Robert A. Armitage never intended to be a lawyer, let alone a corporate counsel representing one the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.
But when his chosen path in physics began drying up because of dwindling government funding for science, the Michigan native looked to law school and took what he saw as an enormous risk.
Three decades later, the Indiana lawyer has been designated as one of the top 25 intellectual property attorneys in the country and serves as a senior vice president and general counsel for Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Company. And he recently experienced one of the most satisfying moments of his professional life: the passage of sweeping U.S. patent reform that he’s been advocating for since graduating from law school.
“Being in-house added a totally unexpected dimension to my career, but this third leg has been one of the most exciting parts so far,” he said. “Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment, but I’ve not had a day that hasn’t been interesting and challenging in some way. I think the legal challenges you see here are more than enough to occupy your mind professionally.”
Armitage grew up in Michigan and received a master’s degree in physics from the University of Michigan in 1971 with plans for a career in that field. But it was a tough time and the career outlook wasn’t good, he recalls.
He changed his course and went to law school. He remembers his first exposure to intellectual property law, and thinking that he’d never want a career in that practice area.
“My perception was that this was some crazy area of law where you have no idea what the law is even about,” Armitage said. “It’s an unusual field of law, in part, because we’ve had these types of issues and laws for 200-plus years. So, it was a little strange, a few months later, to think that this might be an interesting employment opportunity to go in-house as a patent lawyer.”
Armitage earned his law degree from the University of Michigan Law School in 1973, but his preferred employer – Eli Lilly in Indianapolis – turned him down because the company didn’t hire directly out of law school. So he went to work for the first 20 years of his career at the Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo, Mich., before mergers eventually made it a part of Pfizer in the 1990s. There, he served as chief IP counsel and led the patent division.
In 1993, Armitage left the corporate counsel world for private practice and moved his family to Washington, D.C., becoming a partner at Vinson & Elkins and thinking he would spend the other half of his legal career there. But six years later, another opportunity came knocking and gave him the chance to return to Indiana, taking a position at the place he had originally wanted to work.
On Oct. 1, 1999, Armitage took a position leading Eli Lilly’s intellectual property division. He served in that role until becoming general counsel in 2003.
His influence in the area is wide ranging: Armitage is a member and past president of the American Intellectual Property Law Association and the Association of Corporate Patent Counsel, and is also a past chair of the patent committee of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the National Council of Intellectual Property Owners and National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation. He is a leader in the American Bar Association’s Intellectual Property Section.
In 2010, American Lawyer ranked him among the top 25 IP attorneys in the country, in part because of his leadership in negotiating the Pathway to Biosimilars Act, legislation that created a way for generic biologic drugs to get approval.
Similar to other pharmaceutical companies, Armitage said, half the legal group at Eli Lilly focuses on patents while the other half is divided up between other topics the company might face. Responsible for $4 billion to $5 billion in research and development efforts annually, the company has about 40 patent lawyers and just as many working on the other issues. Armitage said Lilly has worked in recent years to establish a legal infrastructure outside the U.S. because of increasing globalization.
“You need a local legal infrastructure in place, but one that’s pretty well-wired together and has a global legal perspective to know what’s happening in other parts of the world,” he said.
Armitage travels the world going to conferences and also meeting with clients and attorneys associated with Lilly and others in the industry. A typical day defies the definition of “typical,” Armitage says, since it usually varies dramatically depending on continuing legal challenges and whatever the emerging legal issue of the day might be.
Mostly, he focuses on strategic legal environment issues – or whether better ways might exist for the civil justice system to work for the company, he said. That could include reviewing potential product liability issues, reviewing contracts and deciding what partnerships might be worth exploring.
He’s hit rough spots through the years, being the legal chief in charge of navigating the murky waters of pharmaceutical regulations, the patent system and the emerging biofuels industry. He was on the losing side in Lilly’s legal woes in 2000 when unsuccessfully attempting to retain U.S. patent protection on antidepressant Prozac, its top seller at the time. He’s been at the front line of mass liability lawsuits by patients and patent attacks from three generic drugmakers involving the drug Zyprexa, and he’s been a part of Lilly settling many lawsuits out of court. Armitage said patent challenges will likely continue in the years ahead as more of Lilly’s patents are set to expire and generate more generics.
“The past decade or so has seen some difficult challenges, but I’m still standing,” he said.
One of Armitage’s proudest moments came in September when he saw 30 years of his advocacy for patent reform become a reality.
After almost a decade of negotiations, this year Congress passed what is called the America Invents Act, described as the most sweeping patent reform in 60 years. The president signed the legislation in mid-September, with Eli Lilly chief executive officer John Lechleiter standing nearby. Armitage said he took personal pride in seeing that, especially after his decades of work on reform and testifying before Congress on the topic.
“I’ve been for three decades trying to clarify, modernize and simplify patent law,” he said. “One of the most gratifying things to me, now after 30 years of effort, is to have what I think is an amazingly improved patent law system that’s more transparent to the public. I’m proud of the U.S. for having what’s probably the best, and probably the first 21st century patent system in the world.”•