‘I Made Plutonium for Uncle Sam’
Bradley Groff brings an engineer’s perspective to IP law
Published in 2024 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
By Nancy Henderson on February 7, 2024
Brad Groff had already inspected the overhead pipeline at the South Carolina nuclear weapons plant where he worked as a mechanical engineer, making sure the position of the components perfectly matched the 50-year-old illustrations, and hand-sketching his findings on a notepad. Then his hard-nosed supervisor looked at the findings and said, “There’s an old blue-handled valve I think you missed. Go back out and look,” Groff remembers.
Somewhat begrudgingly, Groff again climbed the ladder and stepped out on the catwalk. “And sure enough,” he says, “the handle was rusted, but you could see some chips of blue paint there. He remembered the blue color of the handle when he put it in probably 20 years before. He had a real solid knowledge of his facility; and if you were going to do anything to the equipment, he wanted you to have that level of detail before you physically cracked a pipeline or opened a valve.”
That was more than three decades ago. But his gruff, perfectionist supervisor still serves as a role model for Groff as he deals with the detailed nature of intellectual property law. Although, Groff jokes, “I hope my people skills are a little softer than his.”
Groff focuses on securing patents for his clients’ mechanical and medical device inventions, registering trademarks for them, and protecting them from infringement. “It’s mostly in hardware,” he says, adding, “I actually do a fair amount of work on children’s accessories for a client. That’s pretty fun because some of it [involves] toys you get to play with.”
Groff comes from a long line of fix-it folks. His grandfather would pull out his toolbox whenever a tractor or baler broke down—“usually with a stream of four-letter words that my mother wondered where I learned,” Groff adds—and his father, a tool-and-die maker, knew how to maintain everything in the house, from plumbing to electricity. “Just watching them over my childhood, I kind of got interested in how things worked,” Groff says.
About to graduate with a mechanical engineering degree in 1988, he signed up for the only elective that fit his schedule: pre-law. Two weeks after it started, the professor reminded the students that only freshmen and sophomores were eligible for the class. Luckily, the instructor not only allowed him to continue as an independent study course, he encouraged him to funnel his engineering education into a law practice.
Groff wasn’t ready for that yet. Instead, he went to work at the Westinghouse Savannah River Company. “I made plutonium for Uncle Sam,” he says.
Much of the work was classified. “When I first started, I couldn’t even sit in my office by myself,” Groff says. “I had to have what they called an escort—somebody that had a higher clearance—who was basically hired to walk around with me, and look over my shoulder, and make sure I didn’t open up a file cabinet that I didn’t have the right clearance level to look inside.”
Meanwhile, the thought of practicing law nagged at Groff, and in 1994 he earned his J.D. The intellectual property field was booming, he says, and he was naturally drawn to it.
Not surprisingly, his mechanical engineering savvy often comes into play. For one medical device client, he readily grasped the intricacies of the manufacturing process in a way many attorneys might not. “That gave me a head start,” he says. “When you’re writing a patent application, you have to understand how the thing works. It’s not just filling out a form and checking some boxes. You have to be able to describe how it works in words that a judge or jury who’s not necessarily an engineer would be able to understand.”
His on-the-job training at the nuclear plant, he says, has also helped him understand the importance of confidentiality when handling as-yet-unreleased patent information.
But the most important spillover from his previous life is that precise attention to detail—the kind that spots old blue-handled valves. “In patent work, especially in drafting patent applications,” he says, “just the placement of a comma or choosing one word over another, can make all the difference.”
Get ’er Done v. The Long Wait
Oppenheimer was a surprise hit at the box office last summer, but what struck Groff, a former mechanical engineer at a nuclear facility, was the speed with which the atomic bomb was created.
“I just can’t fathom that kind of urgency and get ‘er done mentality,” he says. “When I worked at a nuclear plant, there was so much bureaucracy and so much red tape. To change a light bulb, you needed to have a procedure signed off by 16 people. It may not have been quite that ridiculous, but that’s the way it felt in terms of it being really hard and really slow to get things done and to move things along. In Oppenheimer, they were just full speed ahead because of the situation they were in.”
IP law spans both timeline extremes. “When a client comes to us with an invention that they want to protect, timing matters. We always try to turn things around pretty quickly. And being a small firm, I think we have a little more flexibility. We’re a little more nimble than if we were a
bigger operation.” But then comes the long wait. “When it hits the patent office, that’s where the bureaucracy sets in,” he says. “On a standard patent application, if I file it today, it may be two years until I hear anything back from the patent examiner, substantively, in terms of yes of no. And even then, there’s usually a couple of rounds of back-and-forth to hammer out just how broadly we can claim it. So it may be three years after I file something until the client actually sees a patent.”
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