From Kirk Damman’s perspective, most patent lawyers serve big companies as “hired guns.”
“Which is great — when you know what you want them to shoot at,” he said. But what about smaller companies who might have a great idea but no notion of how to protect it, how to market it or how to make use of the legal advice they get?
That’s where Damman, a partner at Lewis Rice, comes in. While a large company might need a lawyer simply to file a patent application, Damman is able to bring big-firm help to small companies as they navigate the trickier question of whether such an application is strategically necessary or financially feasible.
“In some sense, I’m trying to bring the concept of being an in-house counsel as outside counsel, and I’m doing it for companies that just have no way they could afford an in-house counsel,” he said.
It’s a role that Damman sees few other law firms taking on. It’s an approach toward innovation that is, in its own way, innovative.
“I think everybody should be doing that,” Damman said. “But I’m not sure they are.”
Damman grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as the son of an entrepreneur who started, among other things, an HVAC company. Damman wanted to be an entrepreneur as well. He earned degrees in physics and economics at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, including a foreign study program at Kings College, Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
After that, he’d intended to go to business school, but he was advised that he should get some other experience first to make himself a more attractive applicant. He applied to and was accepted at Harvard Law School, even though he had no intention of being a lawyer.
“I’m here because they wouldn’t let me into business school,” he joked.
His legal education made him more interested in what lawyers did, however, and after earning his law degree in 1999 he worked as an associate at Foley Hoag in Boston. He did patent litigation — close in some ways to his original passion, but ultimately “too much civil procedure and not enough patent,” he said.
Damman did have a chance to work with startups in Boston. So when he followed his wife to St. Louis in 2001 as she completed her post-doctoral studies, he looked to fill a similar role after landing at Lewis Rice. At that time, there wasn’t much of a startup community in St. Louis, but he helped to foster those firms that were out there on the cutting edge.
“I can get involved in this exciting thing, which is people building something from scratch,” he said.
Damman said his role is often to help the companies ask “Should we do this?” and not just “Could we do this?” For example, he said, a company with several great ideas might ideally want to file multiple patent applications. The reality, he said, is that the company “can’t afford one, much less five.” Instead, Damman is able to help find creative solutions to offer as much protection as existing resources will allow.
“I feel like I’m legitimately advising them,” he said. “I don’t use that word lightly. I really see my role as being an adviser, that that is the purpose of a lawyer to advise them of what they should and shouldn’t be doing.”
Lest anyone think that Damman just talks the talk, he also is an entrepreneur in his own right. He is quietly pursuing a startup that hopes to develop a baby bottle for premature infants.
“I still have the entrepreneur bug,” he said. “It’s helped me understand my startup clients a lot better.”