A portrait of a man wearing thick, black glasses and a half-smile hangs beside an ornate grandfather clock that belonged to him and his father, ticking steadily.
A. Donham Owen gave up his patent practice shortly before his death four decades ago. But the firm he started in 1933 lives on with his son and grandson, who display his heirlooms in the lobby of San Francisco's Owen, Wickersham & Erickson.
Through three generations, the intrigue of intellectual property work -- and the satisfaction of practicing in their own small shop -- has never faded for the men of the Owen family.
"A lot of lawyers burn out early," said A. Donham's son, Melville, 80, who was at the helm for nearly a half-century before passing control of the firm to his son, Gregory. "But with trademarks, you are dealing with something new and protecting it and watching it grow."
Owen, Wickersham & Erickson has become something of an anachronism. The corps of classic San Francisco firms with which it emerged have gone global or extinct, with few exceptions. Yet as it celebrates its 80th anniversary, the nine-lawyer shop carries on, serving a mix of startups and Fortune 500 clients and regularly rejecting merger overtures from large national firms looking to plant a flag in San Francisco.
Its survival, coupled with its heritage, sets it apart. Although there have been a number of prominent examples of family-owned firms in the Bay Area -- including the Law Offices of Joseph L. Alioto and Angela Alioto and Hersh & Hersh -- IP lawyers are hard-pressed to name another clan like the Owens in their space.
There are lineages to be found in the histories of several native San Francisco firms, such as the Sutros of what was then Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro or the Townsends of the firm formerly known as Townsend and Townsend and Crew. But the anti-nepotism rules that became popular later in the 20th century have cut some of those family trees short. Lawrence Townsend, counsel at Owens, Wickersham & Erickson, is a fourth-generation IP specialist, but he could not join his family's firm, Townsend and Townsend and Crew. His office, like Gregory "Greg" Owen's, is furnished with his grandfather's desk.
The Owens have practiced IP law since before the term was coined, Greg noted, and their firm brought one of the field's defining cases. In 1980 name partner Robert Wickersham argued Diamond v. Diehr before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning a 5-4 ruling holding that a machine controlled by a computer program could be patented. The ruling is often cited in modern-day cases before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court as justices wrestle over what is patentable, said Michael Jacobs, co-founder of Morrison & Foerster's intellectual property practice group.
As Edward Reines, an IP partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, puts it: "Their firm was at the forefront of patent litigation before everybody got involved in patent litigation."