Remembering Owen Olpin
O’Melveny mourns the loss of our legendary retired partner Owen Olpin.
Because he retired from the firm almost 30 years ago, an entire generation of O’Melveny lawyers and business professionals never had the pleasure of knowing and working with Owen. But the many O’Melveny lawyers he mentored and befriended during his decades-long association with the firm were treated to a master class in what it means to be a great lawyer, a generous colleague, and a man with insatiable passions. Those passions included living life to the fullest, his family, the law and teaching its intricacies to others, O’Melveny, the LA Dodgers, and, ultimately, the environment—especially the physical beauty of his beloved Utah—which he helped protect as a co-chair of the firm’s Real Estate and Natural Resources Group.
Reared in a small town in Utah, Owen went to law school at Columbia, where he was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar for all three years as well as an editor of the Law Review. Like his fellow students, he clerked at a leading Manhattan firm, working with Cyrus Vance (who went on to become Secretary of State). But in 1958, when the time came to choose a firm, Owen’s great instincts (and the effective recruiting of O’Melveny partner Deane Johnson) led him to O’Melveny. Over the next several years, as Owen’s practice and reputation grew, so, too, did his family—he and his wife Jan were the proud parents of four loving children—Leslie, Scott, Andrew, and Steve.
Family and O’Melveny were clearly among Owen’s leading passions. And, at the firm he honed another—an instinct for the law and for exceptional client service. In describing his renowned skill at navigating complex negotiations, our retired partner Larry Preble noted that Owen’s “easy-going style, grace, and good humor were the grease that lubricated the relationship of the parties.”
Owen’s early work in oil and gas benefited from the tutelage of partner Dick Bergen. It was during that time that, assisting Dick, he began his long relationship with the Union Pacific Railroad, working on massive projects such as the Wilmington oil fields at the Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbors. Owen’s practice later expanded to other natural resources—hard rock mining, geothermal steam, and water, about which one of his O’Melveny mentees, Judge Sandra Ikuta, remembers: “Owen knew everything about water,” including its importance. As Owen was fond of observing, “While whiskey is good for drinking, water is worth fighting for.” He also helped clients navigate issues arising from their operation of natural resource facilities on public land.
wen became a partner in 1966 at a time when the firm’s natural resources work was evolving to address new and complex federal and state environmental laws, a subject in which he became so deeply engaged that it inspired his interest in teaching. When the firm implemented its initial sabbatical program, he was the first to take advantage of it, leaving to teach law at the University of Texas. His colleagues and mentees loved to joke that Owen misunderstood the concept of a sabbatical: what was supposed to be a one-year leave grew into a seven-year absence when Owen followed his year at Texas with six more years of teaching law at the University of Utah.
In 1976 Owen came home, rejoining our Real Estate and Natural Resources Department, and eventually co-chairing the firm’s newenvironmental law practice group. Yet he never lost his zeal for teaching, and subsequently did stints at the Washington College of Law at American University, at UCLA and Loyola Law Schools in Los Angeles, and as a distinguished visitor at the University of Colorado School of Law.
In addition to teaching, Owen’s immense talent and leadership also benefited the American Bar Association’s Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice Section; its Environment, Energy and Resources Section; and its Standing Committee on Environmental Law. He also dedicated his time to numerous boards and causes, as well as to the US Administrative Conference as an unpaid public member.
Of Owen’s many impressive professional accomplishments, people often cite his appointment as a Special Master by the US Supreme Court in the case of Nebraska v. Wyoming and Colorado, in which the Court fully adopted Owen’s recommendations. But as outstanding a lawyer and leader as he was, Owen’s legacy well may be the way he combined his passion for the law and for mentoring others with his zest for living.
Whether hiking at a breakneck pace in rural Utah or mounting a television in his office so that he and his colleagues could follow Dodgers games in real time, Owen was always “all-in.” With his beloved family, with the legion of O’Melveny mentees and students for whom he was a role model and inspiration, and with his unquenchable thirst for life, Owen found joy in everything he did. That well may be the gift for which we will remember him most. As Greg Thorpe recalls, “While Owen trained us to produce excellent work, he also insisted we always make time to have fun or go on an adventure, wherever we were.”
