The life sciences sector combines a diverse range of legal practice areas, demanding expert advice from lawyers with detailed up-to-date knowledge of the relevant trends and innovations in areas as wide-ranging as food, healthcare, medical devices and biotechnology. As such, most solicitors in this area tend to specialise in either contentious (eg, patent and product liability) or non-contentious (eg, commercial and corporate) work. In addition to commercial and IP advice and litigation, lawyers are also needed to provide regulatory advice on everything from the accurate labelling and marketing of drugs to competition law issues.
Huw Evans launched his legal career via the insurance industry, with an eye on the business side of law. "When I graduated with my law degree in 1987, I worked for an insurance company, essentially with a view to becoming a tax adviser,” he recalls. “The company wanted to send me to Bar school, but I decided to become a solicitor instead. In those days, even though I wasn’t funded through law school by a firm, I could get local authority funding at law school and a salary as an articled clerk, whereas the impression I had was that as a pupil, you weren’t paid or eligible for funding. Plus, I was always much more interested in the business side of things. And now, more than ever, solicitors are business as well as legal advisers."
Going on to do articles (the training contract’s predecessor) at Needham & Grant, Huw had an 'in at the deep end' style immersion in interesting IP work: "Although it was a boutique IP firm, with fewer than 20 people in the whole firm, we did everything – from IP litigation to landlord and tenant, employment tribunals, wrongful arrests and conveyancing. I had a varied workload with a lot of responsibility and exposure to many different things. It was a baptism of fire to some extent and was a much less protected environment than that offered to modern-day trainees."
Fast forward 20 or so years – a period defined by a full range of IP work and variety of clients – and Huw joined Norton Rose Fulbright in January 2013, brought in primarily to help build the firm’s IP and patent litigation capability across Europe, with an emphasis on life sciences. He gives a recent example of the global nature of his work: "We recently had a patent dispute to do with heart valves. It stemmed from litigation in the United States, but there was a particular issue that had a European element. In parallel with the US litigation, we applied in the United Kingdom for a declaration from the court that our client was not infringing any European patents. Using expertise gained from one jurisdiction to help build a case in another jurisdiction is fairly typical of what we do every day."
Huw describes the other key elements of his working life: "As a partner, a lot of my day is taken up with management matters, including supporting European and global level heads, and coordinating our efforts in relation to our big pharma clients. So over and above the litigation, it might also include regulation, product liability or even compliance issues." He makes the point that even the litigation may never see the inside of a courtroom: "Much of the contentious work we do never comes to trial, including resolving things before proceedings are even issued."
One of Huw’s highlights involved helping secure a preliminary injunction for a big pharma client against a generic manufacturer on the day it was due to launch its generic version. "I came to work on Monday morning and we got a call from the client that someone had jumped the gun and launched a generic version," he remembers. "By the afternoon, we were in front of a judge and by 6:00pm we had our injunction, which we served straightaway. It shows what you can do if you understand the system and know how best to deploy your resources." But such triumphs do not eclipse coverage in the Evening Standard of another of Huw’s cases which related to a toothbrush patent, which "was covered in the press because our expert witness brought along a giant set of teeth to demonstrate a point!".
For Huw, one of the best things about being a patent litigator is the opportunity to learn about the finer details of a range of everyday items and what makes them unique. "I had a case on the way the shape of the ice crystals in a Solero ice cream defines the eating experience," he explains, "which is to do with how they extrude the high-quality ice cream, dip it into liquid nitrogen, dip it into fruit juice and repeat! The way it forms its ice crystals helped make it a ground-breaking product."
And jumping from frozen treats to an invention that, arguably, changed the way human beings learn about life itself (excuse the hyperbole). "For years, I have worked on pregnancy test patents," says Huw. "It is one of the best inventions I have come across. It has meant the difference between having to buy a mini chemistry set from a pharmacy and performing a complicated experiment, with a lot of room for error, to using a simple dipstick on which either a line forms or it doesn’t. There have been a number of cases related to the technology in this and other jurisdictions, and I was involved from the early 1990s until the expiry of the relevant patent rights."
Throw into the mix some "transgenic mice, which have been genetically engineered to produce humanised antibodies" and a case on mine disposal, and it is clear what incredibly varied careers patent litigators have: "Learning how products work, some of which are exceptionally complicated, is one of my everyday highlights. And although it may sound cheesy, it is also a highlight to be at this firm at this moment in time. Our recent mergers have made us into an IP powerhouse and we’re still growing." He also cites the chance to meet interesting people "from scientists and creatives, like clothing designers, to very senior people within companies for whom these things are business critical" as one of the best bits of the job.
There is a significant change looming on the patent horizon in the form of a unified European unified patent court, with one of the main seats in London (two others in Paris and Munich) and regional and district courts across Europe. Huw describes what it is all about: "There is massive political will to get the court up and running and so, although it has its critics, it is likely to happen. It should introduce a level playing field and give opportunities to both enforce and attack patents. There remains a question over whether it will make it more cost effective; as things stand, there is a lot of expertise here in the United Kingdom, but our systems faces criticism for being more costly than in other parts of Europe. Similarly, in Germany there are accusations that the system is biased towards the patentee. The idea behind the unified system is that it will take the best parts of the different systems. We need to embrace it and be a part of it."
Huw has a number of things to suggest if you’re trying to make it as a trainee, based on his years of interviewing and working with them. "I am blown away by the quality of candidates that I see; I’m amazed by what some of them have done," he enthuses. "Academic achievement is a must; to get your CV looked at, you need solid A levels and a projection of where your degree is going. Beyond that, obviously try and get some work experience in a firm, court or chambers, but don’t forget about the value of other life experiences. For example, a Saturday job in a shoe shop; you’re dealing with people and a part of a business. These things are worth bringing up as law is very much a people business."
He also adds that while the firm’s IP department is obviously keen on people with a technical background, not having one is far from a deal-breaker: "I had a law degree and just had to learn as I went. One of the first cases I was involved with as a trainee related to the isolation and identification of the Hepatitis C virus. The partner and I had to take my flatmate’s biochemistry and genetic engineering textbooks and learn! So provided you’re got the aptitude and the interest, you can pick these things up."