Why I Teach: Andrew Torrance

Andrew Torrance never thought he would be a law professor. “I thought I would be a veterinarian, or maybe a doctor,” Torrance said. “I was accepted to medical school in Canada, but I decided to do a Ph.D. instead. I think my deferral to medical school is still in force, so I suppose it’s not too late to become a physician.”

Torrance always had a passion for science. While pursuing his Ph.D. in biology at Harvard, he developed an interest in policy, and a mentor encouraged him to consider law school. Torrance added J.D. to his list of Harvard credentials, then went to work for Fish & Richardson, a firm specializing in Intellectual Property law.

“It was a great time to be a biotechnology patent attorney,” Torrance said. “The Human Genome Initiative was in full swing, there was exploding interest in inventions involving biotechnologies like genetic engineering, stem cells and gene therapy, and there were all sorts of wonderful applications of these scientific breakthroughs.” He spent four years working on patent prosecution and patent litigation involving genes, genetically engineered organisms, pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

In 2004 Torrance became patent counsel for a multinational medical device company, Inverness Medical Innovations. “It was fun to learn how to be the client and to work on strategy, not just to focus on specific, isolated individual projects whose end results I would rarely get to see,” Torrance said. He helped supervise several of the company’s subsidiaries and helped develop and defend the company’s large portfolio of patents to cover the molecules and methods they developed for cardiac diagnostic devices.

While Torrance was working in industry, his wife, herself a dean at Harvard University, noticed a job posting for a professorship at KU Law. “The description was so precisely tailored to my interests that she thought I should apply,” Torrance said. He joined the KU Law faculty in 2005.

Though Torrance enjoys more creative freedom and greater autonomy as a professor, he applies the same rigor to his scholarship that he did working for his former law firm and company. His biggest challenge is finding enough time to explore his ideas. Some of the research that inspires him the most involves applying scientific approaches to legal research.

One project, with coauthor Bill Tomlinson, professor of information and computer science at the University of California Irvine, involved an online simulation game that enabled players to invent things virtually, patent them, sell them, buy them, license them and sue each other for patent infringement.

“We asked questions that are almost impossible to ask in the real world,” Torrance said. “Our first finding was the most controversial. In our game, under our particular conditions, we found that a system without patents generated more innovation than a system with patents. We’ve replicated that finding each time with varying conditions.”

Torrance’s research informs his teaching approach and sparks interesting dialogue in his classes. “I bring my research into the classroom all the time,” he said. “Today we talked about the possibility of copyrighting DNA. My students could not look to case law for an answer, because there is none yet; instead, they had to apply existing legal principles to a brand new issue in a rigorous way. They seemed to enjoy exploring this new idea. My hope is that forcing them to think creatively about legal questions for which there is yet no precedent will help prepare them for the many novel legal issues they are sure to confront during their careers.”

Professor Torrance (second from left) and his students in the Virgin Islands.

Professor Torrance (second from left) and his students in the Virgin Islands.

In other cases, Torrance takes his students out of the classroom and immerses them in the research environment. One of his most popular and rewarding teaching experiences was developing a field-based course in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Students do extensive reading to prepare for the course and conduct field research for a biodiversity law paper during their time abroad. The class meets with attorneys, developers, environmental groups, legislators, parks services and federal government officials, federal and territorial judges, landowners, and other citizens with vastly different perspectives about biodiversity.

“Students come away with an understanding not just of existing doctrine in biodiversity law, but also how legal issues develop and evolve, sometimes unpredictably, in the real world among real people,” Torrance said. “Sometimes we have literally stood between groups of people having very different interests: one group driving bulldozers to remove tropical forest for new luxury houses and the other with placards, bullhorns and handcuffs for attaching themselves to trees they hoped to save. My students have often had the great privilege of talking to both sides about what role the law has to play in deciding how biodiversity should be used. There is no better way to learn the law than to do and experience it in the midst of vigorous conflict.

“Teaching has been one of the highlights for me here at KU. I love how much teaching is valued by both students and professors. I love to teach, and I love to do my teaching in ways that stray somewhat from traditional approaches.”

Torrance credits KU Law with supporting his unorthodox approaches to scholarship and teaching. “I have wonderful colleagues, none of whom has ever tried to discourage me. They’ve bent over backward to accommodate the weird topics I study,” he said. “KU has been the perfect place for me. It’s been a fantastic launching pad, with supportive colleagues and great students. I look forward to what I will be able to do here in the future.”

— Professor Torrance’s scholarship is available to download for free on SSRN.