Our hearts go out to Owen’s family during this difficult time.
We know many of you whose lives Owen enriched may wish to share your appreciation of him. If you would like to contribute a memorial message, please send your remembrances to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two anecdotes regarding Owen I would like to share:
As Brad notes in his fine tribute, Owen was appointed as a Special Master by the US Supreme Court in the case of Nebraska v. Wyoming and Colorado. There is a humorous little story connected with that appointment that Owen liked to tell. He happened to be lounging by the pool at his home when the telephone rang. His son called to him, "Dad, telephone call." Enjoying himself too much to get up, Owen responded, "Tell them I'll call them back." "Okay, I will. It's some guy named 'Whizzer'." Owen bolted from his chaise to take the call from Justice White.
I had the pleasure of knowing Owen not only as a partner, but as a client as well. When Owen left his job teaching to rejoin the firm, he duly packed all his worldly belongings, including his invaluable teaching and research notes on oil and gas, into a moving van, and drove his own automobile to Los Angeles. It turns out that the van needed some repairs along the way, and those repairs required welding to the underside of the carriage. The moving van company decided to save some time by not unloading the van before doing the welding, with the predictable result that all the contents inside caught fire and were totally incinerated. At his deposition on the value of the contents, the lawyer for the moving company asked Owen about his estimate of the value of his papers: "These were just documents, weren't they?" "Yes," he replied. "The originals of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are 'just documents' as well." The settlement was considerable by any measure.
JUDGE SANDRA IKUTA
In 1990, Owen persuaded me that I did not want to join a small environmental law firm that had been my first choice, but wanted to join O’Melveny due to its national scope. Only later I learned that: (1) O’Melveny didn’t really have an environmental practice; and (2) Owen was famed for being able to sell icebergs to Alaskans.
But I was lucky he used his powers of persuasion on me, so that I got the chance to work with and learn from Owen, and of course see more examples of his incredible persuasive skills. I remember how he brought contentious negotiations between an Alaska native corporation and a posse of Texans over oil exploration rights to such an agreeable conclusion that both sides reconvened in Texas to hunt wild boars.
Owen knew everything about water. He taught me all the water law maxims, including that water runs uphill towards money, and that whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over. When Owen retired and left for the (former) pig farm in Utah, he remained active on our joint water matters even though he had to take my phone calls on a party line, and drive into town to pick up my faxes.
Owen was modest. He was appointed as a Special Master by the Supreme Court in the case of Nebraska v. Wyoming and Colorado, and the Supreme Court subsequently fully adopted his recommendations. But he thought it was presumptuous to wear a robe at the hearings, and I had to pressure him into it. When a client once asked him, “Have you ever made a mistake?” he responded with typical modesty, “I’ve made every mistake a lawyer can make.” I understood this to mean that even the greatest lawyers make mistakes, and we must learn from them and move on.
Owen was a larger-than-life figure, as well as a wonderful friend and mentor. His passing is a great loss.
I met Owen when I interviewed at OM&M in the fall of 1968 (hard to believe), and I remember our discussion to this day.
Throughout the interview, people kept knocking on the door to drop off ever growing stacks of legal documents. Owen explained that, the firm had just moved from its long time office on Spring Street to the newly constructed office building at 611 W. Sixth Street. Owen had a major closing scheduled for the next day, but the moving team had misunderstood his instructions and shredded all of the deal documents. This was pre-word processing, and the entire stack of deal documents had to be recreated and reviewed before the closing.
Somehow, Owen was in great spirits, and he refused to cancel the interview. I remember him saying that this was a deal in which anything that could go wrong had gone wrong, and this was just another detour. While I probably would have panicked in the same situation, Owen had a big smile and kept telling his secretary and the other lawyers popping in and out of his office not to worry and that everything was under control.
