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The Chicago law firm that became synonymous with “patent troll”-type litigation is shutting down, following the death of founding partner Raymond Niro.
The remaining partners of the Niro Law Firm are shuttering the firm, according to a report in Crain’s Chicago Business. A core group, including Niro’s son Dean Niro, will launch a new firm called Vitale Vickrey Niro & Gasey.
“We wanted a new start,” said Paul Vickrey, who became Niro Law’s managing partner after Ray Niro passed away in September of last year. “The Niro firm has been synonymous with patent litigation, and a group of us wanted a new firm with a broader focus.”
While the move is directly connected to Niro’s death, it’s also a sign of the times. There’s far less room in the new legal landscape for sharply crafted patent lawsuits against big companies, the kind of cases that could yield settlements or verdicts worth tens of millions of dollars.
Pioneer for Patent Plaintiffs
Raymond Niro made a name for himself in patent litigation back in the late 90s by representing a company called TechSearch that wanted to assert its patents in court. Intel, a defendant against TechSearch patents, came up with the term “patent troll” as a derogatory way to define the TechSearch’s business model, which involved buying up patents and focusing solely on licensing and litigation.
“Troll was a derivative of, er, me,” Niro told IP Law & Business in 2001. “I’m the first.”
He was also one of the most successful. In an era when many patent lawsuits were criticized as nuisance litigation, defendants may not have agreed with Niro’s views, but they knew he was willing and able to be a formidable force in front of a jury.
Niro always maintained that he was standing up for the small inventor. Born in Pittsburgh, he was the son of a bricklayer who was also an Italian immigrant. After getting his degree in chemical engineering, he went on to law school at George Washington University.
Many in the tech sector loathed Niro for lawsuits they deemed an abuse of the system. His more controversial actions included litigation campaigns like the one brought by Innovatio IP, which sent out more than 8,000 letters demanding license fees from small businesses like chain hotels and coffee shops.
Niro had a heart attack while vacationing in Italy in 2015. Crain’s reported that he won more than $1 billion in settlements and jury verdicts over the course of his two decades in the patent trenches. He was 73 years old.
By then, his firm was already shrinking, having gone from 30 lawyers to 14. After the Supreme Court’s Alice and Octane Fitness cases were decided in 2014, the kind of high-stakes patent litigation Niro was an expert at became riskier. In 2015, the Niro firm was ordered to pay more than $4 million in legal fees to HTC due to a court’s finding that Niro lawyers knew an inventor had made false statements to the US Patent and Trademark Office.
“The stand-alone patent case is dead on arrival, and I don’t think we’re unique,” Niro told Crain’s Chicago Business a few months before his death.