Finalist, General Litigation Department of the Year: O'Melveny
Whether it was beating back financial crisis claims against Bank of America or defending Warner Bros. against copyright kryptonite, O'Melveny reminded clients why they keep coming back for more.
If any period might have broken O'Melveny & Myers' litigation hot streak—the firm has been a perennial Litigation Department of the Year honoree—this might have been it. Two years ago, O'Melveny was in a rocky management transition, suffering from "faltering profits and partner departures," as we put it in a December 2011 story ["A Fresh Start"] that opened with a suitably bleak scene: the funeral of O'Melveny stalwart and former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Never fear. The streak continues. O'Melveny's marquee practice, it turns out, was more than resilient enough to shrug off those distractions and return the firm to the finalists' circle. And it did so in a way that a traditionalist like Christopher would have appreciated: with stunning wins for some of the firm's most important clients.
Bradley Butwin, who was elevated from litigation chief to firm chairman in early 2012, says that success required keeping faith with O'Melveny's core values despite changes in leadership and upheaval in other parts of the firm. O'Melveny still strives, he says, to be among "the firms that really are partnering with clients and are having fun and being true to their values and culture."
LITIGATION HIGHLIGHTS: When longtime client Bank of America Corporation acquired Countrywide Financial Corp. at the height of the financial crisis, it bought itself a litigation albatross that's been a threat to the bank's bottom line ever since. O'Melveny has kept busy batting away billions of dollars' worth of successor-liability claims against the bank in mortgage-backed securities and shareholder suits. The wins for BofA extend beyond the Countrywide morass, into auction-rate securities suits, among other areas.
For another long-standing litigation client, Ford Motor Company, D.C.–based U.S. Supreme Court and appellate practice chair Jonathan Hacker erased a $2 billion class action award in a contractual battle with truck dealerships. The May 2012 appellate reversal allowed Ford to secure an all-out win in a September 2013 retrial. (The case was first-chaired for the carmaker by Dykema Gossett's James Feeney.)
USAirways leaned on O'Melveny to fight and win a number of labor-related suits. An O'Melveny team led by partner Robert Siegel also played a key role in the airline's strategy of litigation avoidance. With help from O'Melveny and half a dozen other firms, USAirways secured union support for a merger with bankrupt American Airlines Inc. Then, when the U.S. Department of Justice sued to block the merger, O'Melveny antitrust chair Richard Parker took the lead in brokering a settlement favorable enough to the airlines that consumer advocates decried the government's surrender.
Although the firm handled just two jury trials in the period covered by this contest, its docket boasted geographic and industry breadth befitting a first-tier national litigation shop. Still, one of the most notable successes was squarely on O'Melveny's home turf in California, where Daniel Petrocelli preserved Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.'s lucrative hold on the Superman franchise in a series of trial and appeals court victories. The copyright wins for Warner, says Butwin, "let them go about their business." Indeed they did. The studio's June blockbuster, "Man of Steel," grossed more than $600 million worldwide after Petrocelli's performance ensured the film's timely release.
BIGGEST LOSS: Petrocelli may be O'Melveny's Man of Steel, but he also owns the firm's biggest loss of this period in a fight over broadcast rights to one of NBC's most successful productions, the Golden Globes awards show. In what Hollywood-news site The Wrap called "a particularly ugly" contract dispute launched by O'Melveny client Hollywood Foreign Press Association against Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton client Dick Clark Productions, a federal district judge wrote a scathing 87-page decision finding against HFPA and its "often amateurish" business conduct.
CLIENT FEEDBACK: Fannie Mae CEO Timothy Mayopoulos, who has relied heavily on O'Melveny during stints as general counsel of his agency and, previously, at Bank of America, says the firm's collaborative approach benefits clients in more ways than just the obvious.
Beyond playing nice on multifirm teams, O'Melveny lawyers also have a finely tuned sense of when to fight and when to settle, Mayopoulos says. He attributes that to a talent for seeing "big theoretical issues" and simultaneously getting down in the litigation weeds. Besides, he adds, there's the firm's not-so-secret weapon. "I've worked with a lot of great lawyers over the years," Mayopoulos says, but none are as valuable as an all-around "wise person" as senior appellate lawyer Walter Dellinger.