Chambers Associate interviewed Finnegan partners Erika Arner, Scott Burwell, and Virginia Carron for a feature discussing opportunities in intellectual property law for underrepresented groups. The partners discussed what attracted them to IP law, the importance of mentorship, diversity in IP law, how they've grown their careers, and the possibilities that IP law has to offer.
What first attracted you to IP law?
Erika Arner, partner, leader of Finnegan’s electrical and computer technology practice group: I majored in computer science in college but knew that I did not want to be a coder in a cubicle. When I discovered that patent law would allow me to use my technical training in a different way, I was sold. Patent law combines the best of both worlds – the nerdy cool science with sophisticated legal writing and advocacy.
Scott Burwell, partner, management and compensation committee member: I was always interested in science and technology but realized in college that I did not want to pursue a career as a physician or a researcher. I happened to stumble upon the field of IP law as a first-year law student, and quickly discovered that this practice area would allow me to continue to learn about science without having to “do” science in a laboratory setting.
Virginia Carron, partner, member of the management and compensation and partnership admission/elevation committees: My love of learning. Practicing IP law enables you to be a student for profit. You can continuously learn new technologies and science and must also stay abreast of the ever-changing IP laws.
As a candidate coming in from an underrepresented group in law, did you have any reservations about starting out and developing within the area of IP law?
Erika Arner: My first experience with IP law was working for the IP professor at my law school. Her encouragement and guidance made me confident that I would succeed regardless of my gender. I was also used to being one of the few women in my undergraduate computer science classes, so being in the minority in IP practice didn’t seem that different.
Scott Burwell: I was confident in my general legal training from law school, but I did not have the prior experience in the field of IP law that a number of my peers had, since they had worked at the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) before going to law school. I realized that the nuts-and-bolts of patent law would take some extra study, but I was willing to put in that effort to get up to speed quickly.
What was your experience like in your early years of practice? Were there certain initiatives or mentors (whether DEI related or not) that you found useful for your career progression?
Erika Arner: I had several terrific mentors—women and men—in my first years at the firm. They gave me tons of responsibility and opportunities, while also providing training and support so that I was well-prepared for each challenge. I also benefitted from the firm’s part-time associate program that allowed me to work a reduced schedule while my children were young. I was able to continue on the partnership track (a priority for me) but at a reduced pace that allowed me to also make Mommy-and-me swim lessons and playdates every week.
Scott Burwell: I was very fortunate to be staffed on prosecution and litigation matters led by phenomenal partners, who were exceedingly generous with their time and helped mentor me as I developed as an IP attorney. The firm was considerably more demographically homogenous at the time I joined (especially as compared to today), but I felt reassured that management was committed to diversifying the ranks of attorneys. Looking at the roster of attorneys today as compared to when I began, it is clear that tremendous progress has been made.
Virginia Carron: As I started in an IP law firm, I wondered if I would find mentors and champions who were also underrepresented, as well as mentors that were not. At the time, there were fewer women in IP law, particularly with engineering backgrounds. I was fortunate to have great male partners in my firm who mentored me and gave me substantial opportunities to develop relationships with underrepresented in-house attorneys who were clients. They in turn also mentored me and gave me responsibilities for their work that I might not have had but for our affinity.
Did you feel that there were areas in IP law that were more diverse than others at the time? Has that changed over the years?
Erika Arner: The life sciences side of patent law has always seemed more diverse than the electrical/computer technologies side, likely due to the difference in the number of women and diverse attorneys majoring in those subjects in college. As more recent STEM efforts target students in elementary school on up, I expect we will see that shift over time as more and more people of all races and genders focus on STEM careers.
Scott Burwell: Trademark and copyright law has historically been more diverse than patent law, primarily because patent law requires a technical background and the same pipeline issues that exist for lawyers generally are even greater in the hard sciences.
Virginia Carron: Yes, most other areas were more diverse. I cannot think of an area of the law that was less diverse when I started practicing.
Did you have any diverse and/or female role models in the IP law space that you looked up to and were inspired by?
Erika Arner: One female associate at Finnegan was nine months pregnant when she interviewed me, became my associate advisor when I joined the firm, and made partner not long after that. She was a great early role model for me of a hard-working, successful mom lawyer. Twenty years later, she is still someone I turn to for advice, motivation, and friendship.
