Is having lawyers who are also engineers a good thing, or does it just amplify the problem?
Lawyers seem to be like so many things in life: we can't live with them, and can't live without them. What reminded me of this was the promotional material from a major Washington DC-based law firm at the recent, excellent TechConnect World Conference & Expo in Boston. The firm, which specializes in IP (intellectual property) issues, boasted that they have over 100 lawyers, and that over half of them have doctoral degrees in hard-science or engineering disciplines (the firm's name is not important, so we'll leave it out).
So, should I be impressed, scared, or angry?
[I could quote from Shakespeare's from Henry the Sixth, Part 2 (Act 4, Scene 2), "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," but that would be a cheap shot—plus, it is spoken by Dick, a fairly unsavory character.]
On one side, patents and general protection of IP (even as trade secrets) are very important to the growth of our industry, for both financial and pride-of-ownership reasons. On the other side, it's not news that lawyers can gum things up, that large companies can use lawyers to bludgeon smaller ones, and that cases with little or no merit can cause enormous financial burden and management distractions (often, that's their intended impact).
Looking back over the years, some of the legal cases in our industry are beginning to sound like lawsuit of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce in Charles Dicken's novel Bleak House, which has gone on for so long that it has bankrupted the participants, and no one is really sure what it is about anymore, anyway. (You can start your own long-running legal-battle list, starting with Rambus and Microsoft.)
But what really has me ambivalent is that so many of the lawyers at top IP firms are highly educated technologists. That's good in a way, since that means they are very likely to understand what their clients are talking about.
But it is also bad since we—our society—have invested a lot of money and opportunity cost in getting these folks to their Ph.D.s—and for what? Is this the best use of such an expensive, highly trained, and presumably skilled human resource? Do we instead need more genuine innovation and innovators, and less lawyering? Or does such knowledgeable legal assistance actually promote appropriate ownership of IP, and the associated long-term benefits?
My answer is easy: I just don't know. The only thing I am pretty sure of is that the answer is not sharply good/bad, or black and white; it undoubtedly has many shades of grey, along with examples and counterexamples.
Meanwhile, I'll take some solace in this recent article from The Wall Street Journal, which says that the oversupply of new lawyers is forcing many of them to take low-level, temporary jobs doing legal "dog work", and for not much more than minimum wage. Is this some manifestation of karma, payback, or "poetic" justice? I can tell you this: I am not feeling much sympathy for them, on this news.
What's your view on lawyers and innovation? ◊