I would have accepted on the spot if I had already received an offer.
Owen was just plain fun, and he loved baseball.
When I was a young partner I went with Owen to a client meeting in Washington, DC. Owen insisted we take a very early flight from LA. No explanation.
When we got off the plane, he said we had to hurry to Union Station to catch a train to Baltimore for an important meeting. On the way he revealed his plan: we were going to see the Orioles play in their then new Camden Yards Stadium. We stashed our bags at Union Station and caught the “baseball train” to Camden Yards.
Of course the game was sold out and we didn’t have tickets. Never deterred, Owen explained to the gate attendant we’d flown across the country to see this very game and surely there had to be a few stray tickets available. Owen’s charm worked, the attendant produced two tickets and we were in! Only difficulty was the tickets were not together. Not an issue: Owen spotted several empty seats near the visitor dugout and we enjoyed (for a while) some of the best seats in the stadium.
We had an absolutely fantastic time together. Owen turned what would have been just another routine business trip into an adventure and a lifelong happy memory, one of many I have from my years working with Owen.
LARRY PREBLEWhen I was a young associate, I worked with Owen on a matter involving the Broome Ranch, a large and very valuable ranch in Ventura County. The original patriarch who owned the ranch had died many years ago and the ranch had been inherited in equal measures by his three children: Jack Broome and his two sisters. The three siblings did not get along. They all seemed to hate each other and there was a lot of family baggage that had nothing to do with the operation of the ranch. The dispute looked like it was headed to a very nasty and prolonged family fight with the result that the ranch might be sold to a third party and the proceeds divided. The siblings did not want to do that but they could not agree on anything else.
We represented the sister who lived in New Orleans. Initial meetings were filled with rancor and there was no progress in negotiating a settlement. At one meeting, our client made an inappropriate, sarcastic remark that was actually against her own interest. I remember that Owen, with some fanfare, got up and marched around to the other side of the conference table and exclaimed: “I think we just changed sides!” Everybody laughed and Owen’s remark took the sting out of our client’s statement. Then Owen came up with an idea. He suggested hiring an appraiser and a surveyor and instructing them to go out to the ranch and see if they could divide the ranch into three roughly equal parcels. Once that was done, Owen proposed having a drawing to see who would get each parcel. Because no one would know who would get each parcel until the drawing occurred, there was no incentive to argue. They all agreed. It was a simple and elegant solution.
Dividing the ranch into three roughly equal parcels turned out to be a complex process. There were row crops, citrus orchards, a very nice home where Jack lived, some vacant and mountainous land, irrigation ditches, barns, roads, utilities, wells and water rights and other important assets that were all integrated in the operation of the ranch. Dividing them all up into three separate and equal ranches was nearly impossible. We negotiated reciprocal easements for roads and utilities, management agreements for the crops and we created a mutual water company to manage the water and water rights. We instructed the surveyor and the appraiser to move the lines around until we got parcels of roughly equal value and we allocated cash to each parcel to balance out the differences. After a while, it became like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
When the time came for the drawing, all of the agreements were executed and in place to make everything work together. We put slips of paper with each parcel’s name on it into the hat and held the drawing in the main conference room at the Bank of Oxnard. By this time, the process had eased the tensions between the siblings and the event created a lot of excitement. Jack brought some champagne and we all gathered around for the drawing. It was a huge success! There were shouts of joy and hugs all around. A few years later, Jack bought out his two sisters and everyone was happy. The subsequent buyout was relatively simple because the values had already been set by the allocation process. There was nothing left to fight about.
No one but Owen could have pulled that off. He provided the leadership and found the solution. His easy-going style, grace and good humor were the grease that lubricated the relationship of the parties and got them focused on the future rather than the past. However, his easy-going style was often misleading; he could be as tough as nails when he needed to be. For a young associate, it was a very valuable lesson.
