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.
As litigator for Alyeska Pipeline Services Inc., a consortium of oil companies enmeshed in legal claims stemming from its allegedly abysmal cleanup efforts, Olson shaped a "positively brilliant" settlement, says Frank McCormack, Atlantic Richfield's vice president and general counsel. While Exxon was hit with $5 billion in punitive damages, Alyeska's member companies, including Atlantic Richfield and Mobil, agreed to a $98 million total settlement.
Olson's litigation skills will have lasting effects, his peers say. He pioneered the use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and the mini-trial, earning a place in legal history, says Margaret Morrow, president of the State Bar of California. The concepts aim to reduce court time and expenses by presenting streamlined cases to decision-making panels composed of the principals for the parties involved.
"Big corporations began using ADR and became trendsetters, helping make it acceptable for small businesses and individuals to also settle their differences without lengthy, expensive courtroom battles," she says. Thanks largely to Olson, ADR has become increasingly popular in the past five years.
His ability to find inventive solutions for legal problems is not gleaned from books.
"Anyone can learn law," Olson says. But judgment is what a lawyer sells.
"It's putting the pieces together, judging how to shape a presentation and what to advise the client--that's what law is all about."
He believes good judgment is based on unimpeachable ethics and a wide range of interests well beyond the law.
Olson skis, swims, hunts, fishes, runs and plays tennis. He serves as a director, board member or trustee for more than a dozen institutions, including the Asia/Pacific Center for the Resolution of International Business Disputes, the Skid Row Housing Trust, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. And he chaired the American Bar Assn. committee that reviewed Clarence Thomas' qualifications for a U.S. Supreme Court seat.
With such a schedule, where does he find time for family?
Olson's eyes widen in disbelief. His wife and children are the most important, the best part of his life, he replies. They come first, he says, and they know it.
When the kids, now in their 20s, were young, he would pack a sack lunch and surprise them with a noontime visit at school. Weekends were spent together--no guests and no TV--at their little ranch near the entrance to Sequoia National Park.
And his wife, Janie? Well, words momentarily fail him here. "She has a lot of grace in her life," he finally begins. "I mean incredible sensitivity for me and the children and even people she's just met. I mean, I don't know how you become graceful, but that's what she is to me.
"We spend a lot of time together," he says, "but not enough."
They had grown up 10 miles apart. She knew of his high school football heroics and had watched him "cruise through town," she says. But they didn't date until their college years, after her older sister "handed him down." The wedding reception in her parents' back yard segued into a one-night honeymoon in a place Ron describes as "pretty fancy for us back then: the Holiday Inn in Des Moines."
Jane Olson's geographic path has followed her husband's, but her spiritual journey has been her own, she says. Nowadays, she frequently jets off on her own business trips, leaving Ron to fend for himself in the airy, U-shaped house set among lawn and trees. This week, she is representing the Commission for Refugee Women and Children at a United Nations conference in Switzerland.
Helping displaced people in such places as Serbia, Croatia, Armenia and Azerbaijan has become her passion, she says, "because few people know what is going on over there--and fewer seem to care."
Jane had been a Young Republican until marrying Ron and moving to the Ann Arbor campus. "Enlightenment happened there," she says, recalling long evenings of drinking wine and debating liberal politics and philosophy. Later in England, during Ron's Oxford University fellowship, she got an advanced education.
"I'd walk the pram into town, sneak into the back of a classroom, and listen to lectures until the baby fussed," she says.
As a mother of toddlers in Pasadena, she worked on Project Head Start. And in the '70s she helped start a children's art workshop that evolved into the Armory Center for the Arts.
But the turning point in her worldview, she says, came after she joined All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena and met its leader, the Rev. George Regas. His social activism gave momentum to her own leanings.
In 1979, Regas took her to lunch with Rabbi Leonard Beerman of Leo Baeck Temple on the Westside. They asked her to set up a conference called "Reversing the Arms Race." Its success led to an entire organization, the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race, which operated for 10 years.
