Lucas Osborn grew up in Houston, where his family had long been engineers in the Texas oil industry. But by the end of his studies in chemical engineering, he had decided to break the family mold and go to law school.
The unusual path led him to a career in patent law, where his background in chemistry would help him navigate legal disputes over cutting-edge science and technology. Now a professor at Campbell University’s law school, his recent research is focused on the legal implications of 3-D printing.
Lately he’s been tapped to bring his expertise to the global stage, where he will move from trade secrets held by companies to military secrets held by governments in a new role with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The international body won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its efforts to rid the world of chemical weapons and has gained worldwide attention for its role in destroying chemical weapons in Syria.
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Last month, Osborn became the only American now serving on the organization’s Confidentiality Commission, a subgroup charged with protecting the military secrets of countries that consent to chemical weapons inspections.
Rich Leonard, dean of the law school, says the assignment is one of many Osborn has taken on both within the school and beyond, from writing its accreditation report to leading a class where students traveled to Panama to study adoption law or teaching a summer course in England.
In the end, he says, all of Osborn’s work benefits both the school and his students.
“It goes to his curiosity and his eclectic background,” says Leonard, a former federal bankruptcy judge. “We pride ourselves in being in tune to what’s going on in the legal profession, and one part of that is showing students that we’re out there involved in the day-to-day legal life of our city and state, and in this case, the world.”
Path to academia
Osborn, 36, was following his family tradition when he went to study chemical engineering at Texas A&M University, but he soon found the job didn’t fit his energetic personality.
“My dad was an engineer, and my grandfather was an engineer,” he says. “I did some internships, though, and I felt like I was just punching a clock. It didn’t strike me as energized and competitive.”
He considered a few alternatives, but in the end went on to law school at Harvard University. Because of his background in chemical engineering, patent law was a natural choice.
It was also a fortuitous one, as the field was rapidly expanding in the wake of policies and legal precedents that strengthened protections on intellectual property.
The new approach was meant to energize the American economy by enabling companies to invest in new ideas without fearing that their work would be copied. It also created a lucrative field of law. As more patents were issued, defending them in court became more necessary for companies and more profitable for their lawyers.
“Thirty years ago, patent law firms were little boutique firms, or if a large firm had a patent department, it was three weird people in a broom closet,” Osborn says. “Now it’s seen as an attractive field to enter.”
The most obvious incarnation of patent law is pharmaceuticals, with companies eager to protect their stake in drugs that they spend millions of dollars developing and testing.
When Osborn returned to Houston to work in private practice, some of the companies he represented developed medicines or medical devices, while others held patents related to the oil and gas industries.
But again, he found himself not fully satisfied. He had clerked for a judge during law school, and at a reunion luncheon for former clerks, he met a law professor who suggested he try academia.
“I just didn’t love my job, and I was working at it 70 to 80 hours a week,” he says. “When I told her I loved the research and writing parts, she said that’s what law professors do.”
Back in high school and college, he had thought he might earn a Ph.D. and be a professor, and now the plan returned. He first had to start publishing academic papers, which he managed to write during nights and weekends.
To The Hague
His efforts paid off when Campbell hired him in 2009, shortly after moving the law school from the university’s home in Buies Creek to its current location in downtown Raleigh.
Osborn was charged with developing the school’s program in intellectual property, which includes legal concepts relating to patents, as well as copyright, trademarks and designs.
Leonard, the law school dean, says the Triangle’s strong innovation economy made training in intellectual property a must for Campbell’s students, who will be called upon to understand the tricky legal concepts surrounding new technologies.
Osborn’s research on 3-D printers focuses on whether the computer files that are used to create objects using this technology can be patented – a question that will affect how counterfeiters will be prosecuted as the technology becomes more widespread.
He teaches several courses within his area of expertise but has also ventured into other areas. For one class that spanned spring break, he took students to Panama to study adoption law with a Campbell alumnus who works there.
His latest international appointment will take him on annual trips to The Hague, in the Netherlands, where the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is based.
The independent organization, which works closely with the United Nations, inspects countries that voluntarily sign on to ensure that they are not harboring chemical weapons. As part of that process, the inspectors must agree not to divulge confidential information about those countries’ defense systems.
The commission of 20 people from around the world that Osborn will serve on has set rules for how inspectors are to handle this information, and meets annually to review its policies.
It also sits as a panel of judges in the case that a country believes its secrets have been compromised by the inspections process.
Osborn was tapped by the U.S. State Department to replace an outgoing member who was also an expert on intellectual property.
He sees the appointment as an interesting perk to his career, a chance to travel and learn more about international law. But he realizes his obligations may end up being more serious, particularly if he finds himself at odds with less-than-friendly member states such as Iran.
“It’s fun and prestigious,” he said. “But if I do have to sit as a judge, what kind of pressures are going to be on us?”
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