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The Life and Career of Robert G. Krupka, partner Kirkland & Ellis, LLP

published October 18, 2004

( 148 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
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Robert G. Krupka is not a gambler, but he is a world authority on slot machine technology and the Atari video games popular in the 1980s. He has a slot machine in his Los Angeles office, and his kids were impressed with his connection to Ms. Pac Man. Such are the perks of patent and copyright law. At Kirkland & Ellis, Krupka says his intellectual property group is referred to as the "fun and games group."

Fun is important to Krupka. He says the secret to his success has been honesty, hard work, and choosing a career that was fun and interesting, not necessarily the easiest or most lucrative. Krupka, who started his career briefly as a tax lawyer, believes people should choose their professional paths by what interests and engages them, not by what they necessarily can or think they should do.

"I looked at the options, I decided what I liked, and I followed that path," he told LawCrossing.

Now Krupka is considered one of the nation's top patent lawyers. He is listed in "The Best Lawyers in America," "World's Leading Patent Law Experts," and "Who's Who in American Law."

And while most of his cases settle, Krupka has never lost a jury trial. The Medtronic case was his biggest jury trial yet - in terms of legal fees, damages awarded, and time spent at trial. The jury deliberated for nearly a month in that complex case, and his client, a surgeon and inventor, spent a whopping $62 million in legal fees between May 2001 and September 2004.

"It is a very unusual case on a number of different levels," Krupka said. "It was a major corporation suing an individual, and the individual [was] fighting back. So therefore it really was a David and Goliath kind of a situation."

While juries may be inherently sympathetic to a lone David fighting a Goliath corporation, Krupka says this case was different because it was a Memphis jury, and Medtronic has a big presence in Memphis. The opposing side played up the local connection when questioning the jury, reminding them that their friends and neighbors worked for Medtronic. But the federal jury, in the end, sided with the Los Angeles-based surgeon, Dr. Gary K. Michelson, and also told Medtronic to pay a 10-percent royalty on spinal-implant products like the Bone Graft System for infringing patents. With royalties, the damages could surpass $1 billion. But Krupka said that if the case doesn't settle, it will likely be several years before his client sees a single dollar.

Krupka, who has an undergraduate degree in physics, says his scientific background has helped him in IP law but a science degree is not necessary to be a successful patent attorney. He initially planned to get his Ph.D. in Physics but found many of his peers struggling to find jobs after the government shifted money from research at the end of the Vietnam War. He took a business law course in his final year of college at the University of Chicago, and his professor encouraged him to apply to law school. He graduated from Georgetown cum laude in 1971.

"The scientific background gave me a certain analytical framework that was helpful," he said. "But I think it would be a little hypocritical of me to say to somebody coming out of law school, 'You're not qualified to handle a case involving cellular telephones because you didn't study physics in the 1960s before cellular telephones even existed."

When hiring, Krupka prefers a diverse team with various backgrounds and ways of thinking. He is a visual thinker and struggles to grasp some products when he can't visualize the science behind the product.

"I have a great deal of difficulty, for example, in some pharmaceutical cases, where you're dealing in literally six dimensions and it makes my brain melt," he said. "When you're dealing with the pharmaceutical products, sometimes the orient--the spatial orientation of the molecule is important and [so is] whether the molecule spins in the right-hand direction or left-hand direction."

When the product involves various isotopes, it gets even more complicated, he says. This is why he hires attorneys who are more spatially oriented, or more emotional, or more conceptual. Then they can collaborate to figure out a case and see vulnerabilities in their adversary's case.

"If I can't visualize it, I have a difficult time in trying to describe it," he said. "Other people have a little easier time conceptually, but I have that limitation."

Krupka, who is originally from Rochester, NY, and has been living in Los Angeles since 2001 after staring his career in Chicago, says he thinks the jury system, although not perfect, is the best system in the world for meting out justice. In Illinois, attorneys are exempt from serving on juries; but they are not in California, and Krupka hopes to serve as a juror one day.

With the spinal-implant case, Krupka said it was "unheard of" for the jury to deliberate for a full month.

"They were very careful to analyze everything one step at a time, and the job they did was truly remarkable," he said. "They didn't agree with all of what we asked for. We asked for over $1.5 billion, and they didn't give us all that. But I still think they did a remarkable job, and I was very impressed with their analysis and dedication as jurors."

The jury in that case was paneled on June 1 for what they thought was going to be a three- or four-week trial, and they finished their jury service on Oct. 12. Krupka says the judge was understanding and gave the jurors opportunity to bow out of the case if it was too disruptive to their lives, but they were dedicated.

While they were deliberating, Krupka successfully tried a case to verdict in two weeks in Nevada in a case involving video-poker game patents.

He says the secret to winning over a jury is telling the truth. Whether translating the technology of turbine engines, spinal implants, or video poker, he says it's almost impossible to fully explain the technology behind the products to laymen.

"Juries may not be very good at understanding how a turbine engine works. But juries are very, very good at deciding who is telling the truth and who is not," he said. "The great advantage of a jury is it's not one person. And the collective wisdom of the jury is better than the individual wisdom of one person."

Krupka, who will turn 55 on Thursday, believes it is a person's civic duty to serve on a jury and that it's perhaps too easy for people to get out of jury duty.

"I think the jury system is not perfect; but it's the best system there is, and I'm very impressed with juries," he said. "I think juries work very hard to get it right. The stories that you hear or the depictions on TV where you see juries sleeping or juries acting in an emotional way--I just don't believe that."
 
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