The Practice of Law Becomes More Satisfying with Every Passing Year
The Bencher—July/August 2018
By Vern D. Schooley, Esquire
Growing up on a small dairy farm in Michigan, I enjoyed the outdoors and independence. It was my dream to become a successful dairy farmer. That is, until I overheard my parents say the farm would be deeded to my older brother. I knew I could never earn enough to buy a dairy farm and a herd of milking cattle on my own, so I was forced to consider other options.
While no one in my family had attended college, I thought I better give it a go. I was fortunate to be awarded a modest football scholarship to a small college just 15 miles away. This meant I could live at home to save expenses and continue with farm chores before and after class. By then my father had died. With no family finances to help with my expenses, I soon learned how to find work. I would follow the construction projects around Michigan to hire onto the road and pipeline crews 10 hours a day, seven days a week, during the summer and over Christmas break.
Along the way I read a Life magazine article about the exciting life of a trial attorney and thought that sounded appealing. This, despite the fact that on career day in high school agriculture class when I told my teacher I would like to become a lawyer, he had cautioned, “You have to be smart to be a lawyer. You have to persuade 12 people.” That caught my attention.
On the farm I had been exposed to the work of a large-animal veterinarian and thought that looked interesting. I connected with our local vet to ride along, treating neighbors’ cattle and horses. So, that was going to be my chosen field until I discovered I had an aptitude for math, but not as much for chemistry. I discarded the idea of becoming a veterinarian in favor of engineering.
After receiving my bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, I enjoyed a stint as a design engineer with Boeing Aircraft and then with General Dynamics designing airplanes and missiles, all the while harboring an interest in law. It was this interest that caused me to visit the delightful campus at University of San Diego (USD) one afternoon after work. The door to the dean’s office was open so I popped in to introduce myself and tell Dean Sinclittico I was interested in attending night law school. He said, “It’s too bad you weren’t here last week when classes started.” I replied, “I am here now.”
After the dean explained about the transfer of undergraduate transcripts and results of the LSAT, I told him my undergraduate grades were fine and I knew I could do well on the LSAT. To get me out of his office, he finally agreed to admit me, subject to expulsion if I was wrong on either count. I was in contracts class that evening with 99 new friends and did well on the LSAT that fall.
Upon graduation from USD law school I was still interested in the exciting life of a trial attorney. With the economy in a downturn, however, there was little opportunity for a general attorney. But there were opportunities for those with a technical background. The field of patent and trademark law thus chose me. In the 1960s, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was well-known for failing to uphold the validity and infringement of patents. This gave me an extraordinary opportunity. Because most patents would eventually be held invalid or not infringed and damage awards were modest, there was no great risk in defending infringement cases. As a fledgling patent lawyer, with the statistics in my favor, my firm, Fulwider Patton LLP, could entrust me to represent clients in that area.
Under these circumstances, I was fortunate to gain considerable experience trying jury patent cases in the various federal courts throughout the country. By the time the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) came along and began to uphold the validity of patents, I was one of the more experienced patent jury trial attorneys in the country.
I was privileged to represent a broad spectrum of clients, ranging from the individual inventor up against the large corporations, to parties in suits between Fortune 500 companies in a two-product market. Because of the patent specialty, I often had the opportunity to meet with and represent some of the most ingenious individuals—inventors and authors—as well as answer to corporate executives who made it clear they expected to prevail in their lawsuits.
Without those opportunities, this little boy from a small Michigan farm, first in his family to attend college, would never have had the opportunity to meet and represent such world-renown and creative people as Walt Disney. It turned out I was in fact smart enough to convince most of my juries. Initially after law school, I was not sure I wanted to continue in the technical area, but these reservations were soon set aside when I found myself at Disneyland to analyze and protect the inventions that were a part of their various rides and attractions.
I knew things were going right when Disney asked me to undertake the patent work on its new design of a ski chair lift for a ski area it planned to develop. Because my senior partner had been granted two lifetime passes to Disneyland for his work in negotiating the patent license for the Disneyland monorail, I had visions of the same for me as an enthusiastic snow skier. Unfortunately, that never materialized.
My work with the American Inns of Court provided a unique opportunity to meet many leaders in the legal arena and learn from top trial attorneys and judges. Contrary to popular public opinion, patent infringement trials are not boring. On the first day of trial before the late Honorable William A. Ingram (The Honorable William A. Ingram American Inn of Court, San Jose, California), Ingram became upset when I told him that the jury trial would take three months. He initially told his clerk to give us just a couple days each week. Then, after opening statements clarifying that the dispute was over who was first to invent a successful cardiac angioplasty device—and after the first witness started testifying to the first time an angioplasty catheter was introduced through a patient’s heart ostium and into the coronary arteries—Ingram instructed his clerk to clear his calendar for our trial to go four days a week for three months. Several years later at a Celebration of Excellence event at the U.S. Supreme Court, Ingram told me he still had my exhibit A from that trial hanging on the wall of his chambers. In true American Inn of Court professionalism, he conceded that he thought the other side should have won that trial but that he was not about to take away a jury verdict in such an important matter.
My practice has always been intriguing, allowing me to learn from educated, innovative people who understand cutting-edge technology in areas such as balloon catheters, heart stents and other medical devices and life-saving technologies. I always believed that other attorneys would share in my enjoyment of the profession, and I soon became involved in the various bar associations. I rose to president of the Long Beach Bar Association; acting as founding president of what is now known as the Ball/Hunt/Schooley American Inn of Court in Long Beach, California; and founding president of the Judge Paul R. Michel Intellectual Property American Inn of Court in Los Angeles. Work with both of these Inns has been extremely rewarding. I’ve had great satisfaction watching the membership grow and participating in the monthly presentations and skits, allowing the bench and bar to share in training the newer lawyers and inviting attention to ethics, professionalism and civility while improving trial advocacy.
Along the way in my practice, I was astounded at how much I enjoyed the challenge of representing clients in jury patent infringement trials and before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. It was through these experiences and my work with the American Inns of Court that I was privileged to know and work with such luminaries as the late Judge Howard T. Markey, first chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and chairman of the American Inns of Court, and to meet a number of CAFC and Supreme Court justices. I still enjoy acting as counselor to both the Long Beach and Los Angeles Inns, working with the newly minted attorneys and breaking bread monthly with judges and attorneys.
I have benefitted greatly from this involvement, and I encourage those entering the practice to become involved in their local, state and federal legal organizations. Volunteer to serve on committees and boards and participate in community outreach programs. There is no better profession than the practice of law, where you have the opportunity to help clients solve complicated problems and represent their rights to secure justice. I was only too fortunate to have diverted from farming and taken that turn early in life, gaining a technical education and capping it all off with the practice of law, helping inventors protect their ideas and defend against baseless claims. There is no profession I could enjoy more.
Vern D. Schooley, Esquire, is a partner in Fulwider Patton LLP in Los Angeles, California. He is vice president of the Judge Paul R. Michel IP AIC and counselor of the Ball-Hunt-Schooley AIC. He served on the American Inns of Court Board of Trustees from 1997–2001 and is a member of its Leadership Council.