Trial Lawyer Q&A - On the Stand with Sarah Chapin Columbia - McDermott Will & Emery

On the Stand with Sarah Chapin Columbia



Sarah Chapin Columbia, a fellow in the prestigious American College of Trial Lawyers, has led 17 patent infringement, trade secrets and invalidity trials in federal courts across the country. She counsels clients on overall intellectual property (IP) strategy and positioning in several industries, including pharmaceutical and biotechnology, semiconductor, medical device and manufacturing.

In this Q&A, Sarah shares why she became a trial lawyer, what common issue she sees her clients face in patent cases and how she uses her differentiated skill to overcome that issue and win.

In Depth

Why did you become a trial lawyer?

I didn’t plan to become a trial lawyer—I started out doing real estate and land use planning law. Through that, I got to operate around the edges of trial work and realized that I really liked it. I enjoyed performing in court, and it felt closer to the law than what I was doing with transactions.

I quickly moved out of real estate to litigation and trial work. At first, I focused on general civil and criminal cases—everything from white-collar to big civil litigation to antitrust. About 10 years into that part of my career, I was asked to work with a more senior partner to build an IP practice. So, I learned patent law and started working on patent cases.

How do you prepare for each day when you’re at trial?

I try to get some sort of outdoor time and exercise each day. I’m an early-morning person, so I’m generally up at 4 am. I first go through what needs to happen for the day, take a walk outside, and then get with my team and go to work for our client.

What is a common issue that you see your clients face?

Each client needs us to take extremely complicated science, technology and business issues and present them so that the jury will understand them and reach a decision in our client’s favor.

I primarily handle jury trials for cases that involve a very complex area of the law and a very complex area of science or technology. The trials are usually timed, so we are limited in the hours allotted to present the case to the jury.

What is one thing about your practice that you want people to know?

I’m trained as a lawyer, but I’m also a translator, teacher and storyteller.

Clients come to me not because I have a deep science or technical background (I don’t), but because I will roll up my sleeves and learn the science, technology and their business and why the case or controversy matters to the company’s future. Armed with that understanding, I can translate and teach the science to convey a compelling story that will support my client’s objectives.

Clients also know that, because I have to learn from scratch, I have a differentiated skill to teach the science, technology and business issues to the relevant audiences—judges and juries. Typically, our judges do not have science or technology backgrounds. Similarly, juries are made up of ordinary people who have been randomly selected for jury duty on any given day. These juries feature a spectrum of people, such as truck drivers, nurses, restaurant workers and everybody in between. Ultimately, they decide patent and other IP cases.

I start with the assumption that they are all smart people but are not likely to be familiar with the subject matter. My job—and my team’s job—is to introduce the information in a way that will enable the jurors to reach a decision based on the evidence presented, even if they cannot absorb all of the complexities of the science, technology and patent law.

What is the proudest moment of your career to date?

You know I’ve been doing this for 36 years!

If I had to pick one of my proudest moments, it would be when my McDermott team obtained a jury verdict for a small Japanese pharmaceutical company. Their only product had been accused of infringement and enjoined in the United States, so they couldn’t sell it.

We won and the best part was seeing my clients’ reactions. All of them were so happy and relieved by the jury’s verdict that they started to cry.

Even today, more than 10 years later, I receive notes of appreciation from those clients.

Check out more trial lawyer interviews in our On the Stand series.