Is it career-limiting to practise IP law?

This provocative thought is prompted by considering the careers of two prominent lawyers and judges, and comparing them with those of specialist IP judges. IP lawyers who become judges seem to reach a glass ceiling at appeal court level.

Baron Neuberger of Abbotsbury

Lord Neuberger, before he became President of the Supreme Court

Lord Neuberger, before he became President of the Supreme Court

IP Draughts calls as his first witness Lord Neuberger, the current President of the UK Supreme Court. Lord Neuberger has the necessary skill-set to have been a successful IP barrister, and in fact he has been involved in judging some of the leading UK patent cases of recent years. His scientific aptitude is demonstrated by a chemistry degree from Cambridge, while his clarity of thinking and writing can be seen in his judgments and speeches. When IP Draughts ran Lord Neuberger’s judgment in the recent patent case of Virgin Airways v Zodiac through the BlaBla Meter, he scored 0.15, which is a phenomenally good score. Instead, fate took David Neuberger to Falcon Chambers, a set specialising in property law.

A few years ago, IP Draughts sought advice from specialist insolvency counsel on behalf of a university client. The question was whether patents could be assigned to a spin-out company on terms that enabled an automatic reversion of the patents if the spin-out company went into liquidation.  This is a notoriously difficult objective to achieve. Counsel’s best line of argument – an assignment of a determinable interest – relied for authority on comments from Neuberger J in a non-IP case, Money Markets v London Stock Exchange [2002] 1 WLR 1150, where he said:

It does appear well established that an interest granted on the basis that is inherently limited on insolvency is recognised by the court. In other words, a determinable interest, that is an interest with a limitation until insolvency, is valid, see the discussions in Snell’s Equity, Underwood and Hayton, and Professor Goode’s book and the passage quoted above from Fry LJ in Ex p Barter, ex p Black, ex p Walker (1884) 26 Ch D 510 at 519–520. It must, I think, follow that an interest granted on the basis that it is inherently limited on some other event is effective, even if that event occurs on or after an insolvency.

A full discussion of this legal issue must wait for another day. IP Draughts’ general point is that Lord Neuberger’s stellar career has intersected with IP at various places, but he has not been a specialist IP barrister. Might his career have been more limited if he had practised at the IP bar? Would he have become Master of the Rolls and then President of the Supreme Court? Based on the precedents of specialist IP judges, IP Draughts wonders.

Viscount Alverstone of Southampton

Lord Alverstone

Lord Alverstone

IP Draughts’ second witness may be less familiar to present-day lawyers: Lord Alverstone, who was Lord Chief Justice from 1900 to 1913. His witness statement takes the form of a book of memoirs, titled Memories of Bar and Bench, published in 1914. Some years ago, IP Draughts’ friend Edmund Longshanks QC gave IP Draughts a second-hand copy of this book. Before his elevation to the Bench, Lord Alverstone’s name had been Richard Webster. Webster had a very successful career as a barrister, appearing in most of the leading patent cases of the day, and taking instructions from clients as diverse as Lord Kelvin, Thomas Edison and Florence Nightingale (and from leading firms of solicitors such as Linklaters). The summit of his career as a barrister was being appointed Attorney General, at which point he had to turn his hand to prosecuting criminal cases, including that of the famous murderer, Dr Crippen.

Dr Crippen

Dr Crippen

In his book, Lord Alverstone emphasised the importance to his career of not allowing himself to be typecast as a patent barrister. He maintained a broad commercial practice before becoming Attorney General. For instance, he handled many railway compensation cases (compensating landowners whose land was taken over by the railways) and was leading counsel in a Board of Trade enquiry into the Tay Bridge disaster.

Admittedly the world was less specialised in the late nineteenth century than it is today. But the lesson that IP Draughts takes from these two examples is that if you focus predominantly on IP law, you may find there are some natural limits to your judicial career, no matter how talented you are. IP judges in the UK seem to get no further than the Court of Appeal, while the summit of US IP judges’ careers may be to become Chief Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. It would be interesting to see a specialist IP judge in the Supreme Court of either jurisdiction.

2 Comments

Filed under Intellectual Property, Legal practice

2 responses to “Is it career-limiting to practise IP law?

  1. Agreed, Barbara. On your last point, I opted for the Bar at university, and had gone through the complete cycle of qualification, pupillage, become discouraged and left the Bar by the age of 24 (though I didn’t formally disbar myself until I requalified as a solicitor at the age of 30). That was far too early to decide about a life-long career. The Scottish system seems better to me, where everyone qualifies as a solicitor and then some later qualify as advocates.

  2. Surely your advice is not just for judges? It is career limiting for any lawyer to specialise too early. Of course, if you want to spend your career drafting and prosecuting patent applications for foreign entities, feel free to become a patent agent. However, if you are a scientist with a leaning for law you could do no better than follow Neuberger into a broader environment whether you want to be a barrister or solicitor (and quite why you should have to choose between those two options at such an early stage is another debate)

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