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Citizens of the World : He resolves corporate disputes. She fights for social justice. The only thing missing in Ron and Jane Olson's marriage is a cause to take on together.

October 02, 1994|BETTIJANE LEVINE

Ask Ron Olson to talk about himself and he defers: "My wife, Jane, is the interesting one."

Ask Jane, and she demurs: "There's not much to say. Shouldn't you focus just on Ron?"

That's the Olson charm. After 30 years of marriage and three kids, the attorney and the activist still seem more interested in each other than in themselves.

"If there's a marriage made in heaven, this is it," Jane says with a smile. "It's grown in romance (since) the empty nest."

Says Ron: "I sometimes wonder how we were lucky enough to choose each other when we were so very young."

It's a Wednesday, 9 a.m., in Pasadena, and the Olsons are back from their early outings: Jane from a 7 o'clock meeting at Polytechnic School, where she is president of the board of trustees; Ron from his daily 90-minute workout at the Ritz-Carlton gym around the corner.

They're drinking coffee together in the handsomely remodeled kitchen that, Jane says, almost wrecked their wedded bliss. The construction took months and Ron "can't stand domestic chaos." This is the only major marital conflict she can recall--or at least that she cares to divulge.

Ron is not amused. "That's not it," he says, brows furrowed. "We lost the ritual of coming together as a family in here. We couldn't sit around the dinner table and share, as we always have. That has been a very steadying influence for me, the glue in my life."

Corny? Well, the Olsons are from Iowa. The portrait of Ron in the elegant Downtown law offices of Munger, Tolles & Olson depicts him on his farm, astride a manure spreader, wearing a T-shirt imprinted with a cornstalk.

Imagine how the legendary sharp-tongued antitrust lawyer Maxwell Blecher felt in 1988 when he came up against Olson's earnest, heartland style in an L.A. courtroom.

At stake was control over the technology and marketing of immuno-diagnostics, a technique for detecting such diseases as AIDS by testing for antigens in body fluids. Blecher's La Jolla-based client, Hybritech, accused Olson's Chicago-based client, Abbott Labs, of monopolizing the field. Hybritech wanted $60 million in damages.

In the six-week federal jury trial, Olson reportedly drew upon his small-town Iowa youth, quoting his football coach, his farmer friends and his father's homilies. Olson declines to discuss the case, or his oratorical style, but Blecher remembers it well.

"I have only good things to say about Olson," he says. "But to tell the truth, if I had to hear any more corn pone about what his daddy taught him, I was going to throw up. Of course Olson won, and who can quibble with success?"

The word success doesn't amply describe Olson's accomplishments since arriving here from Manilla, Iowa (population 800), 25 years ago. His name now appears on just about every law journal list of the nation's 50 or 100 most respected and powerful corporate litigators. When big business gets into trouble, it's often his phone that rings. In fact, Olson has attracted so many blue-chip clients with watershed cases to his elite firm that he has been dubbed the best rainmaker in the West.

Olson hates this kind of talk. His lip curls and his Robert Redford-blue eyes flash. "People don't hire me, they hire the firm. We're a team," he says steamily.

He's right, of course. Two years ago, when investor Warren Buffet temporarily took the helm of Salomon Bros., the Wall Street firm accused of securities fraud, a cadre of Munger, Tolles & Olson lawyers flew to New York to untangle the mess. Buffet, chairman of the multibillion-dollar Berkshire Hathaway investment conglomerate and a major Salomon shareholder, named Olson as lead lawyer on the case.

"The problem was severe and complex," Buffet says. "It involved coordinating a solution satisfactory to five different (regulatory) authorities--all of whom had their own agenda and each of whom had been offended in a different way. Ron's accomplishment in (settling that) was masterful. He's not just a terrific lawyer, but a first-class human being. That comes through, even to his adversaries."

Says the head of another corporate client, MCA President Sid Sheinberg: "Ron is a real counselor--a man of wisdom whose judgment I trust way beyond the four corners of any legal issue. He's the kind of lawyer I'd have wanted to be if I'd stayed in the field. That is my highest compliment."

The defense of huge corporations might seem like dry, boring work. But Olson makes it sound positively sexy. With each client he enters a different world, he says, immersing himself in a fascinating new arena. From the passion in his voice, you know he means it.

Discussing the Valdez oil spill, he jumps up and points to a large, detailed and well-worn map in his office of the Alaska disaster site, obviously pleased to explain how the Exxon tanker came to spill its load.

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