Lifetime Achiever: Ronald Olson
Munger, Tolles & Olson name partner Ronald Olson's first trial was far removed from the high stakes and boldface names with which he would become synonymous. He represented the wife of a firm client in a suit against her interior decorator. "The drapes weren't right," says Olson, summing up the 40-year-old case (he can't remember who won). "We had a very modest practice," he says of the then 10-lawyer Munger, Tolles, Hills & Rickershauser. "Big litigation wasn't a part of it."
In the ensuing years, nothing would be farther from the truth. Olson went on to represent movie studios in industry-redefining antitrust litigation and legislative initiatives, a consortium of oil companies in connection with the Exxon Valdez spill, and the Republic of the Philippines in efforts to retrieve assets from former president Ferdinand Marcos. Along the way, Olson, now 72, became a trusted adviser to a host of corporate power brokers. His client roster has included Google Inc. founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz, Paramount Pictures Corporation chief Brad Grey, and entertainment industry mogul Barry Diller. "You build relationships with integrity and put some energy into them and a lot of good things happen," Olson says.
One of Olson's most significant client relationships, spanning corporate transactions, litigation, and government investigations, has been with Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., where Olson currently is a board member. (Munger cofounder Charles Munger is Buffett's longtime business partner.)
In Hollywood everyone has a big-break story, and Olson is no different. In 1975 he was hired by television writers to challenge the "family viewing hour," a Federal Communications Commission rule that restricted the type of content that could air on television before 9 p.m. "They decided to take a risk on me, and we brought a First Amendment case," Olson says. The challenge succeeded, and the win became a calling card for Olson and for his firm, which today has some 200 lawyers at offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Today, the Iowa-born Olson sits on five corporate boards, but it's his presence on the boards of such local institutions as Southern California Public Radio that best illustrates his commitment to his adopted home. "I consider myself lucky to have ended up in a place where there isn't any hesitation about embracing new ideas and people," Olson says. "I see it as my duty to engage in service to benefit Los Angeles because I'm a professional with special skills sets, and I'm someone who has benefited from this community."
IN HIS OWN WORDS
What book has influenced you the most?
The various writings and teachings of Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett. Their fundamental values and philosophy regarding life and business have influenced me as a lawyer and a person.
What is your greatest personal accomplishment?
I have been married for 49 years. The family that Jane and I have built is without question my biggest personal accomplishment.
What is your biggest professional accomplishment?
Helping build our firm's special culture, which is focused on excellence, fairness, community, and client commitment, [as well as] diversity of persons and thought.
What would you have done differently or what is your biggest regret?
There are things I would do differently, but nothing I fundamentally regret.
Portrait photography by Michael J.N. Bowles.