Automation ally: Attorney puts engineering background to good use

By Kurt Anthony Krug

Legal News

With a background in engineering, attorney Robert K. Fergan feels that specializing in patent and intellectual property law gives him the best of both worlds.

"As a young child, I got involved with computers and never looked back,'' recalled Fergan, 43, a shareholder in the Ann Arbor-based law firm of Brinks Hofer Gilson & Lione, one of the largest intellectual property law firms in the U.S. ''I was programming computer games with my old Commodore. It was the wave of the future. It was clear to me growing up that everything would be automated in some form or another by computers. I knew when I was young that I had to get onboard,"

A native of Detroit, Fergan earned his undergraduate degree from what is now Kettering University (formerly General Motors Institute) in 1991, where he majored in electrical engineering and minored in optics. He earned his juris doctorate in law from the Wayne State University Law School in 2002.

Prior to entering the legal profession, Fergan worked in industry for a solid 10 years before changing careers. From 1995-98, he was a senior machine vision engineer and project manager for the Industrial Technology Institute in Ann Arbor. From 1998 to 2003, he was the product manager for Perceptron, the global metrology company specializing in laser-based technology and applications, which is headquartered in Plymouth.

"I had worked with attorneys on (intellectual property) matters. Law seemed like it was the best avenue forward for me. I looked into getting an MBA and a JD, but the law degree opened up the most possibilities for me," Fergan said. "It's fairly rare to have an engineering degree and a law degree. For intellectual property attorneys, they have to have an engineering or science background to pass the patent bar administrated by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office."

Fergan had to pass the patent bar exam in addition to the American Bar Association (ABA) exam. He has been a practicing attorney since 2002, specializing in client counseling, licensing, and patient prosecution in the U.S. and in other countries under the rules of the Patent Cooperation Treaty. In that time, he has prosecuted patent cases in the electrical, mechanical, optical, and computer science fields, as well as patent cases related to business practices. Since March 2003, he has worked for Brinks Hofer Gilson & Lione. Effective earlier this month, he was elected as a shareholder in the law firm.

"It's fairly synonymous with partner. We're more of a corporation. So instead, I'm buying shares of the corporation instead of a portion of the partnership," he explained.

Fergan teaches as an adjunct professor of computer law at the Ann Arbor campus of the Cooley Law School. Additionally, he has been active in the ABA and the State Bar Association. At the ABA, he is active in the intellectual property law section and serves on the editorial board of Landslide Magazine, which is a publication of the ABA intellectual property law section. "Essentially, what we do is select content, establish themes, seek out authors on new and important topics that we feel our readers should be interested in or should know about," he said.

He recently joined the 2011-12 Class of Leadership Detroit, which is a regional community leadership program sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber. Its mission is to provide the foundation for a lifelong commitment to leadership by creating awareness of key issues that impact the Detroit region and to challenge emerging and existing community leaders to bring about positive change in the community through informed leadership. Approximately 65 individuals participate in the program annually, representing a cross section of the community in areas including business, law, organized labor, government, education, media, civic groups and health services.

Fergan also serves on the Continuing Legal Education Planning Board. He is chairing the 2012 annual meeting, taking place in Chicago in August. He stated the main focus of the meeting is discussing the American Invents Act (AIA), a new legislature passed in late 2011, which overhauls the patent system.

"The actual act has been passed, but the administrative agencies haven't put together the rules for it yet. Many administrative rules need to be put into effect, which will impact people who want to file patents," he said. "It's been a long time coming. Part of it is good, but there are parts of it that maybe could've been done better. The primary goal, I think, that it accomplishes is aligning us with the rest of the world in terms of having a patent filing system. It harmonizes us with all the other countries in the world. We were the standout."

For Fergan, the best part of his job is being in the middle of the technological, business, and legal sides of intellectual property.

"I enjoy working with inventors who are passionate about coming up with new ideas and ways to improve our world," he said. "One of the neat things is the fact that you not only get to see cutting edge technology, you see it in a number of different places. As an engineer, I worked on one new product over a course of two to four years. As a lawyer, I see a range of 50 to 60, even 70 products over a course of two to four years."

Fergan currently lives in Livonia with Susan, his wife of nearly 20 years, and their two sons, Robert, 18, and Jacob, 12.

Published: Mon, Feb 13, 2012

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