The managing partner of IP specialist Finnegan gives his thoughts on the firm's performance, biosimilars and coaching his kids' sports teams.
Chambers Associate: How would you describe the firm's position in the IP market?
Mark Sweet: What really makes us unique is that we are a 'soup to nuts' IP firm: we cover every aspect of it and we're a go-to firm for that reason. Other firms are general practice with an IP arm, or specifically litigation or appellate; we do everything from invention capture and prosecution at patent offices to all sorts of due diligence work, invalidity opinions, post-grant proceedings and litigation, be it in the district court, the International Trade Commission (ITC) or otherwise. Sometimes our cases go all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Our broad practice makes us unique, and because of our size it's not just one person doing each thing. Associates can therefore choose areas that interest them the most and grow to become the experts in that field. We also focus on organic growth, and truly are a grow-from-within firm.
"More and more we're seeing employees from one competitor jump ship and a lot of know-how goes with them – a company hires someone and all of a sudden they're up to speed with the market."
CA: Which areas of your practice have been performing especially well recently? You mentioned trademarks last year...
MS: Trademarks is still hot and heavy, as there's been such an emphasis on counterfeit goods recently. We've had trademark attorneys working hand-in-hand with customs people going on raids to get those products out of the market. We've also done a lot of work in the pharma/biopharma area, including ANDA (Abbreviated New Drug Application) litigation. Our appellate and ITC practices also continue to be strong.
What you're seeing now is a different focus on all the different areas of IP: it seems people are looking at all aspects of IP more now than several years ago, when patents were dominant. Clients are now also considering trademarks and trade secrets more. More and more we're seeing employees from one competitor jump ship and a lot of know-how goes with them – a company hires someone and all of a sudden they're up to speed with the market.
CA: Which areas have you earmarked for growth over the next year and why?
MS: Biosimilars and biologics are going to be the hot new thing in the pharma industry; they will enable a company to manufacture a near-exact copy of another company's medical product. We'll also probably be seeing more standard essential patent work as technology develops. A good example of that is mobile phones: we've had 3G and 4G, and now 5G is on the horizon.
"Something new will always come along as the new shiny penny."
CA: How important is it that law students interested in IP keep up to date with these developments?
MS: It's a good idea, but something new will always come along as the new shiny penny. We've had good fortune in that we're a big firm covering all areas of technology, so if something ebbs another element will make up the difference. It's very helpful for students to look at different areas of tech, find something they're interested in and not only build an understanding but be willing to learn constantly in the future because everything will continue to change.
CA: Why is IP law attractive for students today?
MS: It is the definition of a dynamic industry, as both the technology and law surrounding it are constantly changing. Lately we've really seen how different areas of business affect the laws as we've worked hand-in-hand with clients' finance departments, CFOs and CEOs to ensure our legal advice matches our clients' interests.
CA: What are the main challenges that IP firms and their lawyers will have to navigate and adapt to in the future?
MS: The economic climate is really a challenge to all law firms, and all the technological companies we work with have concerns about tariff wars – there's a lot of uncertainty. What impact this will have on our clients' business is essential for us to determine. Should our clients move plants to the US or elsewhere? Will they need to worry about import concerns and triggering ITC investigations?
With respect to IP firms in particular, Finnegan has a lot of competitors: more than in the past because there are more general practice firms with an IP arm – that wasn't the case 20 years ago. It's a good thing though, as competition keeps us on our toes.
"I wasn't someone with dreams of being a lawyer young – I wanted a job that had something to do with my chemical background."
CA: When did you decide to become a lawyer? Why?
MS: I wasn't someone with dreams of being a lawyer young – I wanted a job that had something to do with my chemical background, and through serendipity a friend had graduated before me and worked as an examiner at the patent office. I had very little experience even of what a patent was; I'd seen the patent pending moniker and never considered what it meant. Realizing the next step was going to law school, I attended at night with several friends while working at the patent office. I then joined Finnegan and finished law school while here at the firm. I liked the concept of seeing all these technologies crossing my desk, and wanted to take it to the next level.
CA: What's been the most valuable lesson you've learned in your career?
MS: From a client service perspective, the most valuable is to be attuned to clients' needs and make certain all their problems and issues are yours, which they are by definition. It's great to feel you're part of the company; some of the best compliments I've received from clients is them saying 'I feel like you're working in house with us'. That means you're being very attentive and exceeding expectations.
CA: What achievement are you most proud of?
MS: My kids are older now and something I was most proud of was being coach and manager of their sports teams while they were growing up – all while I was an attorney. Being able to do that was rewarding because my kids enjoyed it and the parents of other kids appreciated what I was doing and that it was important. First and foremost I enjoyed being a dad. That doesn't mean it's easy, you have to plan it all out – another friend at the office is here at four o'clock every day but coaches lacrosse. They've worked it out too!
CA: Do you have any final comments or advice for our readers?
MS: Make sure you really want to go into the legal profession. It's shrinking and the demand for services is getting smaller so you really need to want to get in. Consider the time and expense that comes with getting a law degree. IP is particularly appealing though, because it is so dynamic and it's always fun to learn new things.
Interview conducted by senior researcher Michael Bird. First posted January 2019