©2019. Published in Landslide, Vol. 11, No. 6, July/August 2019, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.
The ABA Section of Intellectual Property Law’s Mark T. Banner Award is presented to an individual or individuals who have made an impact on intellectual property (IP) law and/or practice. Winners of this award have expressed a clear passion and enthusiasm for, and advanced the practice, profession, and/or substance of, IP law through extraordinary contributions to, among other things, teaching, scholarship, innovation, legislation, advocacy, bar or other association activities, or the judiciary.
Robert (Bob) A. Armitage is a consultant on IP strategy and policy issues and a member of the board of directors for the American Intellectual Property Law Education Foundation.
Bob Armitage completed a decade of service as Senior Vice President and General Counsel for Eli Lilly and Company in 2012. Prior to joining Lilly, he spent six years as a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Vinson & Elkins LLP (V&E) and 10 years as chief intellectual property counsel for The Upjohn Company. He has held numerous leadership positions in the IP bar, including as chair of the ABA Section of Intellectual Property Law (ABA-IPL). He served as president of both the American Intellectual Property Law Association (AIPLA) and the Association of Corporate Patent Counsel. From 2009 to 2014, he was a member of the Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy to the U.S. Department of State.
Bob Armitage has worked tirelessly over decades to improve the patent law system of the United States, including writing and speaking extensively to support patent reform. His leading efforts with the ABA-IPL Section, AIPLA, and Intellectual Property Owners Association, among others, shaped the consensus that produced the America Invents Act—the most significant change in U.S. patent law since 1836.
In addition to his numerous awards for his contributions in IP law, he was inducted into the National Center for State Courts’ Warren E. Burger Society in recognition of his contribution to its mission to advance the administration of justice.
Bob Armitage received his JD from the University of Michigan Law School and has a BA degree in physics and mathematics and an MS degree in physics.
Bob, congratulations on receiving the 2019 Mark T. Banner Award!
Thank you. I was enormously pleased and honored to learn I had received this honor. My first thoughts were about Mark Banner himself. He was a wonderful human being. He had an outsized sense of humor, had a splendid record of leadership in the IP bar, and was a gifted advocate. As I reflect on Mark—and others who have received this recognition carrying his name—I have come to realize just how much this award carries with it a special responsibility to act in ways that are worthy of it.
What led you to a profession in IP law?
I wish there were a better word to explain my IP law career than serendipity. As I approached law school graduation, I was looking for jobs both inside and outside the IP field, and was looking at positions both at law firms and as in-house counsel. I had had only a very limited exposure to IP law during law school. In addition, my undergraduate and graduate degrees were in physics, and not engineering, so finding a position in patent law in those pre-Federal Circuit days was not a given. To make matters worse, I completed law school a semester early by taking coursework over both my 1L and 2L summers. This was a truly bad idea because it meant looking for permanent positions with no clerking experiences of any kind to help guide a career choice. What ultimately got me into the patent profession was a job offer for a patent trainee position in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Kalamazoo was and is a wonderful Midwestern community. The offer presented the opportunity to work at the global headquarters for The Upjohn Company, a large, multinational pharmaceutical company. It seemed like a great venue in which to see if patent law might be a good fit for me. The job was in an industry where patents were—even back then—highly valued. So, a week after graduating from law school, I began what was mostly an experiment with patent law that would ultimately become a 20-year career at Upjohn.
Looking back over your career, what was one of your most defining moments?
My involvement with Nelson v. Bowler, which was a patent interference that I was assigned to work on very early in my Upjohn career, ended with a successful outcome for Upjohn at the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals (CCPA). That work demanded that I quickly gain some measure of expertise in patent interference law. It spurred my involvement in committee work for both the ABA-IPL Section and AIPLA as a vehicle for doing so. And, it shaped some career-long thinking on the need to dramatically reform the U.S. patent interference system. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that my efforts to see the first-inventor-to-file principle enacted into law through the America Invents Act—and much of my involvement with the patent bar over the past four decades—can be traced directly back to my patent work in connection with this invention made by Norm Nelson in his chemistry lab in downtown Kalamazoo. (Just for the record, the CCPA found Norm was the first to invent, even though not the first inventor to file for a patent.)
I first met you as a Law Student Reporter at the ABA-IPL Spring Meeting in 2015 during the patent litigation subcommittee meeting. How has participation in the ABA-IPL Section, and other bar organizations, shaped and influenced your career?
I enjoyed the chance to meet you. I hope your ABA-IPL Section “student reporter” experience was a good one. Over four decades, I have done significant work for the ABA-IPL Section, AIPLA, IPO, BIO, NAM, and PhRMA. That work has not just shaped my legal career; in many respects, it has defined it. However, let me forgo a long answer to your question and offer a short one instead: Bar work has made me think—and helped me as a thinker. When I have served on committees or task forces, I have been obliged to think deeply about any number of important patent policy issues—and what a bar group might do to best serve the advancement of the patent system. Through various bar leadership positions, I have been challenged to think about how best to build the type of consensus needed so that contentious issues can be moved forward. When I have led a bar group, I’ve been obliged to think about how to shape the future of the organization strategically and operationally. In a world that changes with merciless speed, the failure to think ahead strategically is not a recipe for stagnation—it is an invitation to obliteration. So, not only has my bar work made me think, but it has helped me refine my thinking skills in ways that are directly transferable to the work I’ve done for clients. Practicing law is all about explaining your thinking to your client—and success as a lawyer is ultimately dependent on the quality of that thinking.
What is the best piece of career advice that you have received?
Probably the most impactful career advice I ever received was from one of my closest friends and colleagues, Gary Griswold. That advice was a big factor in helping me decide to leave private practice and go back in-house to work for Eli Lilly and Company. I had done work for Lilly while in private practice and had a sense of what I might be able to contribute to the company. However, I was feeling a been-there-done-that reluctance to take on another chief patent counsel job—and an even greater reluctance to leave a law firm where I thoroughly enjoyed my V&E colleagues, my clients, and the diversity of my work. However, as my dear friend predicted, working at Lilly would become the high point of my professional career. I had the opportunity to work for a company where the senior leadership was committed to the very highest standards of ethical conduct. I worked closely with two Lilly CEOs, Sidney Taurel and John Lechleiter, who both insisted that the company act with integrity in everything that it did. In spite of enormous challenges that the company confronted during my time there, there was never a moment of doubt that, even in the toughest of times, the company would act in a manner consistent with its values. I could not have imagined a better capstone to my full-time legal career than the 13 years I spent in Indianapolis working in the Lilly legal group.
What advice would you give to an IP attorney who is trying to advance his or her career?
First off, I am convinced that what is called “career advancement” needs to be defined in the right way—or at least in ways that are broader than the traditional measures of money or status. To sustain a successful career in IP law requires an amazing intensity of effort. That intensity is difficult for any human being to manage unless the necessary effort generates a sense of personal accomplishment and professional fulfillment. By my calculus, a legal career advances when the sense of satisfaction and enjoyment from doing the legal work grows. Second, I believe that it is vitally important to be curious and to cultivate curiosity. A curious being is open to considering a range of new roles in which a legal career might be directed or might develop. The most difficult career counseling that I have done is with individuals who are not happy with their current professional life, but who have an uncurious streak that limits how or what they are willing to see as career advancement. So, my advice in a nutshell: Take seriously the effort that may be needed to find something you will really like doing—and define career advancement as landing a professional role in which you will wake up each morning ever more excited about the day’s work that lies ahead.