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New article from IP Clinic director explains how to bridge the communication divide between law and tech

September 14, 2015

Collaboration can be an important part of the legal field, but what happens when lawyers need to work with professionals outside of the legal field? In an article recently published in the Lewis & Clark Law Review, Penn Law’s Cynthia Dahl describes how a focused, limited-duration course module can teach students how to communicate across fields by pairing engineers with lawyers in a patent drafting simulation.

Dahl is Practice Associate Professor of Law and Director of Penn Law’s Detkin Intellectual Property and Technology Legal Clinic. Her article, “Teaching Would-Be IP Lawyers to ‘Speak Engineer’: An Interdisciplinary Module to Teach New Intellectual Property Attorneys to Work Across Disciplines,” was featured on the respected and widely-read national patent law blog Patently-O.

“Law is a service profession where lawyers can only further a client’s goal by really understanding the client’s business,” Dahl writes.

Lawyers dealing with intellectual property must be conversant with science and technology, she explains, while at the same time, engineers need to understand the legal and business world — especially when they are promoted into management positions.

“Professionals must translate across disciplines,” Dahl notes, “with engineers decoding technical speak and lawyers unraveling legalese in order to meet business goals.”

In the three-week patent drafting simulation that Dahl has incorporated into the coursework of the IP Clinic, pairs of law and engineering students perform a prior art search over a real-life invention, perform a technical interview of the actual inventor of the product, then draft and redraft patent claims. On the last class of the module, the students have the opportunity to compare their work to the actual submitted claims and discuss their collaborative process.

Students tend to find, Dahl writes, that the engineers’ technical expertise steers the drafting to include embodiments and add detail to address infringers that may not have occurred to the lawyers, while the lawyers’ broader perspective saves the claims from becoming too narrow, while keeping the project on track and in the proper form.

The collaborative process can be difficult though. In one semester of Dahl’s teaching, the inventor was unable for the technical interview, so Dahl asked the company’s Chief Technical Officer (CTO) to sit for the interview instead. The result was a disaster, Dahl writes. The CTO only gave a general description of the invention and explained how it fit into a larger system, but never gave the technical details that the students needed to draft their patent claims.

While the interview was a bust, it gave Dahl the opportunity to discuss with her students just how important effective communication and interdisciplinary knowledge can be.

“The CTO had done nothing wrong;” Dahl writes, “he had just been acting like a CTO. He saw the invention as part of a greater whole, wrapped up in the company’s product line. He used the interview to justify the invention’s business purpose instead of to describe its specific details.”

To determine the impact of the course module, Dahl sent out a survey by email to all former participants, and 32 of 46 responded. Of the students who currently had full-time jobs, they all stated that interdisciplinary interaction was, or would be, a part of their careers, whether through servicing outside clients, dealing with administrative functions, or negotiating contracts.

When Dahl asked the students how strongly they believed the statement “a professional on an interdisciplinary team may need to effectively translate and facilitate field-specific issues for her colleagues,” the students responded with a 90.1 average belief (out of 100).

Dahl’s favorite comment on the survey, however, came from the reflection of one of the engineers: “It is no longer clear where the line between ‘tech’ territory and ‘legal’ land sits,” he wrote. “As far as I am concerned, this field is wide open, and the more I understand about varying perspectives, the more I fully comprehend the problems at hand in my quest to make a significant difference.”