Can you tell us about some of the biggest obstacles you have faced in your professional life – and how you have overcome them?
The biggest challenge throughout the 30-plus years of my career has been that of responding to constant change. I started out as a product engineer, but I re-evaluated this in response to changes in the career path for engineers in the 1980s and attended law school. After graduating, I joined a newly formed commercial litigation boutique, where I faced changes in the skill requirements – adapting to private practice and learning litigation skills. Growing Slater Matsil from two attorneys to more than 40 attorneys and agents has brought about its own host of changes. Finally, I have been an IP professional during a time when IP law has evolved from a relatively obscure practice to the trillion-dollar industry, which makes headlines daily. While constant change has been challenging, it has helped to shape my success.
What are the key skills required of any top-level IP litigator?
Paying attention to the details while always staying true to the ultimate trial strategy is the most important skill for an IP litigator. Patent litigation is a unique mix of specific legal issues and complex technical subject matter. Success often hangs on the nuances of a claim construction or on ferreting out specifics in the prior art. However, these details must be constantly vetted and evaluated against the backdrop of the story to be told at trial. While attention to details is critical, the details are merely data – they become useful information when they are organised into an integrated trial strategy. The best IP litigators I have known have had the ability to maintain both a specific and a global perspective when managing successful litigations.
You have previously worked in-house at Texas Instruments and have now co-founded your own firm. What changes in your management style has this necessitated?
During my time in-house at Texas Instruments, I was relatively inexperienced and hence did not have management responsibilities. However, I was fortunate to learn from excellent managers, such as Mel Sharp and Jim Comfort, who taught me fundamental legal management skills: keep the client’s goals in mind; mentor and invest in those whom you manage; and seek consensus, but be willing to make, and take responsibility for, the final decision. These skills have served me well in private practice – although now that I manage a firm of more than 40 attorneys/agents, I have had to adapt my approach to the different personalities and needs of my team members, with the goal of encouraging from each of them their best efforts and job satisfaction.
How do you expect the US patent licensing landscape to evolve in the next five years?
The biggest change in patent licensing over the next few years might mirror the biggest changes currently occurring in the tech world – rising competition in innovation from non-US entities. In recent years, the number of US new patent filings originating from outside the United States exceeded 50%. This means that in the years to come more US patents will be owned by non-US entities, which could significantly change the current patent licensing landscape. On the other hand, US entities – companies, universities and even solo inventors – are also innovating and filing patent applications at a record pace. All of this means that the patent licensing landscape is likely to become both more competitive and more lucrative in the coming years.
What three things would you say make a world-class patent monetisation strategy?
Good patents are obviously key to a monetisation strategy, both in terms of claim scope and validity. Equally important is the ability to communicate to licensees the value of the patents (not just their technical merits, but also their business value in terms of freedom to operate and access to new technologies, among other things). Finally, a world-class strategy requires patience. The process of vetting the patents and of challenging the business model of a licence are natural and necessary steps in a licensee’s evaluation of a potential licence. The patient IP professional recognises these are not obstacles to closing a licensing deal, but rather steps along the path. Seeking to rush this process can often result in a lack of trust, or a breakdown in discussions, or even litigation, the delay and expense of which might otherwise have been avoided.
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Steve Slater negotiates complex patent licences, technology transfers and alliance agreements, and represents his clients in related patent preparation and prosecution matters. He graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from the University of South Florida and received his JD cum laude from Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law. Mr Slater has represented both domestic and foreign corporations in complex patent cross-licence negotiations, which involve businesses, technologies and patent portfolios that span the globe.