The Many Hats of Mr. Hill

James is every mother’s fondest dream — a doctor and a lawyer

Published in 2004 Southern California Super Lawyers — February 2004

James Hill had thought about becoming a doctor as far back as elementary school. But in high school he turned to music, playing drums in rock bands around his hometown of San Gabriel. One of his projects, a hard-rock cover band called The Commie Plot, played in a 1977 “Battle of the Bands” competition featuring Van Halen.

“But we weren’t battling against them,” Hill is quick to add. “They were just the headliners and we amateur bands were just amongst them. This is before they had their big break, before their first album.”

Now 44 and a partner at Knobbe, Martens, Olson & Bear, Hill has stopped runnin’ with the devil. But in college at California State University, Los Angeles, Hill continued to focus on music, playing in a jazz ensemble. He might have gone on to major in the subject if a random, senseless tragedy hadn’t struck his family.

Hill’s father left a Pasadena bar late one night in 1979. Hours later, gunshots were heard around 6 a.m. at the Brookside Park Country Club. His body was found in a ditch. Hill remembers the police saying the murder looked like a “professional hit” and his family being terrified the unknown gunman would target them. The case was never solved, but the aftermath forced Hill to take a hard look at his future.

“I’m the oldest of seven kids. So when he was killed, my mother was left destitute. I took a year off of college to just work at a supermarket,” Hill says. “During that year I rethought the direction that my life was going in. I thought, to be a successful musician you didn’t need a degree. You only need to be very talented and I certainly was no great talent.”

Hill came back to college with a rekindled desire to be a doctor. He set his sights on medical school, specifically at University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. It was close to his family and featured the largest teaching hospital in the country, Los Angeles County USC Medical Center.

At first, Hill was interested in ophthalmology, but he found radiology during his fourth year of medical school. Hill says he was drawn by the broad experience the specialization required, perhaps foreshadowing his future hybrid career.

“[Radiology] was so multi-disciplinary,” Hill says. “You really got to see a little bit of every specialty. You had to know some urology, some orthopedics, some neurosurgery because you were helping those doctors with their treatments.” Hill took his radiological residency at Harvard Medical School at Massachusetts General Hospital with a fellowship in interventional neural radiology, dealing with things such as aneurysms that couldn’t be fixed surgically.

To hear Hill tell it, he decided to go to law school just for fun. “I was practicing medicine in Boston and became interested in law. I guess I had always been interested in it, just from the standpoint of wanting to understand more about how society works, the Constitution and the legal structures in our society. I went to my first year of law school at Boston University just as a lark in 1990.” After that initial year, Hill took three years off to return to his busy practice. Then, the threat of losing his credits brought him back for a second year in 1995, followed by two more years of medicine. Hill completed his final year of law school in 1998.

The first logical choice for a doctor-cum-lawyer is, of course, malpractice. But Hill lost interest in that specialty after clerking at a Boston firm known for handling malpractice suits turned down by others.

“Most of the cases that we saw were on the fringe. It was questionable whether the doctor had done anything wrong,” Hill says. “I just didn’t like the idea of all of these personal injury and malpractice lawyers trying to scramble for every case they could and trying to twist the facts to make it look like the doctor was negligent. I knew from my own experience in medicine that doctors, except for a few bad apples, really have their patients’ interests first. If there’s a bad outcome it’s not necessarily because they did anything wrong — although the lawyers sometimes twist it that way.”

In his last year at Boston University, Hill had discovered intellectual property law and fell in love with the specialty.

“When I first found patent law, I thought, ‘This is great!’ Hill says. “You get to work with inventors, tons of medical device companies, universities and other physicians who are inventing things. I absolutely love it.”

He came to Knobbe, Martens, Olson & Bear right after graduation in 1998. He chose Knobbe because it “happened to do more medical device patent work than any other firm” and quickly set to work with issues like medical devices, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.

Both Hill and his firm have had a string of recent, technology-related successes. For one of them, Hill — who became a partner this year — worked on a team representing Masimo, which makes pulse oximeters, devices that measure oxygen saturation in the blood. The oximeters are an invaluable tool for monitoring lung-related problems. But oximeters were sensitive to movement, so patients were forced to lie perfectly still while the tests were performed. The small startup’s innovations resulted in a motion-insensitive technology and the company was sued by the world’s largest oximeter manufacturer, Nellcor, for patent infringement in 1999.

In late March of this year, after a fiveweek trial, a jury found Masimo had not infringed on any of Nellcor’s patents and, rather, Nellcor had infringed on Masimo’s.

The jury awarded Masimo $134.5 million, one of the largest patent infringement decisions ever given for a medical device company. As if two professions weren’t enough, Hill also decided to take on academia by becoming a clinical assistant professor of radiology at the USC School of Medicine. While he does teach medical students, Hill is primarily a researcher, specializing in “informatics” — the digital storage, viewing and transmission of secure patient data like X-rays and charts.

So what’s next for the doctor-lawyer-professor? Fireman? Pilot? Senator? Hill swears he’s done branching off his careers. “I’m through,” he says, laughing. “I really love medicine and the law. So I’m here to stay.”

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