What led you to a career in intellectual property – and what advice do you have for anyone considering following the same path?
The field of intellectual property changes and grows in challenging and creative ways. I enjoy seeing new technologies and the ingenuity behind them. I wanted to use my engineering, business and legal backgrounds to be a part of this, as well as being a part of a field that builds businesses, grows and makes contributions to economies, and creates opportunities and jobs for individuals locally, nationally and globally. I believe that intellectual property has a strong impact on national, regional and international economies.
How is Womble Bond Dickinson looking to secure its legacy and build the next generation of world-class lawyers?
Womble Bond Dickinson recruits high-quality attorneys and builds its practice strategically to make long-term contributions to the communities and regions it serves. It has an important role in helping local economies and communities be served with outstanding legal services, on both a commercial and a pro bono basis, in a way that really distinguishes it as a leading global law firm. It spends a lot of time recruiting world-class lawyers, but also mentoring and developing younger lawyers – to help it to be this type of law firm, and to personify these qualities through its practices, integrity and leadership.
How do you build trust and understanding with clients to ensure that they make the most informed IP decisions?
I believe that trust involves two major aspects: possessing the skills to be able to deliver what you say you are going to deliver, and the integrity and character to execute and keep those promises. Trust can be built instantly when you are able to execute like this. Some challenging and interesting characterisations about the IP practice are that some of the actions that you take (1) are highly confidential and (2) take years to see the results or fruitions of. For example, the filing and examination of a single patent application by a government body (eg, the US Patent and Trademark Office) can take two to three years before you get a patent granted in some countries and regions (if ever). Therefore, it takes a lot of patience on the behalf of clients to see that investment pay off. Similarly, when dealing with confidential information, or planning a strategy that is behind the scenes or confidential, you want to ensure that it is executed in a way that gets results on behalf of the client – but the results may take a long period of time to develop.
As managing partner at the firm’s Houston office, what does inspiring leadership look like to you?
Inspiring leadership means serving others in our Houston office so that they trust and look to you to guide and steer the office, firm, legal practices, careers and opportunities in a way that is in the best interest of those individuals and of the firm as a whole. Those are not opposites. They should actually align, and attorneys and other personnel should also be able to see that alignment in a manner that really does grow and create opportunities for everyone involved.
What impact – if any – is the climate crisis having on the licensing and SEP ecosystem?
In terms of the climate change perspective and the associated environmental concerns, various patent offices are starting to recognise a need to prioritise patent prosecution based on the environmental impact of the technology for which patents are sought. As an example, the US Patent and Trademark Office has recently implemented procedures to fast-track or move applications for priority examination based on the environmental contributions of that technology. I think that one way is to hasten the issuance of patents which help increase the economic impact of those technologies being patented. In terms of the licensing aspect, I think that a much more vibrant ecosystem has arisen as a result of the climate change aspects to push forward technologies towards commercialisation in a more accelerated way than we have seen previously, and these actions are a result of companies looking for technologies that can help contribute to reduction of emissions that harm the environment or the like. We have also seen that various government actions, such as in terms of the Infrastructure Act and the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States, have increased a focus on getting to market the type of technologies that have a positive impact on the environment and reduce climate impact; increased licensing and other kinds of development activities are results of these pushes, government incentives and investor pushes. In terms of the SEP ecosystem, a lot of companies are moving towards SEP-type arrangements for these advanced technologies to be able to share and license platforms across companies based on standards that help move these technologies towards more commercialisation. Battery and electric-vehicle technologies are examples where we start to see some significant movement in that direction.
How have client demands changed over the course of your career?
I have seen client demands increase dramatically in terms of speed and quality. I started my career back when the dinosaurs were still roaming the earth, and we were using typewriters and copy machines in ways that we no longer use today. We’ve now moved into the computer and smartphone eras, where facsimiles and many other types of technology are dated. We transitioned through that to email and texts, and now increased use of video meetings, and the speed and demands of clients have highly increased – for example, “we want it by the end of the day”. I also think, in the same vein, that we are more productive – and have to be. There is a bit of a trade-off though: we are able to turn around documents faster because we have enhanced communications and word-processing tools that we did not have previously.
Given that business leaders are not always conversant in intellectual property, what tips can you share for engaging – and ensuring buy-in from – key stakeholders?
I think that it is important to understand the value of intellectual property and how it can contribute to a business strategy. I do not believe that intellectual property is the end-all for a business, and not necessarily a goal in and of itself. I think that what it does, however, is help protect valuable intellectual assets of a business in a way that impacts commerce. If intellectual property can be used to help a business create barriers of entry or be a source of quality identification, or otherwise distinguish itself among its competitors, it becomes a really effective and valuable business tool. Trying to explain that to business leaders, and how that impacts their business, can be difficult at times, but must be clarified early in the relationship. Once they see and grasp that value in a manner that plays out, either by protecting assets from competitors or using those assets to license or be sold and extract value, lightbulbs often go off, which will help that executive then and throughout their career. This can be significant for companies, as many of my colleagues and readers of this publication will readily appreciate.
You work across both the energy and high-tech industries – what challenges does this throw up and how have you overcome them?
I do not look at it as too much of a challenge. I look at it more as an opportunity. I think that high tech impacts energy. I think that there are so many ways that energy has moved into the high-tech sector through its communications, controls, software, data, data analytics and improved technologic breakthroughs, that it ripples throughout the energy industry of various sorts. The energy industry is a broad swathe that includes power, oil and gas, biofuels, solar, wind, hydrogen, nuclear, hydroelectric and geothermal, among others. When we understand the depth and breadth of energy, it is easier to see how high tech readily dovetails into that. Having good high-tech knowledge and understanding can enhance the practice in the energy industry itself.
If you could make one change to the current US transactions space, what would it be and do you think it is likely to happen?
I would probably like to see artificial intelligence (AI) tools and software become much more practical and efficient at a significantly lower cost. We say that we have moved into AI tools effectively, but I do not think that we are there yet. I still think that there is room for significant improvement, but these improvements may be years away before we really develop tools where agreements can be processed, revised and drafted even faster and more efficiently – yet thoroughly – without missing key points. If I could change that transaction space, it probably would be to enhance the tools even further. I do think that we have made headway over the years, but we have got a lot more room to go.
What are some of the biggest changes that you have seen to the way that data is viewed over the course of your career?
This is an interesting question! I think data has gone from just numbers, information and tables to a powerful intellectual asset. The way we view and study data today is significantly different from decades ago, or even just a few years ago. Today, we are able to slice and reformat data, share data as an intellectual asset, mine data and look at it like we have never done previously in my career. Processing speed, access speed and communication speed have been breakthroughs that have made this possible.
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Jeffrey Whittle provides almost three decades of legal experience to clients in energy and high-tech industries. He advises national and international clients on strategic and complex technology transactions, joint ventures, licensing, patent protection, portfolio analysis, and other contentious and transactional IP matters, including inter partes re-examinations, post-grant reviews and derivation proceedings. Mr Whittle is head of Womble Bond Dickinson’s Global Energy and Natural Resources Industry Sector and head of the Energy IP Sub-sector. He also serves as managing partner of the firm’s Houston office.