OF THE MANY intriguing hybrids born of the biotechnology revolution, perhaps the most useful is a multicellular organism called the biotech intellectual property attorney -- a variety of patent lawyer with specialized expertise in biochemistry, genetics or pharmaceutical medicine. Like so many products of the gene-splicing age, these specialists have not been around for very long, but they are already having a profound influence on the course of the biotechnological revolution. Indeed, a biotech company can have the best scientists in the land, but without a good shot at patent protection all of that research may be for naught.
Who are these legal guardians of recombinant remuneration? Alphabetically speaking, they are for the most part MSs or PhDs who have subsequently earned a JD or LLM. Despite their substantial training in the sciences, however, the "new breed" is not necessarily more specialized than previous varieties of patent attorneys, says Irving Kayton, a professor of patent law at George Washington University Law School. After all, he notes, "By definition, whatever a patent lawyer deals with is 'new.'" But many more people are coming into patent law with specialties in chemistry and biotechnology, he says, as it becomes clear that living cells are to become a major source of patentable products in the 21st century.
In addition to having advanced degrees in such areas as biochemistry or chemical engineering, says Albert Halluin, chief patent attorney for Cetus Corp., biotech patent lawyers tend to be extremely well versed in one or several scientific subspecialties. This helps to ensure that their highly technical patent applications will stand up against competing claims.
"I once met an attorney who was already a chemical engineer but who didn't know much about polymers," Halluin recalls. "He had a new client who was doing some kind of work with a new kind of polymer. He had two books under his arms, and he said he was going to spend the next few days reading through these books until he learned it. Then he was going to spend some time with some professors, and finally he would start writing these patent applications." Even then, Halluin says, it would take some time before the chemist-cum-attorney would be proficient in patent law as it applies specifically to polymers.
How big is the future in biotech patent law? At least one New York law firm, Pennie & Edmonds, is already recruiting scientists directly from research labs and paying their way through law school, according to the firm's legal recruiter, Pat Stacey. "From what I'm hearing," she says, "biotech is going to be the big thing in patent law."