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Virgil Woodcock would often tell his colleagues, “You guys do the work, and I’ll bring in some more business.” According to longtime partner Robert Washburn, that’s the way things operated at intellectual property boutique Woodcock Washburn for the better part of its first three decades of existence.

Formed in 1946 by a handful of electrical engineers from General Electric, the firm, then known as Woodcock & Phelan, was a small shop until the patent litigation boom of the 1980s caused it to grow exponentially. When Dale Heist joined Woodcock in 1977, he was the only associate at a firm that had five partners and focused largely on patent prosecution work in the electrical/mechanical areas.

Today, Woodcock Washburn’s third generation of leadership presides over Philadelphia’s largest IP boutique. Nationally the firm is among the 10 largest. The 83-attorney firm is now evenly split between patent prosecution and litigation and lawyers with electrical/mechanical and chemical/biological backgrounds.

The death of senior partner John J. Mackiewicz in February 2001 was a blow for the firm. Mackiewicz became the firm’s first litigator and chemist when he joined as an associate in 1965. Within 10 years he was the firm’s most powerful figure and remained so until his death. He had overseen the firm’s growth tear that followed the IP litigation boom while also maintaining relations with many of the firm’s longstanding clients such as Crown Cork & Seal.

But the first seeds of change occurred in November 1999 when the firm lost one of its chief rainmakers in Philip Johnson, who left Woodcock to become chief patent counsel at Johnson & Johnson.

About the same time Mackiewicz died, former name partners Washburn and Norman Norris retired along with longtime partner Ted Preston. Only Richard Kurtz, who joined the firm in 1963, remains active from the old guard.

Even before Mackiewicz’s death, a new group of leaders began to emerge on the firm’s three-member policy committee – Woodcock does not have a managing partner. Heist, John Caldwell, Gary Levin, Dianne Elderkin, John Donahue and Steve Rocci became the new senior generation to take on firm and practice management responsibilities. Heist, Elderkin and Rocci serve on the policy committee, while Caldwell heads the firm’s patent prosecution practice, Levin the patent litigation group, and Donahue the trademark and copyright group.

There was some talk in the local legal community that without Mackiewicz to steady the ship, Woodcock Washburn could be susceptible to the same fate as many other IP boutiques – either closing its doors or merging into a large general-service firm.

Most recently, New York’s Pennie & Edmonds, one of the nation’s oldest and largest IP firms, disbanded, with its lawyers joining big firms such as Morgan Lewis & Bockius and Jones Day. Pennie & Edmonds was reportedly crippled by the death of its biggest rainmaker, Leslie Misrock, which subsequently led to the departure of its top litigator, John Marshall. While the new generation of Pennie leaders could not hold things together after Misrock died, Woodcock’s new leaders seem to have accomplished the task for their firm. But it hasn’t come without some potholes along the way.

Shortly after Mackiewicz’s death, eight lawyers left the firm to join Cozen O’Connor. First Camille Miller, Laura Miller and Brian Urban, who basically ran the firm’s trademark and copyright practice, made the move. And later in 2002, Doreen Trujillo, Mark DeLuca, Michael Straher, Paul Legaard and Gwilym Attwell, who constituted a major chunk of Woodcock’s biotech patent prosecution practice, joined their colleagues at Cozen.

Though several of those lawyers who migrated to Cozen O’Connor declined to be interviewed or did not return phone calls, several sources familiar with the situation said that group – mainly partners in their 40s – were not happy with their compensation.

“It definitely hurt our trademark practice, but we survived it,” Rocci said. “When you have people in your organization that are unhappy it becomes a distraction, and the best thing to do is for those people to move on. It was the best thing from them and for us in terms of cohesiveness.”

Donahue assumed the reins of the trademark and copyright practice – which has never been a significant group at the firm – while Woodcock also recruited new blood in partner Alfred Zaher from Saul Ewing to fill the void left behind by the Millers. And the firm feels confident in the progress of its next generation of partners, which include Henrik Parker, Suzanne Miller, Lynn Morreale, Joe Lucci and nearly a dozen more still in their 40s.

“I don’t want to say we weren’t concerned [after Johnson left and Mackiewicz died], because they built great client relationships and they trained so many of us,” Elderkin said. “Losing so many senior partners within such a short period of time is significant. But we have people who bring in just as much business as they did. And that’s why we’ve been able to survive. We haven’t relied on any one person to bring in business.

