Joseph Re seizes the day—and juries—with his enthusiasm
Published in 2008 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 25, 2008
Updated on February 5, 2021
If anyone was born into law, it was Joseph Re. Both his maternal grandfather and his mother were lawyers. His father, Edward D. Re, was a federal judge and longtime St. John’s University law school faculty member. “My dad was President Lyndon Johnson’s last judicial appointment to get confirmed by the Senate,” Re says. This appointment put the Re family, which by 1969 included 9-year-old Joseph plus four more brothers and seven sisters, in New York, where the family dinner table included nightly discussions of the law.
“My dad would bring home his cases and try them on us,” Re recalls. “My dad would say, ‘OK, the issue for today: fishing waders; are they shoes or pants?’ The whole idea of intellectual debate is how I grew up. A table, 14 feet long. We all had assigned seating.
“My father was a strict disciplinarian,” Re continues. “He would announce who had the floor. He would shout EDDIE HAS THE FLOOR. VICTOR HAS THE FLOOR! And everyone else would have to be quiet.”
Fishing waders, it turns out, are shoes. “You buy them by shoe size, not by inseam,” says Re, some 40 years after the dinnertime debate. “They were classified as shoes rather than clothing, and therefore had a different tariff or duty.”
Re’s mother was a surrogate lawyer, appointed to represent those who needed representation in trust or estate matters. “A kid who’s 15 years old,” he says, “in a foster home. Who’s going to represent that kid? My mother did it for years!”
It is this tradition of spirited debate, or just plain spirit, that Re has brought to the formerly dark hallways of patent law. Re has taken a specialty—patent law—once thought to be exclusive domain of dry, out-of-court settlements, and revolutionized it.
In 2004, shortly after Re won $134 million for Irvine-based Masimo Corp. in a patent infringement case against Nellcor Puritan Bennett, a division of the multinational behemoth Tyco Healthcare, William Rooklidge, former president of the American Intellectual Property Law Association, told The Orange County Register that “… the key is to make [patent law] interesting to the jury. And Joe can make anything interesting.”
Like Re, Rooklidge, now a partner at Howrey, began his career at Knobbe Martens Olson & Bear in 1987. At that time, says Rooklidge, few lawyers were engaged as full-time patent litigators. “A lot of people did patent litigation as an element of their practice,” he says. “Relatively few specialized.” The key to Re’s rise, Rooklidge says, is his personality and his smarts. “Joe has the ability to describe arcane concepts in understandable ways. He distills things down, gets to the nub of an issue. That’s why he’s so good with juries and professionals.”
Whether he is opening his arms wide in amazement at the foot of his firm’s shining new Irvine headquarters (Knobbe Martens recently moved into a glass-walled high rise—that they own—near John Wayne Airport. They own the parking garage too) or slicing those same arms through the air to make a point, Re is an evangelist.
“Nobody could ever accuse me of hiding my feelings,” he says. A conversation with Joseph Re is exhilarating even as it threatens to exhaust. Mere mortals struggle to keep up.
“I’ve never seen him without an excess of energy,” says name partner Don Martens. “He makes me tired just following him around.”
“Joe’s [always been] a person with a lot of energy,” says Louis Knobbe, also a name partner. When Knobbe and Martens hired Re in 1987, their firm stood at 20 lawyers. Now it numbers almost 200. Re’s contribution to that growth has not gone unnoticed.
“If you asked every litigator in our firm,” says Knobbe, “[you’d find that] all of them have worked with Joe. And many of them will say that working with him has helped speed along their careers.” Like his father, who spent, according to Re, “almost 60 years teaching law,” Re has a great interest in teaching.
Re’s parents were heartbroken when he moved to California. More heartbroken, perhaps, than when they realized that only two of their 12 children would become lawyers. “Two out of twelve lawyers wasn’t so hot,” he says. “Of course,” he says, his voice rising heartily, “they would have preferred it if we had more priests! We didn’t have any priests!”
