Sanctioned: Living with a Scarlet Letter

By Paul K. Vickrey
November 20, 2015

EDITORIAL NOTE: This article was originally published in the Chicago Law Daily Bulletin on November 12, 2015. It is reproduced here with permission.

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sanctionsLast week I turned 60. For most lawyers, this would be a day of happy reflection about their careers. I had been looking at an unblemished 35-year career sprinkled with satisfying victories, not only for individual clients but also for social justice issues near and dear to my heart. That all changed when sanctions were entered against me and three of my partners in Intellect Wireless v. HTC, Case No. 09-cv-2945 (Northern District of Illinois) and Intellect Wireless v. Dell, Case No. 10-cv-06763 (Northern District of Illinois) in rulings holding us accountable for our client’s filing of a false declaration in the Patent and Trademark Office. While we disagreed with those rulings, we have entered into agreements settling all claims against us.

The settlements were costly and painful, but the lasting damage to my reputation was and is immeasurable. There were daily headlines about the cases in IP Law360; Forbes, Crain’s, and the Law Bulletin also ran articles about the rulings. My status as a pariah was palpable. I could tell from the looks (and averted looks) I encountered while walking in the Loop, and by the conversations which abruptly ended when I entered elevators. Some of that may have been my imagination; most was not. “People Are Strange” was my personal soundtrack for a while.

How does one deal with a public shaming? Nothing I learned in school or during 35 years of practice prepared me for this. But I had to take affirmative action to preserve my sanity and some modicum of dignity. The first thing I did was to take steps to avoid awkward encounters. In that vein, I withdrew from the Linn Inn of Court and the Union League Club, and skipped my law school reunion. Some friends criticized those decisions, but I needed to retreat and lick my psychic wounds.

As another component of my self-preservation plan, I threw myself into activities unrelated to the legal profession. My wife was a candidate for Alderman of the 43rd Ward, and my role as a de facto campaign manager served as a welcome respite from dwelling on the sanctions. My wife’s schedule also meant that I was the one who picked up our youngest after track practice and made dinner every night. I mixed up my schedule in other ways as well, such as taking a day off to travel to U.W. Madison to take my daughter to dinner and a basketball game. I entered into my annual marathon training with renewed vigor. I also took a hastily arranged hiking trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, as I have always found that breathtaking mountain vistas have a way of putting personal concerns into proper perspective. All of these activities left me with fond memories and a strengthened psyche.

On the practice side, I have made more of an effort to focus on business tort cases and pro-bono matters, both of which had been a large part of my practice in my younger days. Patent litigation has become way too acrimonious.

My family has been extremely supportive, and for that I am blessed. I also have been helped by emails and letters from colleagues (and even a few judges) with words of support and encouragement. Those gestures meant a lot to me.

Every day, though, there are reminders. Opposing counsel in some of my cases have pointed to the rulings. The other day I Googled myself and numerous articles about the sanctions immediately popped up. Of course, it troubles me that the sanctions are the first thing potential clients and new acquaintances see about me in a search. No, my scarlet letter will never go away, but I have refused to let it define my existence; in that I take solace. And, just maybe, my story may be of help to someone else whose career suddenly veers off track.

The Author

Paul K. Vickrey

Paul K. Vickrey is a partner for the Chicago-based law practice of Niro, Haller & Niro, a firm that specializes in representing clients in an array of intellectual property cases, including patent, trademark, and copyright infringement; unfair competition; trade secret misappropriation; and related business torts. He has an extensive track record in the trial of intellectual property cases, and the firm has established a national reputation based on its trial experience. Prior to joining the firm in 1996, Paul was a partner in a large Chicago firm for 10 years.

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Discuss this

There are currently 5 Comments comments.

  1. Michael Zall November 20, 2015 7:52 am

    My mother had a saying which I’ve learned is true: “if your concerned about what people think of you, you will be more upset about the fact that they don’t think of you”. Your sanction is a blip in your career and life and will soon be #326 in your google listing.

  2. angry dude November 20, 2015 1:11 pm

    Does anyone know of any recent cases where the lawyers for the defendant, e.g. a large infringing corporation, were sanctioned for lying straight face to plaintiff (including lying on record and providing falsified documents) about their non-infringement and other practices ?
    It should cut both ways…

  3. patent leather November 21, 2015 2:46 am

    Paul, I enjoyed your article. Thank you for having the courage to write about this. I’m not that familiar with the specifics of your case, but I realize how sometimes in this business “stuff happens” even though there may be no bad intentions on the attorney’s part. While there are many bad attorneys that deserve their sanctions, you don’t appear to be one of them.

  4. Benny November 22, 2015 2:44 am

    Angry at 2,
    Although this situation is more common with high profile criminal defense lawyers, I do not recall any case (at least where I live) of where “the lawyers…were sanctioned for lying straight faced…”. Dallying with the truth is a professional privilege not accorded to the general public.

  5. Itzik November 23, 2015 9:04 am

    Thank you for sharing with us, Paul.