Photo by Ken Richardson.
When someone steps down as the head of one of America’s largest and most prestigious law firms, he or she generally looks forward to a life that is perhaps a little more emeritus than it is eventful. William Lee of WilmerHale? Not so much.
Freed from management responsibilities in 2011, Lee resumed carrying a staggering caseload and recently took on the leadership of the Harvard Corporation, the university’s highest governing body. (Lee received his undergraduate degree from Harvard and went to law school at Cornell.) From his role in the Iran-Contra investigations in the 1980s through his rise at Hale and Dorr, where he shepherded the 2004 merger that begat WilmerHale, to the present, Lee’s career has been marked by extraordinary scope and breadth. Apparently, it’s still far too soon to be talking about his legacy.
Lawdragon: You were managing partner at Hale and Dorr and then co-managing partner at WilmerHale for more than a decade, along with keeping a full litigation calendar of high-profile cases, teaching and eventually taking on corporate responsibilities at Harvard. Boston Magazine once said you worked 11 hour days, six days a week. Was that an underestimate, and has your workload eased any since you let go of firm management?
William Lee: Just as I was stepping down as co-managing partner, I began my service as a Fellow of the Harvard Corporation and the Apple litigations went into high gear. Over the last three years, I have tried 15 cases and argued 20 appeals and, on July 1st of this year, I became the Senior Fellow at Harvard. The work has been exciting and challenging and a bit time consuming. If I had not relinquished my management responsibilities, I am pretty sure I would have been performing badly at everything.
LD: You’re widely recognized as one of the leading intellectual property litigators in the country. Here’s a hypothetical for you: Let’s say you were appointed to head up a presidential commission on patent reform. Where would you like to steer that ship?
WL: I would do three things. First, I would recognize that the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has become one of the most influential courts in the country and, indeed, globally. I would ensure that each appointment I made to the court was a person of substantial intellectual ability who recognized and could help develop a coherent body of patent law. Second, I would recognize that the patent litigation system functions sub optimally. It operates too slowly to protect real invention and innovation. We need remedies that will protect invention and innovation in real time. Third, the patent system allows non-practicing entities to impose a tax and burden upon the economy. I would propose that we adopt a “loser pays” system and that would solve much of the problem.
LD: You went to Harvard and then got your law degree and an MBA from Cornell in 1976. I don’t know what your personal or family circumstances were then. But it was a much different time for legal education and the practice of law. Do you think that graduating with significant debt would have changed how you pursued your career?
WL: My parents arrived in the United States in June of 1948 without a penny to their name. My Dad went on to get his Ph. D. in physics, became a vice president at GE and later was a professor at M.I.T. The single most important thing to our family was education and he ensured we got it no matter what it cost. My arrival at Harvard was the direct result of a decision years before by President [James Bryant] Conant to open Harvard broadly to folks like us. Not only did I go there, but both of my brothers did and today are professors at Harvard Medical School. My Dad also ensured that we did not leave school with substantial debt and that our career decisions could be made with something other than money in mind.
LD: As an IP lawyer, how do you manage to stay up with the pace of change in technology? Is it primarily on a case-by-case basis or do you find yourself, in general, constantly trying to keep up with developments in whole industries?
WL: When I arrived at Harvard, my Dad and I put my belongings in my room and he asked me to take a walk with him. We walked down Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. He said, “So, you are going to be a scientist?” I said, “Yes. Just like you.” He said, “Well, if you want to be a scientist you need to be a deep thinker.” I said, “OK.” He said, “Well, you are not. You are a fine athlete and have other skills. Change you major and things will work out.” I changed my major the next day to economics and things worked out just fine.
My family background taught me never to be afraid of technology or learning about it. That has been the single most valuable lesson for me in practice. Each case is different and each technology is in some sense new. And, each is exciting to learn in its own way.
LD: Apple v. Samsung -- in which you represented Apple and led the team that won a $1B patent infringement verdict in 2012 – perhaps the most publicized battle in a long war fought world-wide. What’s the point, from the standpoint of consumers? And who’s winning?
WL: Have to pass on this one. We do not comment on that case publicly.
LD: As a guy who once upon a time joked about being “the only Chinese lawyer in Boston,” how do you think law firms are doing in general these days in promoting diversity, in hiring and in career development?
WL: Better but still a ways to go. We have made more progress with women in practice than people of color. We can and should do better and more.