Lisa Larrimore Ouellette

Lisa Larrimore Ouellette 1

Assistant Professor of Law Lisa Larrimore Ouellette arrives at Stanford Law School with an impressive and uncommon set of credentials. She holds not only a JD but also a PhD in physics, a subject she embraced while a Swarthmore undergraduate. “I fell in love with physics and after doing research with a professor the summer following my freshman year, I wrote a first-authored publication,” Ouellette says.  “I thought I wanted to keep doing physics for the rest of my life.”

Ouellette also worked on projects at the Max Planck Institute, CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), and NIST (the National Institute of Standards and Technology), and her graduate work at Cornell focused on nanotechnology. But about four years into her doctoral program, Ouellette had an epiphany: “I realized that, even though I enjoyed it, in the long run I would feel constrained by my specialized research field.”

Instead, she wanted to address “big-picture policy issues.” And she liked to write.  “And when I thought about what else I could do, patent law naturally came to mind,” Ouellette says.

And so in 2008, a year after she defended her dissertation, Ouellette entered Yale Law School to focus not only on patent law but also more broadly on “innovation law,” a term she uses to cover the many legal regimes in addition to patent law that intersect with and affect the innovation process.

“The innovation ecosystem is complex, with diverse actors operating within a web of legal institutions that govern knowledge production, including not only patent law but also trademark, tax, administrative law, and many other legal fields,” she says.  

Based on her extensive scholarship and her ambitious research agenda, it seems that Ouellette has indeed found her niche. She began publishing while still in law school, including on university patenting of green technologies in the 2010 volume of the Yale Law Journal—for which she served as articles editor—and on gene patents in the 2010 volume of the Stanford Technology Law Review. And, while a third-year law student in 2011, she created Written Description, a blog that reviews and promotes the discussion of IP scholarship, including patent law, IP theory, and innovation. 

Following law school, Ouellette clerked for Judge Timothy Dyk of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and for Judge John Walker of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, while managing to continue her scholarly pursuits. She was particularly productive during her stint as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project.

“That’s when I had time to really focus on writing,” she says. It’s also when she zeroed in on one of her primary interests: how to make innovation law more responsive to the real world of science.

“As a scientist, I have the advantage of understanding how research works in practice, which is essential to determining how the law can best serve the scientific community,” Ouellette says.

Ouellette’s scholarship is rooted in the scientific method and employs a two-pronged approach in which empirical research informs theory development.  “Empirical evidence is essential for testing competing theories of how patent and other innovation laws work,” she explains.

One area of patent policy in which she already has collected empirical data, and which illustrates the synergistic nature of her approach, involves the technical disclosures required in patents.  

“These disclosures are intended to explain how the invention works so that other scientists can build on this knowledge,” she says. “Although most legal scholars have claimed that scientists never actually read patents, I obtained survey responses from 211 nanotechnology researchers and found that many do read patents and find useful technical information in them.” 

According to Ouellette, the interesting theoretical question is “given that we have a patent system that scientists are actually using, how much disclosure should the law require to optimize the benefit.”  

Ouellette looks forward to expanding this survey into other technology sectors and using laboratory experiments to begin to quantify the benefit of improved disclosure. But that’s just one of her many planned projects.

“I also hope to improve our theoretical understanding of innovation law beyond patents,” she says. “And I plan to study the processes by which IP laws evolve in different institutions, such as how doctrine develops in the courts, agencies, and legislatures.”

Given her interests, says Ouellette, she could not have chosen a better location to begin her academic career.

“Silicon Valley is the ideal place for examining these issues and Stanford Law School respects not only excellent scholarship but also the real-world policy implications of that scholarship for the practice of law,” she says. “It’s the perfect combination.”