In the mid '80s, then-ACLU Board Chairman Stanley Sheinbaum asked Jane to establish a California branch of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, for which she traveled to the Soviet Union many times. Then, a few years ago, a friend asked her to take a trip to the former Yugoslavia with the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, a branch of the International Rescue Committee.
She has since been lecturing, writing and advocating for refugees and such displaced people as the Azerbaijanis.
"These people have no homes, can never go back to where they used to live, but can't leave the country," says Jane, who recently visited that region. "They are packed into all the public buildings. There's no school, for example, because every classroom has about five families living in it. The burden is enormous."
The refugee commission is trying to address the special needs of women and children. "Most of the mandates for relief organizations are written by men for men," she explains.
"For example, we recommended they put feminine hygiene products into the monthly food relief packages. They'd never thought of it. But one of the most awful things for women in these camps is the lack of privacy combined with no sanitation or laundry facilities," she says. "And no change of clothes. Just think what that means to have only what's on your back."
Beerman, who has known Jane for 15 years, says her sensitivity to injustice takes her everywhere. "(She) acts out in life the moral values that come from her sense of herself as a Christian, an American and a citizen of the world. That means there are very few boundaries to her conscience."
For all her humanitarian work, Jane laughingly labels herself "a housewife" because that's the job she held the longest and loved the most.
"The women's movement would hate me," she says. "I'm a crazy woman who loved everything about parenting," from packing lunches to playing Girl Scout leader and "soccer team mom." She also loves cooking, baking bread and pies, gardening, entertaining and writing letters. "I even knit," she says with a laugh, pointing to a basket of wool and needles in the infamous kitchen.
"I just wanted to be home to raise the children," she says of her decision not to work even in the couple's early lean years, "to make sure we could all sit down together every night when Ron came home."
She was insistent about that. If he worked late, she would give the kids a healthy snack, bathe them and help them with their homework, she says. When Dad arrived, dinner was served and never interrupted by TV or ringing phones.
That world survives in the happy, wholesome photos of the Olson Five, appearing on Christmas cards each year. Amy, 23, is a University of Michigan graduate who works for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C.; Steven, 26, is a law student at Michigan, and Kristin, 28, is a Harvard graduate who works for a private foundation.
"They're very close to each other, and they're our best friends," Jane says. "We just made plans with them for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They've chosen to spend time with us. I think it's because when they were little, we chose to spend time with them."
Amy agrees. Asked what makes her parents so exceptional, she says: "It's the Iowa in them."
If only life here were as uncomplicated as it was there.
If she has one frustration, Jane says, bursting into tears, it's that "there's so much competition for our time. We try to get away alone as much as possible . . . but. . . ."
Ron picks up where she leaves off: "It's hard for either of us to decline meaningful, rewarding work. I mean, doing something beneficial in the world. . . . But it crowds our lives, so we have to struggle to find time for each other and for reflection."
The Olsons have a goal: to find an important project they can share. With Jane's international peace work and Ron's expertise in dispute resolution, he says, "we keep thinking we could bring those two areas together in a way that can be meaningful."
Ron: "A great issue like population control, for example, that we could get excited about and learn about and continue to grow together."
Jane: "And all the kids would want to get involved, because that fits their interests too."
Ron: "Wouldn't that be a really nice way to round out our lives?"
Jane and Ron Olson
Ages: Jane, 52; Ron, 53.
Natives?: No; born in Iowa, living in Pasadena.
Family: Three grown children.
Passions: Community work, sports, friendships, each other.
Jane on Pasadena: "We moved here because it seemed more like the Midwest to us. An established community where the churches and schools were really community centers, where families tended to stay for generations and children always come back."
Ron on pro bono work: "There's a trusteeship individuals assume when they become lawyers. That is to help make the justice system work. Unless more people get adequate legal help, it's not going to work. Pro bono is part of the responsibility you incur when you take on your license to practice law."
Jane on Ron: "He's not involved in satisfying his own ego. He's absolutely without ego."
Ron on Jane: "I find her even more exciting today than when I first met and married her."