May 14, 2022

Life at O'Melveny

       A new case is a good example of how, at O'Melveny & Myers, you may work with a certain type of personality to achieve a certain type of end. 

       The best way to explain an experience is via anecdotes, so please allow me to share a few before getting to the point of the post. Shortly after I started at O'Melveny, I was chatting with a partner when a woman, Justine Daniels, walked up and said something like, "so I'm being replaced," in that accusatory tone that lawyers have mastered. I wrote about this before. The partner was in a slow practice group. I was in a different group on their floor, so this other group's associates would accuse me of taking work that they could be doing. It only happened a handful of times, but that was too often for my tastes. Who wants to be accused of taking another person's livelihood?

       One day I was in my office as Justine talked to a male associate a few doors down. For some reason, she very loudly interjected with something like, "it's like oral sex; they're going to know if you don't like doing it!" The guy was quiet and studious so I don't think he appreciated that analogy.

       Another day, she was down the hall screaming about a dispute she was having with someone. In a voice people use when they're about to cry, she screeched, "they're a contract attorney!" I don't know what the discussion was about, other than that she was emphasizing this person's lower rank to make a point.

       One day she and I were in an attorney's office, when he loaded the "new hire" announcement website for an incoming associate. He groaned and said something like, "I'm going to destroy him." I assume in jest, or maybe not? (Again, remember that this was a slow practice group.) Then Justine excitedly said something like, "did you see what I did to" so and so, reminding him of the time she had apparently harmed someone's future. This attitude of taking pleasure in harming others was something I've seen in law more than any other area of society. I'm suddenly recalling a partner in Century City sharing a story about how she ruined an attorney's future. 

       Getting back to Justine, she then shared her husband's business idea for "bum fucks," a derivation of the "bum fights" videos of the time. The plan was to get homeless people to have sex on camera or something like that. Having been quiet as I processed all of this, I joked that it could inspire men looking for dates, so that I didn't seem disapproving.

       One time at lunch, a bunch of attorneys were discussing how O'Melveny wasn't like the television shows about law firms. The then managing partner, Carla Christofferson, came by and we complained to her about that, after which she said that her life was like a television show and walked off. We then joked that she had mocked our humdrum lives. We were just having fun.

       We also talked about the show Mad Men. Who would each of the people at O'Melveny be on that show? To chime in, I said something like, "Ted [my boss] would be the Bertram Cooper character." Justine then said that she would be the show's "negress." 

       She was vocal on racial issues. For example, she once lectured me after I said I liked downtown Los Angeles's "urban" feel. I meant that it was more Manhattan-like than the suburban parts of the city, but apparently "urban" isn't a word you should ever use to describe things, because it means black people. I think she did all of this to emphasize her racial capital. As I wrote here, and as explained by this popular law review article -- if you can survive the discrimination -- there is a real and material economic value to being black in a predominantly white environment. Life at O'Melveny was a cut-throat competition for billable hours and once you made partner, a competition for margin. Its lawyers used every asset at their disposal to try and get ahead, and I guess this was one of her assets.

       In 2015, two partners invited me to a small gathering on our floor. One of the partners had recently invested in a Hawaiian shirt business, and they said they would wear them there. So I paid like $70 to buy one, put it on it and attended. When I talked to Justine at the party, she repeatedly called me a "mook," saying that I acted like a mook and that I even had the face of a mook. I didn't know exactly what the word meant so I ignored it, hoping it had dual meanings, perhaps one of which wasn't insulting. She then asked if I knew anything about an obscure legal topic she was working on, and I suggested areas to investigate to be responsive, after which she rolled her eyes and said something like, "duh!"

       Justine then started in on a relatively new associate. This young woman was from a working class background in a more rural part of California, but she had worked her way to an ivy league school, multiple clerkships and hopefully a bright future. I could sense that Justine had mixed feelings about her though. Perhaps she felt threatened, maybe the work issue from earlier or something else. I don't know. At one point she put her arm around the young woman and declared that she was the future of O'Melveny, in a tone that hinted at belittlement.

       Eventually the group disbanded and it was just me, this other girl and Justine in my office. The same sort of nonsense continued for an hour or so, e.g. Justine said Ayn Rand was the young woman's bible or something like that. She also attacked the young woman's whiteness, calling her an insult for white people, I want to say Aryan. I tried my best to seem jovial and not offended, trying to participate in the discussion as I waited for things to naturally conclude. Eventually, Justine said something about this young woman's sex life (her boyfriend lived out of state) and I could tell it was the final straw. Her expression changed to, "ok I have had enough of this" and she abruptly left and went back into her office. Everyone has their limit.

       I was so concerned about this that I wrote an email to Justine's manager, and another email to my boss. When Justine called me to discuss, I told her honestly that I was just tired of her and ended the phone call. I was going through stress of my own around this time, and this was all getting to be too much. I didn't need to deal with her too. 

       Now, Justine wasn't unusual; she was a lawyer. As I wrote earlier, law breeds a certain type of personality. It's an acrimonious field. If you become a lawyer, you may spend your days working with a combative person, a person whose day-to-day goal is to eviscerate the other side. If they weren't that kind of person, they might not be able to last in law. Actually, now that I think of it, Justine was one of the nice lawyers. There was some humanity in her. The real mean lawyers were like the Terminator robot; they didn't waste time with emotion or extraneous communication; they were cold operators who killed in the most efficient way possible.

       Now that we've gone over who you might work with, let's look at what you might work on. Back in 2015, a poorly maintained oil pipeline ruptured and caused a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara. That tragedy led to all sorts of legislative, regulatory and other responses. It also prevented ExxonMobil from transporting oil from its offshore rigs, as there was now no pipeline. So they had to shut the rigs off.

       Exxon wants to turn the rigs on again, especially now with oil prices at their highest level in a decade. In lieu of the pipeline, Exxon wants to use trucks to transport the oil. They proposed "up to 24,800 oil-filled truck trips a year[.]" In the past, such trucks have crashed and spilled oil into rivers, so dozens of environmental groups opposed this plan. They started a campaign and, e.g., created the video below.

       And the environmental groups won. In March, they persuaded the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to reject Exxon’s trucking plan by a 3-2 vote. Well, the community has spoken, so I guess Exxon needs to either forget about those offshore rigs or build a new pipeline, right? Nope. This week, Exxon hired O'Melveny to force the county to allow the trucks; they hired Dawn Sestito and Justine Daniels. You can read their complaint here. If O'Melveny wins this case, (a) they will make Exxon a lot of money (and of course O'Melveny is paid well for this sort of big-impact work1) and (b) there will be rare but inevitable oil spills along these trucking routes.

       This is life at O'Melveny. And yes, I know O'Melveny's partners can make millions of dollars a year. If money is important to you, this life might be worth it at the partner level. But if money isn't important, or if you're a support employee with little chance of ever making that kind of money . . . there may be easier ways to make the same living.

1 I wonder if O'Melveny negotiated a "success fee" here whereby, if they win, Exxon will pay O'Melveny more than it would have paid under a simple billable hours arrangement. Incidentally, O'Melveny has made a fortune on oil spills. For example, they spent fourteen years billing on the Exxon Valdez spill (see this link from 1994 about the start of the litigation, and this link from 2008 about its end.)