Fenwick is mourning the passing of William A. “Bill” Fenwick, the firm’s visionary leader and co-founder, who launched the firm with a focus on technology and innovation and set it upon a lasting foundation of respect for the dignity of all people. He died on October 4, 2021, in Palo Alto, Calif. at age 83.
Bill envisioned early on that technology would democratize information and transform how law would be practiced. As a law student in the mid-1960s, he worked the night shift in a computer operations center to support his young family. As he learned computing, he realized the power of information technology to disrupt the structures of society.
A few years later, with great confidence in his co-founders and his vision, he left a Wall Street firm to move across the country to start a law practice near the technology innovations emerging in Silicon Valley in 1972. Together they launched a practice that would partner with the innovators behind new technologies to reshape business, economy and society.
As managing partner, Bill helped steer the firm through early phases of growth. There was a time when the partners shared a single office, swapping out nameplates and diplomas on the wall, depending on who was using it for clients. In 1976, he met with the young founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to incorporate Apple Computer. Working with Apple, he developed what became the first shrink-wrap license.
Bill’s leadership was deeply informed by his personal experiences. He worked hard his entire life, rising from humble beginnings as the son of an itinerant sharecropper in western Kentucky, to become the first in his family to attend college and then go on to law school at Vanderbilt University.
Bill was a champion of civil rights, diversity and inclusion from his undergraduate days as student body president at Southern Illinois University, taking on then-controversial issues, including supporting student involvement in racial integration initiatives and investigating allegations of mistreatment of student athletes.
His convictions carried through the entirety of his legal career. He believed in an egalitarian culture that upheld the highest standards of mutual respect. He cultivated an environment where people had freedom to pursue their professional destinies while balancing those pursuits with responsibility to the firm as a whole. Bill’s values form the basis of the firm’s culture. As one partner put it, “The firm respects the individual and the individual respects the firm.” These foundational values still guide the firm’s culture today.
Bill litigated major cases, innovated methods of protecting intellectual property and structuring technology transactions, took on leadership roles in public policy and legal industry debates regarding privacy and technology issues, and counseled multiple generations of entrepreneurs in high technology and life sciences. He traveled, spoke and wrote extensively on technology law, testified before various federal and state legislative committees and contributed to drafting changes to proposed legislation on privacy and information handling.
In 2001 he received the Bernard E. Witkin Award from the California Judicial Council for his service in advising the council and the courts on the use of information technology. In 2015 he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by The American Lawyer magazine.
Bill remained close to the firm and held the title of Partner Emeritus at the time of his death, nearly 50 years after the firm’s founding. Fenwick is proud to bear his name and carry on his vision and legacy—as a firm driven to understand the technologies and industries of our clients, and to embrace technology and an entrepreneurial approach in the practice of law. Fenwickians also cherish the egalitarian and respectful culture imparted through his values.
At the family’s request, any gifts in Bill’s honor should be made to Pursuit of Excellence, a charity that he supported that provides scholarships and mentoring to first-generation college students applying from local high schools.