Photo by Amy Cantrell.
Routinely at the center of headline-grabbing disputes – calling b.s. on Michael Avenatti, taking on a U.S. Senator who dumped Covid-related stock, representing the City of L.A. in defense of high-profile class actions – the firm has grown from a one-office trial shop to a bi-coastal litigation power that’s home to a former U.S. Attorney for Los Angeles; the former head of the Tax Division for the Department of Justice; a former Governor and Senator; and a stable of prominent trial lawyers representing large companies including L’Oréal, Tiffany & Co., and CBRE, as well as start-ups and individuals.
As part of the management group for several years before becoming Managing Partner, Wesley has been an instrumental force behind the firm’s growth. “Over the past few years ,we’ve added some of the finest lawyers I’ve come across,” says Wesley. “Although the firm has been known as a prominent trial shop in Los Angeles for decades, the breadth and quantity of trial and litigation experience we now have on both coasts is truly second to none. But stay tuned. I anticipate big news before the end of the year and into 2021. In short, the best is yet to come.”
Wesley’s extensive efforts in growing the firm have not detracted from his own active litigation practice, which has focused on intellectual property issues in a variety of fields, from purses to video games to hip-hop music to photography to fashion, as well as helping to guide start-ups and emerging companies through both IP and general litigation issues.
“With my practice, it's always kind of a trip to bring exhibits to court or deposition,” says Wesley. “I just did a deposition for a case involving Atari where one exhibit was an old video-game joystick. The court reporter and counsel were kind of laughing, ‘How do you attach that to the transcript?’”
For Wesley, who can recall playing video games in the basement while growing up in Ohio in the 1980s, the case has a certain nostalgia. “They’re really fun cases, and they’re vital to businesses,” Wesley says. “Trademarks and copyrights are some of the most valuable assets of a company.”
Lawdragon: The Atari connection is interesting, tying your childhood to your career, but I’m assuming it wasn’t a direct path from one to the other.
Keith Wesley: No, it wasn’t. I was really just a normal kid growing up in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. No lawyers in my family. I always gravitated more toward the social sciences, history and English literature as opposed to math or science. I’ve found that’s a common denominator amongst a lot of litigators.
LD: What did your folks do?
KW: My father was a park ranger, handling security in a sprawling park area surrounding Cleveland known as the Emerald Necklace. So, he carried the gun and badge and sometimes worked odd hours. My mom was a teacher by trade and then, when we were growing up, she went part-time, substituting. When I went to college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. At one point, I was thinking of journalism, because I always had a knack for writing.
During college, my father retired from his full-time job and started working part-time for the U.S. Marshals at the federal courthouse in Cleveland. He would come home and tell us about the federal judges and, at the time, I wouldn't know the difference between a federal court, a state court or a municipal court. But it sounded interesting and got me thinking, a little more seriously, about law. So I headed to law school.
LD: When you decided to go to George Washington University Law School were you thinking politics, litigation?
KW: I was thinking more about becoming a traditional courthouse lawyer. That's what you see in the movies. That's what my dad was talking about when he'd come home from the federal courthouse.
LD: Did you ever go visit him at the courthouse?
KW: I did. Then, when I went to law school, the summer after my first year, he knew some of the judges there, obviously, from seeing them every day. So one of the magistrate judges [Judge Patricia Hermann] gave me an externship – a tremendous experience.
It was a really fun summer. It was unpaid, which was the unfortunate thing. So before I started, I went downtown and interviewed to be a server at a restaurant called the Metropolitan, which doesn’t exist anymore. By day, I'd be in court writing draft opinions for a judge. Then at 5 o'clock, I'd leave the courthouse, go to my truck, change into my waiter's outfit and spend the night at the restaurant.
LD: What did you do your second summer?
KW: At the beginning of my 2L year, after having externed for the magistrate judge in Cleveland, I realized, ‘Man, that's really a great gig.’ I was just starting to get really interested in the intellectual aspects of the law and everything was new. So I realized, ‘I’ve got to clerk.’ I sent out applications nationwide, focusing more on bigger cities. Incredibly, I got a call from Ninth Circuit Judge Ferdinand F. Fernandez almost at the beginning of my 2L year. He didn't even make me come out to Pasadena to interview.
We did the interview on the phone. I thought it went pretty well, despite being awestruck by speaking with a federal appellate judge on the phone, and apparently, the interview was acceptable to Judge Fernandez. I got hired really early on in my 2L year for a clerkship that would be a year-and-a-half or two years later. That meant I knew I was coming out to Southern California, and during the on-campus recruitment process the same year, I was able to say, "Hey, I'm going to be out here. I'm going to be clerking for this judge." I think that helped tremendously, and I ended up summering at Latham & Watkins downtown.
I was a summer associate there, then went back to clerk right after law school at George Washington University and started Latham after that.
LD: So you didn't have a pressing desire to live in L.A.? It was just the way the clerkship came about?
KW: Well, I did have a bit of Southern California fever. I had spent a summer in college in Orange County because a friend’s family had a business relationship with a manufacturer there and he wanted to go out between semesters and needed a buddy to go with him. I was the buddy.
LD: Tell me about Latham. Were you in litigation there?
