After leaving the Patent Office Judge Linn rose through the ranks to become a prominent patent attorney in Washington, DC. Ultimately, he was in the right place at the right time, and he was fortunate enough to be recognized by the right people. He was appointed to the Federal Circuit to replace the legendary Giles Sutherland Rich. Big shoes to fill no doubt, but in terms of influence on the Court and impact on the profession few can compare to Judge Linn. He has, and continues, to carve out his own legacy as one of the preeminent patent leaders in the United States.
We spent approximately 60 minutes on the record with my iPhone recorder on, meeting in his chambers at the Federal Circuit, which overlooks Lafayette Park. Judge Linn recently took senior status, and lives full-time in Florida. He returns approximately every other month, sometimes more frequent, to hear cases. He will soon be giving up this office once the President’s appointments to the Court are confirmed. Judge Linn assures me he will remain active with the Federal Circuit.
When I sit down to interview someone I sometimes have a sense where things may lead, but inevitably interesting topics arise, sometimes based off a seemingly innocuous question. In Part I, which is below, I asked a familiar question: Do you find that the harder you worked the luckier you got? Judge Linn used this to discuss the importance of practicing law with integrity while managing to be a zealous advocate and without sacrificing civility. This theme carriers over into Part II of the interview and should, in my opinion, be mandatory reading for law students and associates. In fact, it is a good reminder for more senior attorneys who sometimes might lose sight of the forest for the trees.
Without further ado, it is my privilege to bring you my interview with a true giant in our field — Judge Richard Linn.
QUINN: Thank you very much, Judge, for taking this opportunity to chat with me, I really appreciate it. One of the things that I always like to try and do when I’m talking to folks like you is to get a sense of how you went from being the newest attorney in the country in graduating law school to where you are on the corridors, you know, one of the pre-eminent patent minds of our day. So — and I know you spent some time at the Patent Office so —
LINN: I did.
QUINN: — it’s a wide open question to start, so I’ll let you go whichever direction you might want to go.
LINN: Well, let me suggest we backup just a bit because there’s an interesting story that most people are not aware of as to how I got interested in patent law in the first place. I originally set out to be an engineer and then later on decided to shift gears and pursue a career in patent law. The seed for that shift was planted when I was in high school. I had an uncle who was a patent draftsman. In those days, the drawings were done by draftsmen. It was quite a process. All done by hand, nothing computer aided. One summer my uncle invited me to work in his office and learn how to do patent drawings. I thought, wow, what a cool thing this is playing with all these inventions, how neat that was.
I enjoyed it immensely and I had the opportunity to interact with some of the attorneys that would come in. At the end of the summer, I remember telling my uncle that I wanted to be a patent draftsman when I grow up. And he said, “No, no, you don’t want to be a patent draftsman, you want to go to law school and become a patent attorney.” At the time, I brushed aside the comment and didn’t give it a second thought. I was too involved in finishing high school and then went on to study engineering, which was my real ambition.
Along comes my senior year in college and now I’m about to go out into the cruel world and earn a living. It was then that I thought back to my uncle’s advice about going to law school and becoming a patent attorney. That’s what got me set in that direction. I wound up attending Georgetown in the evening program and worked in the Patent Office full time as an examiner. The combination made good use of my engineering education and my interest in the law, and I loved every minute of it.
I probably stayed in the Patent Office longer than most in those days. We’re talking about the late 60’s. It was quite common for young lawyers to work during the day either for a corporation or the Patent Office. Many corporations had local offices here in town. They were in part training offices for young patent attorneys. So it was common for budding patent attorneys to work for a corporation or the Patent Office while attending law school at night. The idea was that by the time you’re finished with law school, you would be ready to hit the ground running and go on to fame and fortune. That was my plan just like many of my contemporaries. But most who went to the Patent Office would stay for between a year and two years. I was there for three years. I really enjoyed it, and I met a lot of people there who were very helpful to me. I felt that was it was an important part of my education.
Looking back, I have often thought about that time in the Patent Office and to this day I don’t see how one can become an effective patent attorney without having some first-hand experience of how the Patent Office functions. And you’ve got to be there, you’ve got to live it and see it and feel it and that’s what I did. And that was an invaluable part of my career development. I feel a special kinship with the Patent Office, and I frequently go back and give talks to the examiners. When I do I always feel like I’m coming home.
LINN: After I left the Patent Office I went into practice. I was with a few small firms and eventually wound up in 1977 with a New York based general practice firm. I was in the Washington office. The firm had just opened the Washington office to focus on international trade matters. I had done a lot of work for the firm’s clients, principally Japanese clients, and the firm invited me to join as a partner in its newly established Washington office. I stayed there for twenty years and built the firm’s IP practice. Most of my work was in client counseling and litigation. In ’97, I was lured away by Foley & Lardner. Foley was looking for somebody to head up its electronics practice group. I knew many people at Foley & Lardner. I had a great deal of respect for that firm, and I thought it would be an interesting change of pace for me.
