Public Interest Law Careers Guide - Luigi Palombi Testimonial

luigi palombi

Public Interest lawyer: Luigi Palombi

Organisations: PALOMBIIP; Genetic Sequence Right Project at Australian National University

Short biography: Luigi Palombi is a ground-breaking lawyer who has been at the forefront at the fight against gene patenting. Blending public interest law with private practice, he has worked variously as a barrister, a solicitor, an academic, a pro-bono advocate and a consultant.

His book Gene Cartels: Biotech Patents in the age of Free Trade has been critically acclaimed by Nobel laureates, leading economists and patent law experts from around the world.

Law: where did you start?

I started in Adelaide in 1981as an articled clerk (I was one of the last - after 1981 all law graduates that wanted to practice law had to complete the GDLP course). My mentor was Willem Ouwens. Adelaide had a fused profession then i.e., I was admitted to practise in 1982 as both a barrister and solicitor. Strange as that may seem it actually worked well, although in retrospect it would have been helpful to have had a few classes in advocacy!

Being thrown into the deep end was very frightening at first, but soon enough I learnt the ropes from some wonderful barristers such as Houghton Williams QC, Michael David QC (now SA Supreme Court judge), John Doyle QC (former Chief Justice of SA Supreme Court) and David Angel QC (former NT Supreme Court judge).

By the time I left SA in 1986 I had appeared from the Magistrates Court all the way to the High Court (on a special leave application with John Doyle).

What was your pathway into Public Interest Law?

I'm not sure you can be a lawyer and not have such an interest. What I mean is that law is fundamental to society and if lawyers are to play a role in society then they must take an interest in the development and impact of the law on society. It's not enough, in my opinion, to be a lawyer and only act for clients. Indeed, it is incumbent on lawyers to take the lead on issues that may adversely impact on society when they feel that by not doing so the law may erode the rights of its members.

This is why I took a very public stand against the patenting of naturally occurring biological materials such as human genes or parts of human genes (including genetic mutations that are causative of human related diseases). It was in 1992 that I came across a patent over the HIV virus. The implications were immediately obvious to me. And since a patent is a monopoly that is supposed to be provided by society in return for an 'invention' and information about how to make it, it concerned me greatly to learn that patents were being granted over things that were not invented.

Preventing the patenting of 'isolated' human genes is one of a number of issues that I am involved in. The other is access to affordable, safe and efficacious medicines. Patents are said to be an incentive for the invention of new medicines, but at the same time the patent system, like any other system, is capable of being abused. The grant of patents for medicines with insignificant or trivial innovations (such as a coating over a tablet) is a distortion of the system. And like tax evasion, deprives society has adverse impacts.

Also, while it is clearly in the public good that new medicines over human disease be developed, it is also important to balance the needs of society so that those that can least afford access to those medicines are not deprive of them because of patents. Therefore, laws need to be flexible enough to assist the poor. Those in developing countries are entitled to have available to them the kinds of modern medicines we are lucky enough to have available to us here in Australia through the PBS.

Do you practise a mixture of commercial and Public Interest Law, and if so, how do you juggle the two?

I think I have already answered the question. How can you not?

What are some of the challenges you have faced in your career?

Estrangement from my professional colleagues in patent law for taking a stand against the patenting of isolated biological materials.

How did you deal with these challenges?

I got on with the job. Practising law is not a popularity contest. Nor is it only about making money.

What advice do you have for Law students and lawyers wanting to pursue a career path focusing on positive social change?

To always remember that while the rule of law is fundamental to society, the law must be fair and equitable beyond those that use it resolve their differences. Therefore, consider the implications beyond clients.

What do you find most rewarding in your work?

Making a positive contribution to society. Not always an easy thing to do. And not always immediately achievable.

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