Attorney of the Month, Rick D. Nydegger

Blazing a Trail for Inventors

By Amile Wilson

As global communication and competition continue to increase, the importance of protecting intellectual property grows. Rick D. Nydegger of Workman Nydegger has made a career building legal shields for intellectual property rights and played a significant role in helping to shape the U.S. patent system.

Today, more lawyers study IP law and many, if not most, law schools offer courses in trademark, patent and copyright law. When Nydegger attended law school, no classes addressed the specialized subjects of intellectual property. He was drawn in not by the glamour of Hollywood copyright law, but by the practicality of engineering patents.

“Before becoming a lawyer, I worked for Utah Power and Light Company, checking their distribution lines,” Nydegger says. He coordinated sections of distribution lines, so if a section of the line experienced a fault, it could be contained to a relatively small section of the overall distribution network. As a student working part-time in the southern division of UP&L, he wrote software to help improve fault tolerance and improve efficiency of line losses.

“I had a degree in electrical engineering,” Nydegger says, “but my boss at UP&L – a close friend and mentor – kept pushing me, saying I could only reach my full potential if I went to graduate school or law school. I felt I owed it to him to at least apply.”

Nydegger was accepted into the second graduating class at Brigham Young’s law school.

“Law school was completely different from anything I had experienced as an electrical engineer,” Nydegger says. “Engineering is about looking for answers; law is about the questions being asked. It was completely foreign to me. I dug in and worked hard to make up for what I felt was a lack of preparation.”

More than just surviving law school, Nydegger fell in love with the law; he enjoyed it even more than the engineering world. “It felt like coming home in some ways,” he says. “I didn’t like some parts of electrical engineering, particularly the process of building circuits, then testing them to find out why they didn’t work as I had intended. I loved the mathematics, the equations, the theory of it, but didn’t enjoy the hands-on part of it.”

Ten years after graduating from law school, Nydegger had the opportunity to return as part of the adjunct faculty at the University of Utah Law School, and then later at the BYU Law School. Nydegger spent a dozen years teaching intellectual property courses. “I loved being back in that environment, interacting with the students,” he says. “It was one of the highlights of my career.”

While still in law school, Nydegger received a call from Ross Workman, a chemical-engineer-turned-lawyer who had started a patent practice at the Salt Lake firm of Strong, Poelman and Fox.

“Ross said the firm wanted to expand its patent practice, and were looking for someone with an electrical engineering background,” Nydegger says.

As a result, in December 1976, while still in law school, Nydegger was invited to visit Workman, which led to being hired as a clerk at Strong, Poelman and Fox.

“I loved working in a general practice firm,” Nydegger says. “I learned from Ross Workman, a great IP lawyer, but was also constantly learning from a lot of other incredibly talented lawyers in other practice areas. The patent practice was doing well, but it was hard for people outside the Salt Lake area to find us because we were a small practice group inside of a general law firm.”

In April 1984, Workman, Nydegger and another patent lawyer, Allen Jensen, decided they needed to form a firm that specialized solely on intellectual property law, so they could grow their reputation in that field. Workman Nydegger (initially known as Workman, Nydegger & Jensen) was born. Alongside the intellectual property practice, the firm handles complex litigation and a range of related transactional work.

“We’ve historically focused exclusively on intellectual property and have always been fortunate enough to keep busy,” Nydegger explains. “The work is always intriguing. In fact, it’s sometimes the simplest inventions that end up presenting the most convoluted problems.”

Nydegger attributes his success to his hard work and being in the right place at the right time. One such instance happened shortly after the new firm was formed.

“We began working on software issues back in the ‘80s,” he says. “For years, the legal community wasn’t sure software was appropriate for patent protection. Once the courts began to rule favorably on that question, there was a rush to patent software.” Workman Nydegger has subsequently become well-known for handling this kind of patent work, with some of the largest software companies in the world (Microsoft among others) looking to the firm to help handle its software patents.

