Wednesday, May 09, 2012

$2.4 Million for State Stem Cell Lawyers: Too Much or Not Enough?

The California stem cell agency is spending $2.4 million a year on lawyers, a figure that one agency director has described as "awfully bloated."

More than one dollar out of every ten that CIRM spends on its operations goes for legal advice, and the subject came up at a meeting last month of a meeting of its directors' Finance Subcommittee. The issue triggered a sharp exchange revolving around a proposal to hire an additional attorney to deal with intellectual property issues.

In the next fiscal year, the agency expects to have legal team of six (four lawyers and two administrative assistants) on board out of a total CIRM staff of 60. It also has three outside lawyers or firms under contract at an annual cost of $1.1 million. Overall, CIRM is spending 13 percent of its $18.5 million operational budget on legal matters. Its budget for legal services will increase $50,000 next year.

CIRM's proposed budget includes a cut in external legal contracts to help finance the addition of another staff attorney. Elona Baum, CIRM's general counsel, is also advancing an additional proposal this month that would pay for another staff attorney indirectly through CIRM loans to business, thus avoiding problems with the 6 percent legal cap on the agency's budget.

At the April 2 meeting of the Finance Subcommittee April 2, Art Torres, CIRM's co-vice chairman and an attorney himself, vigorously questioned the addition of another lawyer. In an exchange with Baum, Torres said,
"Well, wait a minute. We already have you. We have Ian. We have Scott. We have James. What more do we need to add more to our legal services budget, which looks awfully bloated."
Baum and CIRM President Alan Trounson defended the addition of a staff lawyer. Both cited the need to protect intellectual property and promote commercialization of CIRM-funded inventions. Trounson and Baum said grantee institutions are failing to do so. Consequently, they said, the stem cell agency is "at risk."

In one exchange, Torres said,
"There are current counsels within the UC and Stanford and USC that ought to be taking care of this for their grantees."
According to the transcript, Trounson replied,
"Well, they're not – you know, this is not being taken care of in a way which is -- which is -- which is reasonable to the organization here. and I think it's putting the organization at risk...."
Baum cited an "a very in-depth" memo that she said justified hiring an additional attorney. Following the meeting, the California Stem Cell Report asked for a copy of the memo.

It consisted of a one-page job description. Dated March 5, it was written by Baum and directed to Trounson. It described the duties of the new lawyer but not the justification for hiring the person. In addition to IP work, duties including 350 hours of work to "provide increased certainty of commercialization rights," 250 hours for due diligence in the grant award process, 200 hours of work on genomics and reprogrammed adult stem cell efforts. The memo calls for 690 hours on business transactions including 150 hours to administer the loan program and 200 hours on agreements with companies seeking to relocate to California.

Much of the committee discussion focused on the need for legal expertise on IP issues, which Baum said the agency lacked.

CIRM first took a crack at hiring an IP attorney in 2008, seeking both a consultant and a fulltime staff attorney. A fulltime staffer was never hired. However, Nancy Koch was hired as an IP consultant for six months at $150,000 and has been with the agency since. Koch was deputy general counsel of Chiron Corp. and its successor Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics, Inc. During 11 years at Chiron/Novartis, Koch was responsible for a wide range of intellectual property matters including litigation and licensing. Her current contract is for $250,000 for a year but would be reduced to help provide cash for a staff attorney. Baum said last month that Koch is primarily involved now with collaborative arrangements with other countries.

Our take? It is commonplace to be critical of lawyers, their profession and their numbers. CIRM, however, is an unprecedented agency operating in uncharted scientific waters with an enormous reponsibilility for generating a return for the state. It is engaged with firms that will be negotiating aggressively to cut the most beneficial deal possible for themselves – not for California taxpayers, who are paying the freight. CIRM must protect the state's interests. And first-rate IP lawyers do not come cheap. In 2008, the agency was lowballing when it offered $150 an hour. If CIRM fails to generate a financial return for the state, critics are sure to say that it was overmatched legally when it dealt with the private sector. On the other hand, the agency is sure to be battered by contemporary critics for its battalion of barristers.

The issue of a new hire went unresolved last month, and it was turned back to a handful of directors and staff to solve. CIRM directors will deal with it again at their meeting later this month.

A final footnote: Philip Pizzo, a CIRM director and dean of the Stanford medical school, was part of the meeting during which Trounson identified Stanford as failing to take of care of some of its IP responsibilities. Pizzo said towards the end of the meeting, "If Stanford is going to be referenced, we ought to be clear that we've got all the facts correct about what Stanford does or doesn't do."

Pizzo said Stanford does a "great job."

(An earlier version of this item said incorrectly said that CIRM would have six lawyers on staff next year.)

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:20 PM

    We need to know some specific instances in which the funded institutions dropped the ball on CIRM-funded inventions. It seems like it should be simple: CIRM requires frequent reports from all grantees. Shouldn't those make CIRM aware of potentially patentable inventions...and trigger a phone call to the tech transfer office at the institution?


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