“We’ve evolved. Half of our partners have practiced less than 20 years. That’s why I think we’ve had a willingness to do things in new ways. And that’s really helped us move forward.”

Sources familiar with the firm said that while it did take a hit with the losses of Johnson and Mackiewicz as well as the Cozen O’Connor group, the firm has still held on to longstanding clients such as Johnson & Johnson and Crown Cork while finding some new clients. And no new client has had more of an impact on Woodcock than Microsoft.

Led by Rocci, Woodcock began handling patent litigation, prosecution and counseling work for the computer software giant in the 1990s, and had almost 15 lawyers assigned to the account when Microsoft asked the firm to open an office in Seattle. Woodcock obliged in March 2000 with three lawyers moving west to get things started. The office now has five lawyers, and Heist said it would continue to grow as the firm looks to diversify its Northwest clientele.

The Seattle move came just weeks after the firm broke off merger talks with Dechert. Sources familiar with the situation said that Woodcock management feared that it would not be able to keep its entire lawyer roster on board if it went through with the merger.

“Not all of our partners wanted to do it, and we just didn’t feel comfortable moving ahead because of that,” Heist said. “We are trying to be more centrally managed as a firm, but with something like that, there has to be consensus building.”

Woodcock officials said they continue to receive overtures but are not pursuing any opportunities. Law firm consultants say that an IP firm as large as Woodcock has very few options for merging into a full-service firm. Because IP is a high-end practice – Elderkin said Woodcock’s profits per partner greatly exceed $500,000 – profitability and revenue numbers must come close to matching. And with 83 lawyers, Woodcock would most likely be looking to join a very large firm – one with at least 400 lawyers. In Philadelphia, for example, the only firms that meet those criteria are Morgan Lewis and Dechert.

Though all has been quiet on the merger front for the past few years, the local legal community began to speculate about Woodcock after it announced in December that it had signed a lease agreement to move in to the planned Cira Centre near 30th Street Station. The announcement was made in conjunction with Dechert, which will also be making the move.

Heist said the only reason the announcement was made together was that the owners could not begin construction until they had a certain amount of planned space filled and that they needed both firms on board to make that possible. Even so, it has not stopped the rumors from swirling about whether the two firms will ultimately merge.

By moving from One Liberty Place to the Cira Centre, Woodcock will capitalize on state tax breaks offered because that area of University City is a Keystone Opportunity Zone. Heist said the firm would be able to better configure its space, which will be able to house up to 120 lawyers once the move commences in 2006. Firm management also said the site is ideal because of its proximity to academia. Heist noted that the University of Pennsylvania plans to convert the old University City post office into a science center.

The firm is also making a commitment to Philadelphia, though Woodcock officials say its location does not help with recruiting – despite the fact that it pays top dollar to summer and first-year associates.

“Philadelphia is a great city, and once we get people here, they come to love it like we do,” Elderkin said. “But unless they’re from Philadelphia or have some other kind of connection, it’s tough to recruit people who are looking at other cities like New York or Washington. So I think the only downside with [being headquartered in] Philadelphia is the city’s reputation. But we’ve had some good luck recently [with recruiting].”

So with the string of deaths, departures and retirements in the past, a new generation of leaders firmly in place and a new home on the horizon, Woodcock appears committed to a long-term future as an independent IP boutique. Some members of the legal community, though, still believe merging with a full-service firm is in Woodcock’s future.

“Woodcock got to a critical mass to survive, but ultimately, a firm needs a group of lawyers who can market their practices to survive,” said one partner at a competing IP boutique. “I think Woodcock still has some good people, but clearly no one with the cachet of John Mackiewicz. So we’ll see how they do.”

Ratner Prestia’s Paul Prestia said he believes Woodcock has emerged from a tumultuous five-year period in a strong position.

“You can’t lose people like that and have it not affect you as a firm, but I think they’ve stemmed the tide and moved forward,” Prestia said. “They’re still solid.”

When asked what Virgil Woodcock, who died in 1974, would think of what his firm has become, Washburn said his former partner would be amazed.

“He always wanted the firm to grow,” said Washburn, who now makes a monthly trip to the office. “So much has changed with IP firms that I don’t think he’d know what to make of it. But I’m sure he’d be pleased.”

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