We loved Owen and spent a lot of time in the early days with he and Jan. Owen had a great sense of humor and joviality about him. He truly is a memorable man.
My relationship with Owen Olpin, of blessed memory, illustrates both his pioneering legal work, as well as his passion for mentoring young attorneys. Owen introduced and educated me in both oil and gas law and geothermal law.
His work in geothermal law was truly innovative. In 1968, Owen authored a seminal paper for the 14th annual Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Institute, entitled, "The Law of Geothermal Resources." As I wrote 23 years later, in the proceedings of the 37th annual Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Institute, in an article entitled, "Geothermal Law-the Last and Next 23 Years," Owen had a somewhat easier task than me, because when he published his paper, there was very little geothermal law to write about. Operating in this legal near-vacuum, Owen wrote, "We are now actually in the process of making the law of geothermal resources." He insisted that lawmakers, both legislators and judges, had a duty to formulate suitable rules to govern geothermal resources, which paid due regard to their unique nature. The subsequently enacted federal Geothermal Steam Act, various State geothermal statutes, and important case law all reflect Owen's influence on the development of geothermal law.
It was Owen who lobbied the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Institute in 1990 that it was time for an update of his 1968 paper, and it was Owen who persuaded the Institute to accept me as the author and presenter of that paper at the 1991 Institute. When I delivered the paper at the 37th annual Institute in Monterey, and saw Owen sitting in the front row, beaming like a proud parent. I felt simultaneously anxious and reassured.
By that time, I had been gone from O'Melveny for some six years. Owen's mentoring did not end when one departed from the mother ship. I also had the privilege, after leaving the firm, to co-author with Owen the chapters on geothermal law in the American Law of Mining, Second Edition. When I left O'Melveny at the end of 1983, he made sure that I retained my professional relationship with Noeth Gillette, a natural resources client whom he had originally introduced to me.
I vividly remember my first meeting with Owen. Around November 1978, as a first-year associate, and having just returned from a stint in the O'Melveny DC office, I opted for a rotation in the Real Estate and Natural Resources Department, and was directed to go see Owen to assist him on a new matter. It was early afternoon, and I walked into his office, but the lights were out and he was not at his desk. As I turned to go, I heard a jovial voice, coming from a sofa on one side of the office, say "Come on in." I had woken Owen from his customary afternoon nap. My enjoyable experience working with Owen during that six-week rotation largely determined my decision to join the Real Estate and Natural Resources Department.
A final story to illustrate Owen's humor and the warm personal relationships that he and Jan had with associates at the firm. In July 1982, my wife Laura gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. That prompted Owen to relate one of his favorite shaggy dog stories, about a man who gets into an accident while driving his wife, who is in labor, to the hospital. The man wakes from a coma three days later, and is told that his wife is fine, and has given birth to twins, a boy and a girl. He expresses regret at not being having been conscious to name the newborns on the day of their birth, a family tradition, but the nurse reassures him that his brother Milt rushed to the hospital and named the twins. "Oh no," he reacts, "Milt is a terrible practical jokester. What did he name the girl?" "Deniece," he is told. "That's not so bad, he responds, "what did he name the boy?" "Denephew."
Since Owen was not to be satisfied just with a terrible pun, some weeks later, Jan Olpin presented us with our baby gifts, two hand-sewn quilt crib comforters, one embroidered "Deniece" and one embroidered "Denephew."
I will deeply miss Owen, but I find solace in the memory of a life well-lived. I also realize with gratitude and humility that my own legal career is a tiny part of his huge legacy.
A gentle giant – professionally and personally. Always one with a warm smile and a story, and a funny one often at that. Treated all with deep respect and care, whether you were a longtime partner or a junior associate (the latter being my case at the time).
