Happy Howrey adds Paris joy to US patent reform bill boost

US FIRM Howrey threw a bash last week at its Ropemaker Street office as a double celebration. Principally, it was to celebrate the opening of its first outpost in Paris, a three-partner, five-lawyer foothold based on the former French IP boutique Cousté & Cousté.

The firm’s expansion into Europe – pursuing its ambition to become a global IP, antitrust and litigation powerhouse – is likely to continue with a German office, probably Munich, within a year or two at most. Europe already accounts for almost 10 per cent of the firm’s $352m (£184.3m) turnover, so a buoyant Paris office and a German presence should easily see Howrey enter The Lawyer’s annual list of the top 100 firms in Europe next year.

The seven-partner London outfit is the most successful of Howrey’s four European outposts (as well as London and Paris, the firm has offices in Amsterdam and Brussels), providing almost half of Europe’s $35m (£18.3m) total contribution. London fee income in 2004 was £8.8m, up by £1.9m on 2003’s figure, with around 50 per cent of its work coming via US referrals.

However, the changing nature of IP litigation in London meant that Howrey reshuffled its European IP personnel in late 2004, moving London-based partners David Owen and Jacobus Rasser to Amsterdam. The firm then raided Linklaters, taking its Brussels head of IP Carl De Meyer as its first Brussels IP partner. Howrey managing partner Bob Ruyak told The Lawyer at the time: “There’s been a change in IP litigation in London. A couple of House of Lords cases have poured cold water on it. The decisions made it a little less easy to enforce patents and our clients are now more interested in Paris, Amsterdam or Germany for litigation.”

The extension of its international reach may help offset the gloom that will have been felt as average profits dipped from the $1m (£520,000)-plus mark in 2003 to $775,000 (£405,700) last year.

The other reason for last week’s party was the arrival in London of jet-setting IP partner and campaigner for US patent reform Bill Rooklidge. Rooklidge has spent the last week bouncing between Brussels, Tokyo, London and Paris in his capacity as American Intellectual Property Law Association president. He was back at Heathrow the following morning to return to Washington DC, where a ‘committee print’ of Republican congressman Lamar Smith’s potentially historic patent reform bill has just been distributed.

The reformers are attempting to throw out the US’s ‘first to invent’ patent system in favour of the European-style ‘first inventor to file’ approach. One effect of the reform would be to lower the cost of patent infringement litigation, as subjective elements of cases, including areas where treble damages are available, are eliminated.

Best-mode provisions, the inequitable conduct defence and the wilfulness defence would all bite the dust under Smith’s bill. The reduction in costs would of course see a consequent slashing of lawyers’ fees, but Rooklidge and the other US parties backing the bill, such as the National Academy of Sciences and the Federal Trade Commission, are determined to see it through. “Frankly, we’re working against our own personal interests in this,” says Rooklidge. A philanthropic lawyer – what next?

The legislative proposal appears to be on a fast track, with the introduction of the bill expected this May and with its enaction by the autumn in 2006. And with Rooklidge closely involved over the coming weeks in pushing it through, it is a safe bet he will be sleeping on the plane.