Patent troll—the pejorative term for someone seeking compensation for patents that they have little or no intention of using to make a product—has become such a part of the parlance that the Obama administration used the term when seeking new patent litigation reform legislation in June. That was just the latest example of the impact that Chicago's Raymond Niro of Niro, Haller & Niro has had on the profession. An in-house Intel Corporation lawyer dubbed Niro's client TechSearch LLC the very first "patent troll" in 2001 in the pages of The Recorder, an affiliate of The American Lawyer. (TechSearch had earlier sued Intel for libel after being called something even less flattering—a patent "extortionist.")

Defense lawyers might be irked to hear it, but Niro has had more influence on big-firm patent litigation practices than almost anyone. He made a name for himself by winning a string of eight-digit damages awards on contingency for inventor and patent-holding company clients in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Niro's detractors may criticize him and myriad copycats as shakedown artists who exploited the patent laws to garner outsize damages awards and scare up nuisance settlements, but critics don't often pan Niro's courtroom skills. He brought a trial lawyer's approach to the dry and technical world of patent law by playing up the role of the inventor before judges and juries.

"I have given the little guy the opportunity to fight the big guy," Niro says. And that's kept the defense bar busy.