“If there is one important lesson I’ve learned, it is not to be single-minded.”

Comcast’s deputy general counsel, David Marcus, talks through how a nontraditional path in-house, including time in the US Navy, informs how he defends intellectual property

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, patent litigation, including litigation by nonpracticing entities (NPEs), really started to explode. And the truth of the matter is, I largely fell into it.

I never thought about being a lawyer growing up. My undergraduate degree from a small liberal arts college was in mathematics with a minor in physics. I joined the Navy two days after graduating, in 1988. After six years as a submarine warfare officer, I decided to go to law school and began working in Reed Smith’s IP group during my third year. I naturally ended up joining that group after graduating.

A few years later, I moved over to an IP boutique firm, where I devoted most of my time to patent infringement litigation. When I first started practicing, there were just a few well-known (or infamous, depending on one’s point of view) NPEs. The patent litigation landscape was largely dominated by competitors suing each other. I, therefore, ended up representing operating companies, both as plaintiffs and defendants, in competitor-versus-competitor litigations. And strangely, even though the number of NPEs and NPE-initiated patent cases began to explode and dominate many IP lawyers’ practices, prior to joining Comcast I had never been involved in an NPE suit; the entire time I had been doing competitor suits.

It was a real shock when I came to Comcast, where the legal team was facing 16 or 17 patent cases, all brought by NPEs and mostly in places that I had only heard about. The people who had been handling NPE matters exclusively could hardly understand what the patent system was really about—or at least what it was intended to be—so my experience on both sides of competitor cases definitely gave me a leg up in thinking about arguments to craft and defenses to pursue. It gave me a different perspective.

My liberal arts education ended up paying huge dividends for me in the US Navy and as a lawyer. People who have solely technical backgrounds are often not good writers, and my background helped me think about things more creatively.

If there is one important lesson I’ve learned, it is not to be single-minded. There is a lot of specializing in law school these days, but I don’t think that’s always a good idea. It’s important to get exposure to many areas of law. You get to bring that to bear once you start specializing, once you start practicing. It allows you to think about issues that confront you in whatever you choose to specialize in. You can know the principles of contract law or tort law and apply them elsewhere. You can make better and more creative arguments.

Though law is very different than being in the Navy, coming to it with naval experience and background provided a leg up, in my view. I had a different way—often more mature and experienced—of thinking about things than my peers who did not have the same life experiences and training. The training and rigor of the Navy translates well in the corporate world—the way you attack challenges and your stamina are transferable.

Often, people assume that simply because they are facing a big company and high-priced law firms that those people will be sophisticated and know what they’re talking about. But the thing that never ceases to surprise me is that when you really push a lot of these people to defend the positions they’re taking—give me a rational argument, not just “this is what we want; this is what we always get”—many of those people cannot articulate in a principled and rational way why it is they should get what they’re asking for or purportedly always get.

If you’re able to provide a principled defense of what you’re asking for and why it is they should accept it, it can be quite powerful and disarming. It makes it harder for them to hold their position, and it almost always puts you in a better position.