KW: At the time, Latham’s new associates worked as generalists for their first two years. If you absolutely knew you wanted to specialize in a field like litigation, you could trend that way and try to focus your docket on it as much as possible. You weren't assigned to a department until your third year, though coming out of the clerkship, I technically started as a second-year because they gave me credit for the clerkship. So for my first year, I was technically a generalist, although I was spending about 80 percent of my time on litigation.
LD: Did that give you a feel for what types of cases you might eventually be particularly interested in?
KW: It really was sort of an exploratory process. Everyone at Latham was great. It was and is a top-notch firm, an amazing place. I'll always be indebted to them for giving me that opportunity, and I'll always look fondly on it. But as time passed, I started thinking I really wanted a smaller environment and smaller teams, more of a boutique environment.
LD: So how did you find Browne George Ross?
KW: At the time, I regularly played basketball in a men's league in Beverly Hills, and during one of the warm-ups, I was talking very generally with a guy named Gene Williams, also a lawyer, who worked at Browne and was getting a tremendous amount of hands-on experience, preparing an exam for an arbitration and then following up with an appellate brief. I said, “Man, you’re really doing it. I have no specific intention of leaving Latham, but if you guys are looking for somebody …” He asked around, and I came and interviewed, and really liked the feel, liked people and made the jump.
LD: How did the cultures compare?
KW: It had a totally different feel than Latham. I changed offices at Latham once, and it was incredible. You leave for the day on a Thursday and then you come in Friday morning, and everything is in the same place but in a totally different office, right? It's like they pick up your office and move it to a different floor. If you left a Kleenex in the corner, it would be in the same corner in the new office. It was incredible. I showed up at Browne, they showed me my new office and there was a guy sitting there working. He still had all his stuff there, and he was like, “Oh, today’s the day? Aww, man.” So I ended up helping him move out. Of course, that never happens now at our firm. With our evolution, the Kleenex is in the corner just like at Latham.
LD: What differences did you notice as you settled in?
KW: The volume and variety of cases were definitely noticeable, and the amount of responsibility. If you wanted to be in court arguing the big motion, the opportunity was there at Browne. You didn’t have to if you weren’t ready, but if you were, you’d be encouraged to. That was the big difference. The amount of responsibility was definitely a noticeable and welcome change.
LD: When did you start moving toward the IP cases in which you’ve become an expert?
KW: It’s funny. I never took an IP class in law school, I didn't work on any IP cases at Latham and I don't think I had an IP case when I was clerking. But shortly after I started with this firm, I started working with Pete Ross on a collection of cases for a women's fashion accessories company named Brighton.
I quickly learned that Brighton was one of the few fashion brands that still employs its own artists who are sketching out, with pen and paper, their own designs as opposed to doing it on a computer. It's a cool business. Anyway, they had a big problem at the time with knock-offs. They had these ornate designs that were very popular for a niche group of women and they were getting knocked off left and right. So they had to take a stand, and they filed a series of trademark and copyright cases. It was a very relatable fact pattern – ‘Here’s a jewelry piece, and here’s one that looks extremely similar’ – and it was a great introduction to the concepts underlying intellectual property. We had some great results. We went to trial a few times on those cases, and really developed some expertise. It was fun being able to speak with authority on a legal subject without having to always look it up. That was comforting.
After trying a case or a series of cases in a particular area, you really get to know what resonates not only with judges but juries, what types of evidence you need to prove your case. So, from that group of cases, both Pete and I continued to develop the intellectual property practice. Since then, I've continued to do some work in the fashion industry. I represent one of the hot teen brands, called Brandy Melville, another fun fashion and lifestyle brand named Tokidoki, and a variety of others. And the brand enforcement work has extended beyond fashion. For example, I recently represented the Estate of Steve McQueen in a couple IP cases, and I am currently litigating a series of IP enforcement cases for the video game brand Atari.
LD: Did you play Atari games when you were young?
KW: It definitely brings back memories of growing up in the Midwest, sitting in a basement playing video games. There’s definitely a certain nostalgic quality.
LD: You definitely found a niche.
KW: Not only are they fun cases, they're important to businesses. I mean to people in the IP world, I think it's second nature, but trademarks and copyrights are some of the most valuable assets of the company. Think about Peloton. Now that they have that brand recognition, you don't want anything else.
LD: No, you need a Peloton. I can see how those kinds of cases would be captivating.
KW: And you know, some of the best evidence that we find in these cases isn't from the files of our adversaries but just from the internet: seeing what people are saying, seeing if they're confused by one brand or the other. We also do consumer surveys in some of the cases.
LD: Those can be really eye-opening.
KW: You think you know what consumers are going to say, but you don’t always. We've surveyed everything from which songs drove people to attend Jay-Z concerts, to whether a certain trademark was well known in public to whether or not the existence of knock-offs causes consumers not to buy the authentic brands.
LD: What do you do when you're not at work?
KW: Well, I have two beautiful children and a brilliant wife. My son is 12 and my daughter is 8. I also have gotten into high-intensity interval training, and sports have always been important to me.
LD: Did you play growing up?
KW: Played basketball, played baseball. Still a huge Cleveland sports fan for better or worse, and the nice thing is that now, it’s so much easier to be able to watch your team anywhere. You no longer have to fear divorce by going to the bar every Sunday morning to catch the Browns game. Thank you, NFL Ticket.