When we moved into 400 South Hope Street in 1982, Owen (the eternal baseball fan) made sure that there was a cable TV connection in his office so he could watch the Dodgers whenever possible. In 1984, the Chicago Cubs made it to the National League playoffs against the San Diego Padres. Local teams notwithstanding, EVERYbody was rooting for the poor, beleaguered Cubbies. The first two games of the playoffs were day games, and Owen made sure that none of the LA office baseball fans missed a pitch. He ordered up hot dogs and all the fixings from the lunch stand on our patio, and invited folks to join him in his office for food and baseball. There must have been at least 10 lawyers in his office at any given time throughout both games – I shudder to think what the collective billing rate of that august assemblage amounted to! The Cubs won those first two games, and we all had such high hopes….until they lost three straight to the Padres and dashed those hopes to the ground….. Despite the Cubbies’ disappointing performance, Owen created lovely memories for all of us who were lucky enough to be a part of his O’Melveny family – and it was a family.
Owen was such a lovely, gracious, and smart man, and so generous with his time when we rebooted the water practice. He led me straight to Buzz, and Buzz, of course, has been a remarkable friend and mentor to me and so many others, like Owen was for him. This is very sad day for the firm. I never got to do that hike with Owen in St. George, Utah. I know he loved his life up there.
When I was a nobody, he trusted me to do his estate planning. That meant a lot to me.
Owen always had a smile in his voice. After I retired from O’Melveny and began working at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles as a fundraiser, I encountered several issues involving real property and mineral interests, both in California and in other states. I knew could call upon Owen for assistance.
The best part of our conversations was that he always seemed to be thrilled that I would ask for his help.
My most vivid memory of Owen was from a partner’s luncheon at which he discussed his work on the unitization of the Prudhoe Bay oil field. He said that one of the interesting things about oil and gas work was the use of handshakes to seal deals, to be followed by written agreements. He noted that the Prudhoe Bay matter was much too big for handshakes. I believe he said that the unitization agreement contained more than one thousand pages.
Although I met and liked Owen upon joining the firm in 1984, I was a litigator and so did not get to work with him right away. When I was about a third-year, however, I had the opportunity to work closely with him when I was assigned to one of Owen’s matters that had generated a lawsuit in Bakersfield Superior Court. He made a big impression on me. His warmth and good humor were immediately apparent, but even more I don’t think I have ever met anyone who took such genuine interest in those around him. He truly was a happy warrior, one who could find joy even in dealing with annoying opposing counsel or in setting-straight a junior associate who had wandered into an analytical cul-de-sac. R.I.P., and my deep condolences to his family and many friends.
In the mid-1960s, Owen co-founded with Ted Calleton an O'Melveny back-packing group, co-leading three overnight adventures, in the Yosemite, Mineral King and Lower Kern River areas of the Sierra. He also co-led the group on several day hikes, including hikes to Mount Hollywood from Jack O'Melveny's Los Feliz home, hills located on Jack's ranch, and the top of Mount San Gorgonio. (Jack joined us on the first two-day hikes). Owen was enormously strong and energetic, and at the same time patient with the less experienced participants. And he was a wonderful partner and friend.
Nancy and I send our condolences to the Olpin family. O’Melveny is a truly a great and unique law firm only because of partners like Owen, whose caring, curiosity and brilliance set such a sterling example for the rest of us.
Owen was a very lovely, very special person. He served as a mentor and board member for the four young O’Melveny associates (including myself) who left the firm in 1971 to launch the Center for Law in the Public Interest. His skills at maneuvering through the conflict of interest minefields were legendary. He lent us an air of authenticity and dignity, and he provided consistent wise counsel. He always provided encouragement and praise. If he was not sufficiently old to be a wiser father figure to us, he was certainly the wise older brother that everyone would like to have. A dear person and a dear friend.
XUEYIN ZHONGMy sincere condolences are with Owen and his family, but I would like to say thank you Brad and Alumni team to keep connecting with me and making me still feel a part of the great OMM family.
MARK VAN WAGONER
It was my pleasure to know Owen.
What a beautiful tribute to a great man.
I have wondered about Owen, googling a number of times over the years. We had some great times together - he in LA, me in DC. I expect the remembrances will be memorable.