Editor: Would each of you tell our readers something about your professional experience?
Elderkin: My undergraduate degree is in chemistry. Following graduation from George Washington Law School in Washington, DC, I worked at DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware for nine years as a patent attorney. In 1987 an opportunity to join Woodcock Washburn arose - the firm had plans for considerable growth - and I took it. I became a partner in 1990.
Heist: I studied electrical engineering in college, and in my senior year leaned about patent law from an on-campus interview with the Patent Office. This appeared to be an excellent training opportunity. I joined the Patent Office and served two years as an assistant examiner. I left to attend law school at Villanova, during which I did a summer clerkship at Woodcock Washburn. I joined the firm following graduation in 1976 and became a partner in 1982. I have seen the firm grow from five to over 90 lawyers over the course of my career.
Editor: The firm is quite substantial, even by general practice standards. Can you give us a brief overview of Woodcock Washburn?
Heist: The firm was started by Virgil Woodcock, in the late 1930's. In 1948, Mr. Woodcock was joined by Bob Washburn, who had left GE's patent department, and over the next 20 years or so the firm consisted entirely of lawyers who had been trained in the GE patent department. At a certain point the firm began to attract lawyers from DuPont, including Dianne, and we began to expand our expertise from its base in electronics to biology and chemistry. We also began to expand our patent litigation capabilities. Today the firm is very diverse in the scientific disciplines and types of industries we cover. We are engaged in patent litigation and patent prosecution, in addition to copyright and trademark work. While the firm is predominately patent-centric, we have three practice groups: litigation, patent prosecution and a trademark-copyright group.
Editor: Would you say something about the interrelationship of the different practice areas? How do you go about staffing your projects?
Elderkin: We are fortunate in that we are large enough to have people with backgrounds in just about every area, both technical and from the standpoint of legal experience. All but two or three of our 90-plus attorneys are registered patent attorneys - people who have passed the patent bar exam - and we have learned this practice through the eyes of the Patent Office, something that sets us apart from many of our competitors. We are able to staff all of our projects with lawyers who understand the Patent Office and how it approaches matters, with patent litigators of extensive experience, with lawyers who are also scientists and engineers, and with specialized patent counselors and patent prosecutors.
Editor: What about the firm's geographical reach? Can you tell us about the clients?
Heist: We represent a national client base. Microsoft is a large client, as are Johnson & Johnson, Bayer Healthcare, and Cingular. In addition to clients which are household names across the world, we have a local clientele as well.
Editor: Would each of you tell us about your practice and how it has evolved over the years?
Heist: When I started there were no computers. I came to the firm to do patent prosecution and, soon enough, I was engaged in litigation. The stakes have increased dramatically over the years. At the beginning of my career defendants almost always prevailed, but beginning in the late 1980s - with the strengthening of the patent system - that changed, and the stakes in a litigation began to increase dramatically. As damages awards have increased, so has the pace of litigation. Most patent cases were tried at the bench in the early days; now we have jury trials. Finally, most of the patent litigation at the beginning of my career involved two companies - two R&D groups - fighting over a product and a prospective market. Today we see plaintiffs with only a patent and no product suing large companies.
Elderkin: DuPont was a wonderful place for a young lawyer to start his or her career, and the science they were doing there was particularly fascinating. After nine years, however, I was ready for Woodcock Washburn, and I have found that strategizing and working in the collegial setting of a litigation team is extremely rewarding.
Editor: Woodcock Washburn is a specialized law firm. How do you address competition from the large general practice law firms that have now entered your space?
Heist: Because of the competition, we are forced to play at the very top of our game. If the large general practice firms have greater resources than we possess, we are more nimble on our feet and, at the same time, have a greater depth of specialized expertise and experience. We are doing very well in this competition.
Elderkin: We believe we offer something different from many of the general practice firms that have gotten into the patent business in that we remain a full service patent firm. We have people with expertise both in patent prosecution and patent litigation, and we believe we are better at doing both because of that combined experience. We have seen that many of the general practice firms, having acquired a specialized patent practice, find that it does not fit their particular model and does not integrate very well, and they have decided to abandon the patent prosecution side of the business.
Published February 1, 2006.