O. Yale Lewis, Jr.: Renaissance Lawyer
by Randolph W. Urmston '69
Yale Lewis ’69, does not remember hearing “Purple Haze” or “Are you Experienced” before 1993, the year Jimi Hendrix’s father, a retired gardener with an eighth-grade education, asked Lewis to help restore the family as rightful owner of Jimi’s music. It turned out to be very complex litigation, involving many defendants and multiple off-shore corporations throughout the world, but Lewis succeeded. After two years of intense and often acrimonious litigation, the defendants conveyed to the Hendrix family all rights, claims, and interests to “any and all parts of the properties described generally as the Jimi Hendrix Legacy.”
Long before the Hendrix litigation, Lewis had built a career and a reputation in Seattle as a lawyer who fights for the underdog, thirsts for intellectual challenge, shows dogged determination, and mines a deep streak of idealism. Now four decades out of Virginia, he has an active and successful practice applying these formidable talents to cases that advance the public interest and involve good and competent colleagues on behalf of worthy clients. “Actually,” says Lewis, “if you get most of these most of the time you are highly blessed.”
Lewis came to the Law School with his young family after graduating with an economics degree cum laude from Harvard College in 1962. He was also a veteran submariner, having served as a lieutenant, senior grade in the U.S. Navy on the U.S.S. Blenny (SS 324). That experience later helped Lewis earn as a client Tacoma Boatbuilding Company, whose CEO was a former submarine admiral. In addition to submarines and social service, Lewis had a strong interest in railroading — he worked for the Southern Railroad between his submarine service and Virginia — and urban planning, which he almost pursued instead of law school.
After his first year at the Law School, Lewis stayed in Charlottesville to direct Camp Faith, a multi-racial day camp for inner-city youth. Hundreds of campers from the area were lured by the swimming lessons at the simple camp’s muddy pond, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and inspired staff. The camp sat on red clay, much like what Lewis had known growing up in Alabama playing football, camping (he was an Eagle Scout), and working in cotton mills and surveying cotton acreage allotments for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Decades earlier, Lewis’s grandfather had almost been run out of Dothan, where as an elected official he had successfully resisted the Alabama Power Company’s efforts to acquire the local power plant and public utility. Worse for that time and place, he had represented a black woman in a contested court proceeding. For several months Lewis’s father and uncles (future lawyers) stood armed watch at night as the Ku Klux Klan tossed burning torches at the Lewis home and burned a cross on the family lawn. Such family lore, enhanced by To Kill a Mockingbird, Gideon’s Trumpet, and biographies of Adams and Jefferson — which Lewis read while deployed on the U.S.S. Blenny — contributed to his difficult decision to leave the Navy to pursue the law.
In law school, Lewis suffered from severe congenital sleep apnea (later alleviated by major surgery) and was typically unable to prepare for or stay awake in class. Nevertheless, he often descended into the stacks in Clark Hall, much like he had done on the Blenny at sea, where he teamed with another service veteran, classmate Harry Jennings, to win the Lile Moot Court Competition. In the final round — which involved conscientious objector status, an issue in which everyone at Virginia was keenly interested in 1969 — Lewis was selected as best oralist.
After graduating, Lewis headed west in his 1966 blue Volvo station wagon (still running) to clerk for the Honorable Alfred T. Goodwin of the Oregon Supreme Court, whom Lewis had met the previous summer camping in Oregon. While Lewis was clerking for him, Judge Goodwin was appointed to the U.S. District Court and made Lewis his first federal law clerk. Lewis chose well, and vice versa.
Lewis went on to practice with Davis, Wright, Todd, Riese & Jones in Seattle, learning civil litigation, corporate, antitrust, banking, labor and newspaper law, as well as handling divorces and drafting testamentary documents. But when local Native Americans stormed Fort Lawton in Seattle to prevent it from being surplused by the U.S. Government to the City of Seattle in the early 1970s, Lewis represented them pro bono in negotiating a truce with the City that resulted in the construction of an Indian Cultural Center on 20 acres. Lewis was also instrumental in forming and arranging funding for other groups to provide health and social services for local urban Indians. Subsequently, his work with Native Americans provided Lewis an opportunity to represent Arctic Slope Eskimos in a series of cases pursuing trespass claims against the State of Alaska and oil companies in Alaska. One of those cases, Edwardsen v. Morton, is a recognized landmark on the fiduciary duty of the Secretary of the Interior to protect the unextinguished “aboriginal title” of Native Americans.
Drawing on his interest in urban planning, Lewis also conceptualized a new form of quasi-governmental public development authority, for which he drafted authorizing and implementing legislation that he lobbied successfully through the Washington Legislature and Seattle City Council. In the beginning, he initially offered pro bono service to civic leaders who had successfully waged a campaign in the early 1970s to prevent the city from destroying Seattle’s legendary Pike Place Market to make way for urban renewal. Asked how he thought such service could ever pay his bills, Lewis says “I was confident that if I followed my interests, threw my heart and mind into those endeavors, and the projects I pursued were successful, the monetary reward would come in due course,” and it did. That same public development authority model was used to revitalize other Seattle neighborhoods and important institutions, for which Lewis became the “go to” lawyer.
In late 1974 Davis, Wright decided to create departments to which all of the firm would be assigned and from which they would get assignments and supervision. At the time, Lewis was strongly opposed to specializing, which he felt would unduly restrict his freedom to follow his own professional and social interests. On the other hand, he had a family with three children. After intense soul searching, Lewis concluded that he needed more independence than seemed possible at that firm. He thus decided, “ready or not,” to start his own firm and invited two colleagues, Jim Wickwire and Chuck Goldmark, to join him. Wickwire, Lewis & Goldmark soon became recognized locally and nationally as a leading law firm.
