Law in Contemporary Society

Going Forward

-- By EricSpeckhard - 25 Apr 2018

Past is Prologue

A few years ago, I decided to leave behind a childhood dream. Growing up, my family went on frequent camping trips into the Blueridge Mountains. On those trips into the wilderness, sitting around a dying campfire, I got my first glimpses of the unobscured night sky and, before I knew it, I was hooked. Over the next decade and a half, I tried to do all the rights things to become a Professor of Astrophysics, a position which, I had no doubt, would provide lucrative compensation and absolute freedom to research anything of interest. “Free time” in college was mostly spent assisting professors with research. When senior year came around and it was time to start thinking about post-college life, my decision had already been made—I’d keep on trucking to graduate school. Had I stopped to think if graduate school was what I really wanted, as my solid-state professor, who I ignored—what the hell did he know—had urged, perhaps I would have realized sooner that I wanted to take a different path. More than likely, though, I think I would have made the same decision regardless. The inertia of the past fifteen years wasn’t going to stop on a dime and, besides, what else was I going to do?

So off I went to graduate school and for a time it was great fun. But, eventually the excitement began to wane and, little by little, I came to realize that something was missing. I still enjoyed the subject, but it became harder to convince myself that what I was doing mattered to anyone outside the physics department. It didn’t help that my research focused on neutrinos, a species of particle whose interactions are so weak that trillions pass through our skulls every second without the slightest consequence. Eventually I came to understand that I needed to do something less abstract, more practical, and more impactful for real humans with real problems. I knew I wasn’t going to find that in physics and so, without a plan for what would follow, I left.

What and How to Practice

When I left my graduate program, I didn’t know I wanted to go law school. I was familiar with the idea—my father, brother and an unnervingly large proportion of extended family are all lawyers—but it certainly was not part of the future I had in mind. In fact, it took quite a while and far too many “What to Expect in Your First Year of Law School” books (Spoiler: it will be harder than anything you’ve ever done, but you’ll learn to “think like a lawyer”!) before I began to take the idea seriously. But, eventually, the idea of becoming a lawyer grew more appealing and I decided to apply to law school. Nonetheless, despite all the research, when I applied to Columbia, and even when I was accepted, I could not say that I knew I wanted to become a lawyer.

Even now, after a year of law school and hundreds of cases, I cannot say I know. Still, thank god, I’m a hell of a lot more confident than I was in September that I’ve made the right choice. Classes and extra-curriculars have taught me a great deal about the kind of law I want to practice (patent law), and even more about the kinds of law I don’t want to practice. They’ve also forced me to confront aspects of myself that I could previously hide or ignore—insecurity, impatience, arrogance. Most importantly, however, I’ve learned that figuring out the type of law one wants to practice and the type of lawyer one wants to be pose very different problems. The standard curriculum has been helpful in addressing this first question, much less so the second. This course, tragically, has been the only one in which that question has been even obliquely addressed and challenged me for an answer. I want to be a lawyer who improves people’s lives. I don’t want to miss the billboards addressed to me. I want enough and to know when I have enough. I also want to practice patent law.

The challenge now is in figuring out how to satisfy all these desires through one practice. In some respects, patent law strikes me as a very mixed bag—on the one hand I find the interplay between the law, science, and economics fascinating and necessary; on the other, the patent system (or at least a segment of it) fuels a culture of greed which has inflicted immeasurable harm on some of society’s most vulnerable. Finding a way to reconcile these aspects of the career will not be easy. As I go forward in law school I intend to take every opportunity to speak and learn from others who have taken this path, perhaps with similar misgivings. Columbia does not currently offer many opportunities, whether they be clinics, externships, or even courses, in this area. But hopefully, with effort, this will change. Students are already beginning to meet with the administration to ensure increased attention to this area. Even if Columbia itself does not develop, I intend to look externally for mentoring relationships and realistic exposure (thankfully, several other New York law schools do offer patent-based clinics and pro bono programs) to the consequences and difficulties of practicing in an area with such conflicting purposes. I don’t yet know the practical sacrifices or accommodations such a career will require. I know I want to work with people who value people over profit, people who are passionate about the way their work affects the world rather than their wallet. Whether these goals can be met only in private practice, or government, or “Big Law,” is a difficult question that I can only attempt to answer with help from the friends, colleagues, and mentors I cultivate. That is a process I am excited to continue and a goal that gives me confidence in my decision to return to law school in the fall.

Excellent. You have defined the problems correctly and are working on them, which is all that can be done now.

Only two industries in the world actually use the patent system, which offers long-term monopolies that are less useful than trade secrecy for protecting short-term market advantages that most businesses depend on. In seeking to deal with the moral quandaries of state-granted idea monopolies and their social consequences, IT and pharma pose qualitatively distinct questions. They might as well be protons and anti-protons, in fact, though one needs to get close to see that, naturally. Both do actually affect what they are collided with. As you decide how to practice patent law, those differences might seem important to you.

If you haven't happened to read this, a document now fifteen years old, it might interest or amuse you. It is not entirely irrelevant to the questions you have set yourself.

I mostly practice patent law only by destroying patents, or by writing amicus briefs in the Supreme Court on patent cases. Even when they are being bombarded, the moral difference between a patent on the FAT filesystem wrongly awarded to Microsoft, and one on the world's most profitable pharmaceutical molecule worth $84 billion to Pfizer can be felt at quite a distance. What I think and do is not what you intend to do yourself, I'm pretty sure, but we should talk more as you go about answering your questions.

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r2 - 01 Jun 2018 - 16:09:33 - EbenMoglen
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