Nydegger has also had the opportunity to help shape U.S. patent policy. “Patents are important because they help protect the investment of time and money that is made by people who are developing new technologies,” he says. “The protection afforded by a patent often permits such people to recoup that investment. And, while a strong patent system that carefully balances the protection of new technology and their investment is important, it’s also crucial that competition not be stifled by granting and enforcing unwarranted patents. It can be a delicate balance.”

Nydegger has played an active leadership role in the patent law community. He chaired the electronic and computer law committee for the American Intellectual Property Law Association (AIPLA) – an organization of 16,000 private practice, corporate, government and academic lawyers. Eventually, he was asked to serve on the AIPLA’s board of directors and then later on its executive committee, eventually serving as president. He was appointed to lead a special task force to help the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office develop its “21st Century Strategic Plan,” which led to an appointment by the Secretary of the Department of Commerce to serve as the chair of the Patent Public Advisory Committee.

This service afforded Nydegger with the opportunities to participate in filing amicus briefs on some high-profile cases at both the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. He also had the opportunity to lead AIPLA during its effort to introduce legislation relating to the America Invents Act which was enacted Sept. 16, 2011. Originally introduced in January 2005, the bill ultimately resulted in moving the United States from a first-to-invent system to a first-to-file system. “During the years that I was involved with AIPLA and the USPTO, colleagues joked that I should cut costs and just buy an apartment in Washington, DC,” he says, referring to the numerous trips he had to make to Washington during that time.

Nydegger also spent a dozen years on the board and served for two years as president of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. “Serving on the board for the Inventors Hall of Fame was incredibly interesting,” he says. “I had the chance to attend the Hall of Fame Induction ceremony each year, and to host events and dinners with some of the most innovative people in the world, like Don Keck, who was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his invention of the fiber optic cable. They are simply great people; they’re typically so genuine and unassuming that you would never guess that they had accomplished such incredible things.”

As Workman Nydegger’s influence has grown, so has the firm’s client base. But Nydegger is quick to say that the firm also prides itself on never being too busy to take care of individuals and small clients with the same degree of care and attention given to its larger clients. “We often spend several hours up front consulting at no charge with individuals and new clients in an effort to help them better understand patents and the patent system before they decide on whether to pursue a patent,” Nydegger says.

In 2005, the firm hired Nydegger’s son, Chad, who joined the firm’s litigation group. While originally studying to become a physical therapist, the younger Nydegger found career options in that field limited. He enrolled in law school and began pursing courses in intellectual property law. He clerked for Judge Randy R. Rader, who later became chief judge of the Federal Circuit. When Chad returned to Utah, he approached his father’s firm about joining with them. Nydegger had reservations.

“Chad’s credentials were impeccable, but I had misgivings about mixing family and work. I was concerned with the appearance of nepotism,” he explains. Nydegger recused himself from the decision and urged his partners not to hire Chad. But they felt he would be a great addition to the firm, so Chad was welcomed to the team. Nydegger and his son decided that they wouldn’t work on the same cases or even in the same areas, which has permitted Chad to make his own way on merit. Chad is now a full partner at the firm and a successful litigation attorney.

Nydegger married his high school sweetheart, Denise Winegar, and they recently celebrated their 43rd anniversary. They are the proud parents to five children and grandparents to 14, all but four of whom live within a 40-minute drive. Every summer, he and his wife host a weeklong pirate and fairy sleepover for all 14 grandchildren. “The oldest ones are getting to be teenagers now, but they still enjoy spending a little bit of time with the grandparents,” Nydegger says with a smile.

“I have to give my wife credit for all the work she did raising our children,” he says. “Somehow she still manages to be a fantastic homemaker, gardener and cook. She is without a doubt one of the brightest and most talented people I’ve ever known. Each year, she puts together her own cookbook and it’s every bit as good as any at the bookstore. Perhaps most importantly, she never turns down an opportunity to be of service or to help someone else in need. One of my biggest goals in life is to try to be more like her that way.”

Proud to be a trailblazer in the world of patent law, Rick Nydegger and his team at Workman Nydegger continue to represent innovators large and small as they work to protect the technology of the future today.

For more information about Rick D. Nydegger, visit www.WNLaw.com.