At Wickwire, Lewis & Goldmark, Lewis continued to create and advise public development authorities and pursued a widely-varied civil practice that included important environmental, employment, and antitrust litigation. He also represented Arctic Slope Eskimos in proceedings to reduce tariffs on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to keep well head prices and royalties high for the Natives. “I enjoyed that litigation enormously,” says Lewis. “It combined antitrust law, transportation principles, sophisticated expert testimony, and an important social component.” That case and another Alaska case — in which Lewis and the Attorney General of Alaska were adversaries — resulted in Lewis being hired to negotiate the State’s acquisition of the Alaska Railroad from the federal government.
Another major railroad case came to Lewis’s attention through one of his neighbors, a lawyer for the Milwaukee Railroad, who was concerned about the imminent dissolution of the railroad’s western lines. Management and the trustee of the bankrupt railroad wanted to liquidate the railroad’s western assets. A faction in the west wanted to do the opposite, and others, principally bondholders, wanted to dissolve the entire company. After “a number of long talks with my neighbor,” Lewis told him he would “see what he could do” to save the western lines. Shortly thereafter, Lewis was sworn in as a special deputy Attorney General of Montana with a commission to represent shippers, employees, and governors and state legislatures of states along the Milwaukee’s western lines.
Over the next year, which Lewis describes variously as a “spectacular quest” and the “impossible dream,” the interests Lewis represented and Milwaukee labor unions obtained a temporary federal court injunction against any additional liquidation of the railroad until the Interstate Commerce Commission had reviewed the situation. Shortly thereafter, at the insistence of Senators Warren Magnuson of Washington and Max Baucus of Montana, Congress required the ICC to consider three plans for the bankrupt railroad: (1) The plan of the group Lewis represented to preserve the west; (2) the trustee’s plan to preserve the east; and (3) the bondholders’ liquidation plan. Subsequently, following around-the-clock efforts that drew in part on Lewis’s experience with the Southern Railroad, the “western” plan was presented to the ICC along with the revised plans of the trustee and bondholders. The trustee’s plan and the bondholders’ plan each received two votes. The western plan got three votes. But, unfortunately, no plan received a majority, so the trustee who stayed in possession diminished the west until a western reorganization became impossible.
In 1986, Lewis formed Hendricks & Lewis with his wife, Katherine Hendricks. The new firm was recommended to the Hendrix family by a number of sources. Classmates Reed Wasson (who had also been a professional musician), Harry Jennings (Lewis’s moot court partner), and the author of this article also worked on that extraordinarily difficult but ultimately successful case. Wasson subsequently became in-house counsel for the Hendrix family.
The success of the Hendrix litigation and Lewis’s growing reputation led to other music clients, including Anita Baker; Johnny Mulhair, producer of LeAnn Rimes’s early recordings; the widow and siblings of Buddy Holly; Gene Vincent’s daughter; the widow (Courtney Love) and daughter of Kurt Cobain; and most recently George Clinton of Funkadelic and Parliament fame. Ironically, despite his professional success in this area, Lewis, who is not an aficionado of popular music and movies, is so indifferent to entertainment industry vibes and gossip, that Courtney Love took it upon herself to advise Lewis — facetiously — about the significance of events such as the Grammys and the Oscars, which she said he “really ought to become aware of and know something about.”
In April 2000, after many years of following wherever his interests and circumstances led, Lewis reluctantly decided that it had become necessary to focus the firm’s practice in order to credibly market its expertise. How could anyone believe that a firm of only a half dozen lawyers could do everything Lewis had actually done? The firm’s practice in copyrights, trademarks, publicity rights, and trade secret disputes was reliably interesting and growing steadily. Consequently, Hendricks & Lewis decided to concentrate entirely on those issues, and market itself as an intellectual property firm.
But the very next morning, after the unequivocal decision to work exclusively on intellectual property matters, Lewis received a call from a city council member who believed that a public development authority in the city was being misused to issue tax-exempt bonds for a massive private development in downtown Spokane that was owned by the city’s “leading” family, which also owned much of the rest of the city, including most of its media. In spite of his decision to become an IP specialist, Lewis simply could not resist helping the “rebel” Spokane City Council resist a mandamus action by the developer. In the first round of litigation, Lewis’s clients lost, but months later he obtained a unanimous reversal on a direct appeal to the Washington Supreme Court.
Lewis eventually returned to intellectual property. In addition to his well known music clients, he added software developers, patent owners, other song writers and performers, producers, media personalities, and photographers, including the Jonas Salk Trust, glass artist Chihuly, syndicated radio host Delilah, online games publisher WildTangent, and JACO Environmental.That is now his core practice, but if someone were to call about another public development authority, transportation, Native American, antitrust, or environmental issue, or some other challenge of serious public interest would he resist? And would it be good — or bad — for business?
Frankly, it doesn’t matter. Lewis has concluded that although his renaissance practice is more stressful and time consuming and, hour-for-hour, less rewarding financially than a highly specialized modern practice, it is also more stimulating and affords him the chance to test his mettle, help the community, and advance the profession. As he puts it, “I am rarely, if ever, bored, but probably will never be truly secure financially. All in all it makes for a good and interesting practice that I hope will continue for at least another decade.”