Wendy Marsh left McKee, Voorhees & Sease PLC after 15 years to help start Nyemaster, Goode, West, Hansell & O’Brien P.C.’s intellectual property group. By Duane Tinkey
Wendy Marsh left McKee, Voorhees & Sease PLC after 15 years to help start Nyemaster, Goode, West, Hansell & O’Brien P.C.’s intellectual property group. By Duane Tinkey

After handling several intellectual property (IP) cases for Nyemaster, Goode, West, Hansell & O'Brien P.C. while at McKee, Voorhees & Sease PLC, Wendy Marsh asked a friend at the firm why Nyemaster didn't have its own IP law practice. "I just always thought it was strange, since Nyemaster seemed to cover the gamut of every other specialty," she said.

The question turned into an offer from the firm for Marsh to help start a new IP practice group. "In fact, we wanted to be in that area and were looking for the right opportunity," said G.R. Neumann, a senior member at Nyemaster.

In December, when many companies were shedding employees or halting expansion plans, Nyemaster hired four patent attorneys to form an IP practice group, it opened a third branch in Cedar Rapids and is planning to expand that location into a full-service office.

The added depth and breadth of expertise, "combined with competitive rates at a third to half what you see in the money centers," are positioning the firm to attract more national and international business, Neumann said.

It has been a natural progression over the firm's 90-year history as it evolved into the largest firm in Iowa, with more than 90 attorneys. The growth has been driven by its clients, who are looking for a firm that can provide a broad and strong knowledge base to handle multiple and complex legal issues.

Growth in IP

With the dot-com boom 10 years ago, intellectual property such as software, trade names, and patents became more valuable for many companies than hard assets such as real estate and equipment.

Though most IP work has been handled by boutique firms that specialized in that area in the past, Peter Yu, director of Drake University's Intellectual Property Law Center, said in the past few years, more general practice firms on the coasts have been buying smaller IP firms or hiring a few key people to start their own IP groups. The Midwest seems to be jumping on that trend.

"The benefit of setting up your own department is that your clients can have a one-shop experience," Yu said. "They can go to one law firm and have different attorneys that can work together on their projects."

"It just seems like it's harder and harder to separate the specialties," Marsh said, "and it's merging together more and more."

Just handling an acquisition, said Rod Kubat, a shareholder in Nyemaster's business, finance and real estate department, "I will routinely use 10 or 15 lawyers within the firm in different specialty areas. Having to go outside the firm to have a specific IP issue handled was a bit of a detriment, and the clients were demanding more and more that everything stay within for both confidentiality reasons and because they're comfortable with us."

Iowa firms especially may have a vested interest in IP law as biotechnology and agriculture play a growing role in the national economy. Yu said Drake has been working with companies such as Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. to build its Intellectual Property Law Center, and Marsh said these two areas are where Nyemaster has directed some of its marketing efforts.

Entrance into IP

In the past, Nyemaster would outsource its IP work to firms like McKee, Voorheese & Sease, an IP boutique firm in Des Moines. Now, with four IP lawyers and another attorney preparing to take the patent bar exam, the firm is moving that work in-house.

The attorneys that formed Nyemaster's IP group "have the broad base right now to handle clients' patent, trademark and copyright work in any area of technology," Marsh said. "That was kind of the goal, to start the practice with people that could fill every area of technology and then we'll grow from there as the needs arise."

The lawyers hired have extensive backgrounds in IP law.

Robert Hoke, for example, boasts a resume that includes being the attorney to register the color yellow for sticky notes, which proved more valuable than registering the product itself. He was a former member of 3M Co.'s office of intellectual property counsel and has served on the International Trademark Association's board of directors. He joined Nyemaster's Cedar Rapids office after working about six years at Shuttleworth & Ingersoll PLC because, he said, Nyemaster offered him the opportunity to focus on his niche in IP and handle bigger and more sophisticated cases.

Marsh started as a pharmacist and found that her science degree fit well with patent work when she went back to law school. She spent 15 years at McKee, eventually supervising the firm's international and trademark departments. She was attracted to Nyemaster because it offered a chance to expand her client base just from the needs other attorneys had at the firm.

Further expansion

Nyemaster opened its Cedar Rapids office in December with five attorneys - three of whom are registered patent attorneys - in addition to its downtown Des Moines headquarters and four-attorney office in Ames. Nyemaster plans to expand the new office to 10 to 15 lawyers and is looking for additional space beyond its location near the airport.

The firm's offices in Ames and Cedar Rapids give the firm a foothold in major growth areas in Iowa, and they are located near Iowa State University and the University of Iowa, which tend to generate a significant amount of intellectual property, Neumann said.

Nyemaster also has an eye toward national growth, following its commercial mortgage practice, which handles a couple billion dollars' worth of commercial mortgages annually in all 50 states. "We really have decided within our departments to market against regional and national firms," Kubat said.

To do that, the firm has been hiring additional attorneys in other areas, including K. Dwayne Vande Krol, who was leading Deloitte LLP's tax practice; he joined the firm in January.

The firm also is investing in videoconferencing capabilities to help tie its three offices together.

"We're going to work real hard on communication and integration," Neumann said.