April 11, 2016 Top Story

Court Approves Firm's Representation of Competing Patent Clients

Economically adverse interests relating to similar inventions is not unethical

Andrew J. Kennedy

In a case that has given the patent bar a collective sigh of relief, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that a law firm that simultaneously represented two clients with competing inventions did not have an unethical conflict of interest. Maling v. Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett, & Dunner, LLP. The appellate court found no conflict where the clients’ interests were only economically, not directly, adverse. ABA Section of Litigation leaders agree with the appellate court’s warning that the opinion does not give law firms a free pass, and encourage firms to scrutinize potential conflicts and work with clients for advance waivers where appropriate.

A Tale of Two Clients

Plaintiff Maling first engaged the law firm in its Boston office in 2003. Over the next six years, the firm obtained four patents for him in the area of screwless eyeglass technology. Meanwhile, lawyers in the firm’s Washington, D.C. office obtained screwless eyeglass technology patents for another client, a Japanese company that Maling viewed as a competitor. After discovering that the firm represented the competitor, Maling sued the law firm.

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