So I shifted over to Foley & Lardner and had a terrific time there. I was there for just shy of three years. But it was a wonderful time. I grew that practice from twenty one lawyers when I started to thirty four when I left. That was when I was tapped to come onto the Court. Now, in terms of how I got to the Court?
QUINN: Yes. How did that happen? I mean, how do you go from being a leader at a big firm like Foley to getting on a short list?
LINN: Well, I think everybody has a different story. One way to put it is that you’ve got to have the right experience and the right background and the right set of credentials when luck comes your way.
LINN: And that’s exactly what happened to me. I had a lot of experience because of the things I just described. While I started as an examiner and in the early days did patent and trademark prosecution, the bulk of my career was litigating IP cases. I spent about twenty years or so doing that. And folks seemed to think I developed a fairly respectable reputation around town and in particular within IP circles. Along the way I met a few people that later turned out to be quite influential. I met Senator Leahy from Vermont. He was a neighbor of mine in Virginia and he went to Georgetown Law School a few years before I did, so we had that in common. We developed a friendship that was and remains very special. Our wives got along; our children were about the same age and got along. And so I got to know him and he got to know me quite well. And it turns out he became chairman of the Judiciary Committee. That was quite a contact to have.
LINN: I also met his Chief of Staff, John Podesta, who became the Chief of Staff of President Clinton just before my name came up for consideration.
I also had done a lot of work for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation trying to drum up funds for medical research. In the course of doing that, I lobbied on Capitol Hill and got to meet the senators from my home state of Virginia. I can’t say I developed personal relationships with either of them, but I had met them so that I was not a total stranger to them.
Many of my classmates at Georgetown had become influential members of the IP community and also turned out to be valuable contacts. Herb Wamsley was and still is the Executive Director of IPO. Pat Razzano was at that time of the president of the NYIPLA. Hal Wegner was the head of the IP program at GW. And it was Hal who one day approached me and said, “Have you ever thought about the idea of becoming a judge?” I said, “Well, not really.” And he said, “I think you’d be a great judge. You’ve got the right temperament; you’ve got the right background.” And he said, “Let me talk to some people at the AIPLA.” The AIPLA had a screening committee, and I was invited to go through that process. Ultimately the AIPLA recommended me to the White House. All of my other friends then chimed in. I was humbled, but was passed over for several openings.
But shortly after Judge Rich’s death, my name came up again. This time it was the White House that reached out and it was obviously different. Something had happened and I don’t know what, but instead of my friends writing to the White House, the White House was now writing to me. One thing led to another, and I was fortunate enough to get nominated and confirmed without a great deal of delay. I don’t attribute it to anything more than knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time and having the good fortune to have luck come my way.
QUINN: Yes. Well, I’ve always found in my life the harder you work it seems the luckier you get.
QUINN: Do you think that’s a fair statement just generally? The world is a different world then it was when you were growing up or even when I was growing up, but that one thing seems to hold true. Many times people I interview will, like you did, say, “Well, I was lucky.” But I like the way that you said it – when experience met that luck.
LINN: Yes. You have no control over whether you’re going to be lucky enough to be recognized by anybody, but what you do have control over is how you conduct yourself. I remember a conversation I had with one of my law clerks about the seeming paradox of being a zealous advocate for your client while acting as an officer of the Court— presumably a more balanced position. His view was being a zealous advocate meant doing anything and everything you can for your client even if it means turning an adversary down when he calls at 5:00 o’clock on a Friday and asks for a three-day extension of time because he inadvertently overlooked a deadline date. My law clerk said to me, “Don’t I have an obligation to say that’s your tough luck, I’m sorry?” And I said to him, “There are all sorts of way you can play the game, but in my opinion there’s a right way and a wrong way.” And I said, “If you play it fast and loose like you are suggesting maybe you will win some cases that you might otherwise not win. And maybe you will score points with clients and maybe you will make a lot of money, but there will come a time at the end of your career when you’re going to reflect back on your life and you will ask yourself what do people think of me and what kind of a character do they think I have. And at that point it will be too late to change perceptions and you will realize that what you did was not right and was not in accord with the duty you have as an attorney to act with civility and professionalism.”
I’ve always conducted myself in a fair, balanced, and proper way. If somebody had asked me for an extension under the circumstances noted, I would feel perfectly comfortable saying fine, no problem, because I know that there will come a time, probably in the same lawsuit, where I might have to request the same thing, and what goes around comes around. You can win on the merits and you don’t have to win playing games with deadlines and things like that. So I’ve always conducted myself that way. I think that has made a difference in my career. In the course of practicing law you come across a lot of people either as clients or as adversaries or as simply colleagues, and people quickly learn who you are and what kind of a character you have and what kind of a person you are. And when luck comes you’re way it’s awfully nice to be recognized as a decent, upfront guy.
LINN: And I think in my case, people generally consider me as being straightforward and upstanding in the way I conduct myself.
QUINN: Well, they do even from my perspective. Maybe if we have time we could circle back to there. I always like to hear the confirmation stories, too, if there are any. But, since we’re on this path, what better evidence of what you just said would there be then all of these Inns of Courts all over the country named after you, the Linn Inn Alliance.
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