Five minutes with… Joshua Harris, Burford Capital
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Five minutes with… Joshua Harris, Burford Capital

Joshua Harris

Each week Managing IP speaks to a different IP lawyer or professional about their life and career

Welcome to the latest instalment of Managing IP’s ‘Five minutes with’ series, where we learn more about IP lawyers on a personal as well as a professional level. This time we have Joshua Harris, a director at Burford Capital in New York, who was recently promoted to that position from senior vice president.

Someone asks you at a party what you do for a living. What do you say?

I say I’m part of the patent litigation team at Burford Capital, the largest litigation funder in the world. I help inventors get compensated when their inventions get ripped off by corporations who sell big lines of charismatic and infringing products.

And I do so not by arguing in court but rather by funding what is invariably expensive and time-consuming litigation.

I have to choose and support cases carefully because Burford only gets paid when the inventors win (as our investments are non-recourse). I focus on the pharmaceutical and medical device space, and I sleep well at night knowing my work supports inventors whose inventions have already helped improve the health and lives of millions of people.

Talk us through a typical working day.

On any given day I get to do a lot of learning. I talk with brilliant inventors at innovative companies from all around the world to understand facts around their inventions and the commercial marketplace, and I talk with their sharp attorneys at a variety of law firms to understand the legal theories and plan of attack.

I get to think through thorny issues of science and patent law and economics and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of matters with my colleagues who can view these issues through different lenses – like the lens of a first-chair litigator, or of a potential juror with no particular technical background.

What are you working on at the moment?

At this moment – and pretty much any given moment – I’m analysing potential new matters in addition to matters where we are already invested as cases wind their way through district courts and patent offices and appeals.

I had the good fortune to attend two trials in person last year, and the better fortune of watching the juries return favourable verdicts for our clients.

Those matters are now in the post-trial briefing and appeal phases, and I am working closely with the clients and their counsel to put up the most persuasive arguments and secure wins.

Does one big piece of work usually take priority or are you juggling multiple things?

My workload tends to resemble a game of 'Whac-A-Mole' with multiple matters popping up and dipping away.

Claim construction briefing in one case warrants immediate attention and then quiets down until there is a ruling from the court. A new deal needs to close by the end of the month, and there’s a frenzy of activity leading up to that followed by a few weeks of silence until the complaint is filed. Trial approaches and the focus and intensity of building the winning narrative is washed away after the jury returns a verdict or trial gets rescheduled due to a conflict.

What is the most exciting aspect of your role and what is the most stressful?

Closing arguments and waiting for the jury to return and listening to the verdict being read…every single time. Hours upon hours of Hans Zimmer’s 'No Time for Caution' from the space station docking scene in the movie 'Interstellar', repeating endlessly in my head. Does it get more exciting or more stressful than that?

Tell us the key characteristics that make a successful IP lawyer/practitioner.

The same characteristics that make people successful elsewhere – curiosity and empathy. Investigating why things are the way they are, learning how things work, asking questions and obtaining data to ask new and better questions to obtain new and better data, understanding people’s motivations and appreciating the context in which life happens.

What is the most common misconception about IP?

Probably just how huge a role the human element factors into every facet of patents.

Inventions don’t just happen – people create and invent things and make discoveries. Patents don’t just happen – inventors explain their inventions in words and pictures and those ideas are synthesised by patent attorneys into claims that are evaluated by examiners.

IP offices issue a patent but then the words of the claims are analysed and interpreted by judges. Attorneys and experts analyse facts and craft arguments about inventions and the state of the art and how society should treat and reward inventors.

Jurors listen to evidence and find facts and make conclusions about the strength and value of an inventor’s life’s work.

What or who inspires you?

I think comedians and musicians help to inspire by pointing out the absurdity and silliness and beauty that abounds in a world where nearly everything is made up and the points don’t matter.

Timing and context of clever jokes and songs – as with most things in life - are key here, and their creators continually shape and influence how people can view the world.

Who better to ask the most vitally important questions today than Sacha Baron Cohen or Diane Morgan? What better expression of freedom than Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the 'Star-Spangled Banner' at Woodstock? Is there any surprise that Weird Al Yankovic has occupied the centre of the comedic/musical Venn diagram for generations?

If you weren’t in IP, what would you be doing?

In high school I took a test to determine what occupation would be best suited for me – the result was television repairman. Yes, I’ve fixed several broken televisions over the years, but I don’t think I would have pursued that track had I not zeroed in on patent law.

If I wasn’t in IP then I would probably be doing more gardening, experimenting with more seedlings, growing more varieties of tomatoes and radishes and blueberries, training more bonsai trees, sharing more raspberries and potatoes with friends and family…and fixing broken TVs now and again.

Any advice you would give your younger self?

Living in the past, while a beautiful song by Jethro Tull, is an impossible task.

Any advice I could propose to any younger version of myself would invariably lead to a different, likely unrecognisable, future version of myself.

It’s a wiggly world and every action has countless and incalculable reactions, so it’s helpful to remain open-minded and flexible as life unfolds and new things are learned.

So perhaps that’s the advice to younger me: to better recognise a colossal part of life is its randomness and unpredictability and to embrace that reality in a world of perpetual change. That or, starting in 1993, each time I purchase an Apple computer or device I should also purchase an equivalent amount of Apple stock.

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