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Firm History

Burnham Brown, a well-known Northern California law firm, is more rooted in Oakland's civic and architectural history than any other firm, and can trace its practice back to the year 1899.

It began in a stately Victorian home on 871 Center Street near Seventh in then-bustling West Oakland, where for a time next door, citizens could purchase bicycles or have their guns repaired -- or seek legal advice.

Christian G. Rode sold and serviced the merchandise; his son, Walter, who assisted in the shop, also listed himself as an attorney in the 1898 city directory, passed the State Bar in 1899 at the age of 22, and began practicing law under the same roof - starting a legacy which would span three centuries.

Within a few years' time, young Walter had moved his offices to 1004 Broadway, now the site of the Trans-Pacific Centre.

In 1907, Rode formed a partnership with Roscoe Spaulding Gray, operating out of the Bacon Building, where the Oakland Convention Center now sits. And in 1908, when Gray entered the Insurance Commission of California, Rode assumed the reins of leadership in guiding the firm steadily forward. He would eventually move to the old Broadway building at Broadway and 14th, on whose ground floor Tully's Coffee is now sold, and then into the Central Bank building, directly across the street.

Walter Rode's two sons, Howard Schaeffer and Lincoln, both studied law and joined their father's practice -- Howard, in 1932; Lincoln, in 1942, following a five-year stint as assistant tax counsel for the California Board of Equalization.

From the 1940s forward, a number of firm name changes would incorporate additional partners: Henry (Cliff) Burnhill, Louis (Dewey) R. Weinmann, Louis (Hub) R. Moffitt, Arthur (Jack) Moore, Robert C. Clifford, Andrew P. Wolfe, David O. Larson and Herman A. Trutner.

Today's name partners -- Clark J. Burnham and Gregory D. Brown - both began their law careers with the firm. Burnham, whose grandfather passed the bar the same year that the firm's founder did, joined on in February, 1970 following service in the military as a U.S. Army Captain; Brown came aboard in 1973 as a summer clerk during law school.

Burnham's first office at the Central Bank Building contained, as did all the offices at one time, a wash basin - a holdover from public health measures taken in the wake of the devastating 1918 flu epidemic.

He remembers both Howard and Lincoln as being "quiet" business attorneys, and he notes, with a grin that both were "accomplished secretaries" who took shorthand - and that Lincoln, on at least one whimsical occasion, took dictation from another partner, Henry (Cliff) Burnhill.

When the time came to move elsewhere, Burnham discovered tons of old files coated with dirt in the dark dingy basement storage area, on natural ground enclosed by barbed wire strung between cement pillars.

As the firm continued to prosper and expand, its office moves throughout the city would reflect the changing business patterns of Oakland. From its humbling beginnings in West Oakland to its downtown addresses (at one time, also operating an office in Alameda), the firm then relocated, in 1974, to the beautiful Lake Merritt area, leasing the old University Club on 19th Street and converting it for commercial use. During that period, satellite suites were opened in nearby locations, including in the basement of the Regilis across the street. And Lincoln -- the last of the practicing Rodes - retired.

The firm moved to Kaiser Center and, in 1989, to its current home at the Wells Fargo Center on 19th and Harrison Streets.

The firm opened an additional Nevada office in 2012 to better meet the needs of its existing and growing clients with Nevada cases.

Together, Messrs. Burnham and Brown are guiding the firm dynamically forward into the 21st century, from their Oakland headquarters taking on litigation that spans both nationally and internationally.

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