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BlackBerry's New Lawyer Is Getting Busy

June 07, 2013

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A man tries a Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) BlackBerry 10 smartphone prototype at the BlackBerry Jam Asia developer conference in Bangkok, Thailand. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Steve Zipperstein prosecuted failed savings-and-loan associations in the 1980s and investigated the government's siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in the '90s. Now the battle-hardened lawyer has joined Canadian smartphone maker BlackBerry to fight its critics.

Zipperstein, who turns 54 this month, was lured out of retirement in Santa Barbara, California, last year by an offer to become BlackBerry's chief legal officer. He joined the Waterloo, Ontario-based company in July to handle everything from patent disputes to privacy issues, and says his time as a Justice Department lawyer and federal prosecutor in Los Angeles will serve him well in defending BlackBerry's interests.

"I was really blessed to be able to combine jury trial courtroom experience with inside-the-Beltway Washington political policy experience," Zipperstein said in an interview.

After years of market-share losses, BlackBerry is trying to stem a customer exodus to Google's Android and Apple's iOS, and the company's taking a more assertive legal approach to disputes. That includes challenging analysts who publish reports that BlackBerry says are untrue and lobbying for legislation to thwart companies derided as patent trolls, which obtain patents to demand royalties rather than making their own products.

One of Zipperstein's targets: Detwiler Fenton & Co., a Boston-based financial-services firm. Detwiler said in an April report that return rates of the new BlackBerry Z10 were unusually high and in some cases exceeded sales of the phone.

It was a charge that BlackBerry and Zipperstein refused to let stand unchallenged. The company asked both the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Ontario Securities Commission to investigate the report. Zipperstein at the time called it either "a gross misreading of the data or a willful manipulation." BlackBerry's stock fell almost 8 percent on April 11 after the Detwiler report appeared.

"Everyone is entitled to their opinion," Zipperstein said. "It was characterized as a statement of actual fact, and it was wrong."

Zipperstein declined to discuss where the investigations now stand, as did representatives from the SEC and the Ontario Securities Commission. Neither Anne Buckley, Detwiler Fenton's chief compliance officer, nor her colleague Steve Abbiuso returned responded to messages seeking comment.

Zipperstein's response to Detwiler Fenton was very much in character, said William Petersen, general counsel at Verizon Wireless, the largest U.S. wireless carrier. Zipperstein worked as Verizon's general counsel from 2003 until he retired in 2011.

"As a former federal prosecutor and investigator, he approached the job very creatively and aggressively," Petersen said in an interview. "He never wanted Verizon to be on the defensive, and that really helped."

Zipperstein also backs U.S. legislation that would force plaintiffs in patent litigation to pay the costs of the defendant, an attempt to dissuade frivolous lawsuits.

"For far too long, that conduct has gone on unchallenged," he said.

A week after Zipperstein joined the company in July, a federal jury awarded Mformation Technologies $147.2 million in a patent-infringement case against BlackBerry. Zipperstein went back to the judge to make the argument that Mformation had failed to meet the burden of proof. Six weeks later, the trial judge overturned the verdict and threw it out.

Mformation appealed the decision in September. Stephanie Markham, a spokeswoman for the Edison, New Jersey-based company, didn't return respond to messages seeking comment.

"BlackBerry is no longer an easy target for patent lawsuits," Zipperstein said. "We're fighting back and we're going to continue to fight back."

--With assistance from Susan Decker in Washington


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