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This is a story of three clients, six firms, and multiple alleged conflicts of interest. In other words, says one lawyer close to the situation, “really a mess.” The imbroglio began when Peapack, New Jersey-based Pharmacia Corporation, New York-based Pfizer Inc., and the University of Rochester — opposing parties in a law suit — learned they were all being simultaneously advised by New York’s Pennie & Edmonds on opposite sides of the same issue. All three clients sued their former firm, in two separate suits, for breach of fiduciary duty. In April the university was awarded a patent — prosecuted by Pennie & Edmonds — giving it rights to all medical uses of Cox-2 inhibitors, a new type of pain killers. On that same day, Rochester’s lawyers at San Francisco’s Morrison & Foerster slapped Pharmacia, represented by Chicago’s Sidley & Austin and New York’s Fitzpatrick, Cella, Harper & Scinto, and Pfizer, represented by New York’s Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler, with a patent infringement suit. Rochester claims that it owns the rights to Pharmacia subsidiary G.D. Searle & Co.’s Cox-2 drug Celebrex. The arthritis drug, comarketed by Pfizer, is the best-selling new drug in history. The patent surprised the companies’ lawyers, but they felt even more shock upon learning that Pennie & Edmonds had prosecuted it. Since 1998, the 180-lawyer firm had been working as co-counsel with Searle’s and Pfizer’s attorneys in a patent interference action against Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based Merck & Co., Inc., which manufactures another Cox-2 inhibitor called Vioxx. One lawyer close to the fracas explains Searle’s distress: “Pennie & Edmonds was helping to defend its claim that it was the first to develop a Cox-2 drug, while at the same time helping to prosecute a patent which purports to block Searle’s ability to sell its product.” The mess doesn’t end here. The university filed its suit against Pennie & Edmonds after the firm suddenly “retired” it as a client. LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae’s Frederick Lacey, who is Pennie & Edmonds’s lead attorney in both suits, says that the firm dropped the university because “it commenced a suit against two [of its] clients.” But didn’t Pennie write the patent that enabled Rochester to sue in the first place? Of course. The university’s complaint even suggests that one Pennie & Edmonds’s lawyer may have worked on both matters. Despite this, Lacey says, “There was no conflict. Not all matters generally ‘relating to Cox-2′ necessarily give rise to a conflict.” There is one more piece to the puzzle. Pharmacia’s and Pfizer’s lawyers have filed a motion to disqualify Rochester’s counsel from the university’s infringement suit. According to the motion, Morrison & Foerster took on Rochester as a new client in order to sue Pharmacia, which they say was an existing one. Ethics 101, anyone?

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