DID BASKINS HAVE A CHOICE?
After spending almost her entire career at Hewlett-Packard Co., Ann Baskins stepped down last month as its general counsel in the midst of a congressional inquiry into the company’s boardroom leak probe � a resignation many observers said was inevitable even though she, unlike some other officials at the company, has so far escaped criminal charges.
“She’s clearly going to be under a legal cloud, and wouldn’t be able to credibly serve as GC at this point,” said David Skeel, a professor of corporate law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
In a packet of documents submitted to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Baskins’ lawyers appeared to pin much of the blame on her underling, Kevin Hunsaker. They gave examples to show she relied on the senior counsel to gauge whether pretexting, or lying to obtain private phone records, was legal. Hunsaker and former Chairwoman Patricia Dunn were among five people charged by the California attorney general last week.
But Skeel, speaking after the September hearing but prior to last week’s charges, said that the ultimate responsibility rested with Baskins: “The general public frowns on efforts to pass off responsibility to an underling � not knowing what others were doing is nearly as problematic as misbehaving.”
Baskins’ resignation also underscores important lessons to other general counsel, corporate governance experts say.
“If you’re a public company, you’re going to be held to a higher standard,” said Jesse Fried, the co-director of the Berkeley Center for Law, Business and the Economy at Boalt Hall School of Law. “What a public company does is going to be considered the business of the entire country, and even minor, indirect violations of the law will bring the hammer down.”
Because corporate scandals can quickly spiral into a national issue, GCs at public companies have to be extremely vigilant, even if it means hiring more staff to make sure everything is nailed down to their satisfaction, Fried said.
It appears Baskins herself would agree. In a letter to the congressional committee her lawyers wrote, “With the benefit of hindsight, Ms. Baskins wishes that she had more actively inquired about the methods being used and taken steps to halt any that were inconsistent with HP’s high ethical standards, such as pretexting.”
� Kellie Schmitt
A JUDGE WITH GROUPIES
Judge Randall Rader of the Federal Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals is the closest thing to a rock star the patent bar has, and he’s coming to Silicon Valley.
At the invitation of the Federal Circuit Bar Association and Stanford Law School, Rader, who has penned more than 400 opinions in patent cases since he started on the bench in 1990, will be one of the speakers at an open forum on Oct. 23 at Stanford Law School.
The talk promises to be a lively event, according to lead organizers Edward Reines and Mark Lemley.
Reines, a patent litigation partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges and the president-elect of the Federal Circuit Bar Association, said Rader’s visit comes at an “interesting time.” With patent reform talks heating up in Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court hearing a record number of patent cases, Rader’s insights on many of the issues concerning the patent community should be useful.
“Judge Rader is known for his candid and inspired views, and his visit to Stanford will be a great opportunity for the Silicon Valley community to benefit from his thoughts,” Reines said.
Rader will be joined by another patent law celebrity of sorts, U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte from San Jose. The patent bar vigorously lobbied the White House to appoint Whyte to the Federal Circuit recently. Patent law professor Kimberly Moore of George Mason University got the nod instead.
“This is a great opportunity to get the candid, unscripted views of two of the most respected patent judges in the country,” said Lemley, a Stanford patent law professor.
Reached at his chambers, Rader indeed promised a no-holds barred conversation. “No questions are off limits, everything is open for discussions,” he said with a chuckle.
Rader, who has been traveling around the country doing court outreach, said, “There’s a lot of discussion about reforming the Patent Act, and I think some of that discussion is a bit of an over reaction to the current state of IP law.”
Rader, who teaches several general and specialized intellectual property courses at George Washington University Law School, is also looking forward to teaching a patent law class with Lemley during his visit. “We’re going to tackle priority doctrine,” Rader said.
The open forum starts with a reception at 6:30 p.m. in Room 108 at Stanford Law School. It is free and open to the public.
� Xenia P. Kobylarz