After a two-year clerking stint for Judge Howard T. Markey, the first chief judge of the federal circuit’s appeals court, Re put his focus on intellectual property and patent law. “When I was in law school I knew I wanted to go into patent law,” he says. “The trouble was that back then law schools didn’t cater to intellectual property students. There were only five students in my IP class. We’d sit around a table. That was the extent of the IP programs. It was the least popular [practice area].
“But I’d had some exposure to [patent law and IP] because of my dad.” Before there was a federal circuit (founded, in part, by Re’s clerking boss, Judge Markey), there was the U.S. court of customs and patent appeals. Re’s father sat on that court by designation.
“It was a natural to me. I went to engineering school (Re’s undergraduate degree is in civil engineering), so I liked the science and intellect of patent law. I worked at a patent firm while I was in law school.”
It took a while for Re’s father to accept his son’s move. The senior Re had hoped Joseph would stay near home and work at the Justice Department. Eventually, Re’s parents embraced it, visiting often enough for Edward Re to develop relationships with Martens and Knobbe. “He gave a four- or five-hour lecture once, during education day here at the firm,” says Re.
Muses Knobbe, “That was the only time I’ve seen Joe quiet, when his father was talking.”
In 2004, Re led a team of lawyers to the $134 million Masimo Corp. patent infringement decision. For Re, it was success on a variety of levels, not all having to do with the huge final award.
“Masimo taught me how important it is to have team members you absolutely trust and can rely on. I have no doubt that one of the reasons we did so well on that case was because we had a very cohesive team of lawyers, all from this firm, who liked each other.”
That case, says Re, was also important because it gave him the chance to create a relationship with Masimo CEO and founder Joe Kiani. “I think [Kiani] would say to you that it was the first time he really had to let go, the first time he had to have faith and trust in someone else. He’d always been in charge of his destiny.”
In addition, in protecting the asserted patents that cover signal processing related to Masimo’s pulse oximeters (medical devices that allow clinicians to obtain accurate oxygen saturation and pulse rate values despite interference caused by patient motion), the case underlined the importance of patent law. “Without the patent system [Kiani] would have been ignored,” he says. “Large, monopolistic companies want to hold back technology. They want to dole it out on their time schedule, when they think the market is ready to buy and pay extra for it.”
However, Re is quick to point out that much of his work involves defendants as well as plaintiffs. “The press only wants to talk about cases where there are large damages at issue,” he says. “I’ve been winning cases for a long time, but the press isn’t interested when you defend a patent.”
It is the law, the system itself, that spins Re’s wheel. Drawn from those family dinners in Rockaway, Re has a respect and awe for the laws that “level the playing field. If it wasn’t for the patent system,” he explains, “many people wouldn’t reap rewards for their efforts. Many wouldn’t make the effort to begin with.
“What a great feeling it is to represent somebody who feels that they’re finally getting their due. I have a lot of clients who just want their day in court. We might not win, but I want them to hear me. I want to be heard.”
Re insists his work must be fun, or he’s not interested. “The people who think, ‘What is Re thinking? How can this be fun?’, they’re going to be no good at it themselves,” he says. “The ones who think, ‘Re’s having a good time,’ they’re good lawyers. They love this field because they realize it’s a lot of fun. And it’s important.”
At home, Re calls himself “part clown, part football coach, part maniac. I’m on high speed and then I crash! No one sleeps deeper than I do.” He is not, however, able to re-create the dinner tables of his youth, he says, with his wife and two children. “My wife and kids don’t want me talking about work at home,” he says. “And yet, I think they’re starting to appreciate what I do.
“Sure, they like to poke fun at me, but I’ve learned that it’s important to poke fun at yourself. Roll with the punches. Making fun of [my] looks, [my] crazy New York accent? That doesn’t bother me.”
In 2006, Re lost his two greatest mentors. Markey died May 3, at age 85. And then, on September 17, Re’s father died.
“He visited me in August, a month before he died,” says Re. “He loved coming out here, had friends out here, and loved visiting the firm.” From his father, and from Judge Markey, Re says, he learned that “the law should be enjoyable and satisfying.
“Every day I try to remain optimistic about the work we do and the goals of my clients,” he says. “Otherwise you might turn into a typical grumpy lawyer. There are too many of those people in the profession already!”