protesting the anti-Communist crusade of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s.

In the 1950s, Christopher worked on behalf of Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, one of many former Christopher associates who praise him for his intellect and common sense.

"I regarded Christopher as the ablest man I've ever been associated with," Brown said. "He's a fact finder, objective, very persuasive and knowledgeable. If I had a difficult personal problem today, he'd still be the man to go to."

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