Scott Burwell: There were no Black partners at the firm when I was a junior associate, but I was fortunate to have diverse role models at other firms who I could look to for guidance in my career. Within Finnegan, I am extremely grateful for the guidance and mentoring provided by Carol Einaudi and Jean Fordis, both of whom played critical roles in my development.
Virginia Carron: One mentor who really had an impact on me and my career was Sandy Evans; at the time (early 90s) she was the head of IP for BellSouth (between the divestiture and the merger with AT&T). She was one of the very few women and LGBTQ heads of IP at a technology company, and she invested much time and energy giving underrepresented IP attorneys a voice and a hand.
How do you feel about being a role model for underrepresented attorneys who are looking to achieve similar things in their careers?
Erika Arner: Mentoring is one of the best parts of my job. I don’t just feel that it is my responsibility to reach back; I truly find it gratifying to help people achieve their goals. There is nothing more satisfying professionally than watching someone I worked with as a new lawyer grow into a confident, successful first chair litigator or the leader of a large team handling a client’s most important work.
Scott Burwell: I take very seriously the obligation of being a role model for underrepresented attorneys. In view of the demographics of the profession at the time, when I was a junior attorney there were very few senior attorneys with a background similar to mine. Now that I have been practicing for nearly three decades, it is my duty and privilege to pass along the knowledge I have gained over the years and assist junior attorneys with finding their own success.
Virginia Carron: It is one of the most rewarding things I get to do! I really enjoy getting to know underrepresented attorneys and all less tenured attorneys and mentoring and advising them while watching them succeed. Even in the struggles, it is fulfilling to be a champion for an underrepresented attorney.
Do you consciously approach the position of being a role model and/or mentor? If so, how?
Erika Arner: As the leader of Finnegan’s electrical/computer tech practice group I am acutely aware of the significant underrepresentation of women and minorities in that part of the IP practice. I spend time every day working to improve that, from personally reaching out to mentees to encouraging others to do so, to organizing formal and informal gatherings and trainings.
Scott Burwell: Yes. I make a point to act as a role model and mentor for junior attorneys, and I try to do so with an eye toward what their ultimate career goals may be.
Virginia Carron: Yes. I look for opportunities to take on attorneys to advise and try to build a relationship with as many as I can, both within my own firm and outside it.
Have you ever been a sponsor to an attorney from an underrepresented group? If so, what did the process of sponsoring involve and why is it so important for those from underrepresented groups?
Erika Arner: Sponsorship is so important and requires more than just dispensing advice. Sponsorship means investing your time and sometimes your political capital to help another attorney advance. One important way to sponsor an attorney is to staff them on great work and give them opportunities (even when it means taking a lesser role yourself).
Scott Burwell: Yes, I have sponsored numerous attorneys from underrepresented groups. A good sponsor is, most importantly, a good listener. A sponsor needs to hear the concerns identified by the junior attorney and try to help address them to the extent possible. Junior attorneys from underrepresented backgrounds have far fewer senior attorneys to look up to, so it is crucial for those in a position to do so to actively sponsor and mentor the next generation.
Virginia Carron: Yes. Sponsorship can take many forms, including helping an attorney get opportunities to work with certain clients or other attorneys, making introductions, listening, and advising on choices about how to invest time and energy, and promoting the strengths of the attorney to those who might benefit. I especially enjoy helping an underrepresented attorney create a plan for what they define as success and then helping to develop concrete steps necessary to achieve the milestones they set along the path.
From your position in leadership/committees focused on management & compensation and/or partnership & elevation, what are your priorities now for ensuring that diversity and inclusion continue to be enhanced at Finnegan and the IP law space more generally?
Virginia Carron: It is important to start the process for enabling diverse attorneys to succeed well before they are ready to be considered for partnership or elevation. We have made it a priority to offer or assign our diverse attorneys champions, mentors, and business development partners early in their careers so that they have the resources they need all along the way to grow and develop the skills they need to succeed. In addition, we offer opportunities to be involved in external diverse training and networking programs and expose our diverse attorneys to other diverse attorneys at our clients and in the IP space generally. And as a woman in an IP law firm, I, along with most of my diverse partners, try hard to lead by example, to promote opportunities and recognition for other diverse attorneys, and to invest our time and energy into enabling them to succeed.
Do you feel that there are any specific challenges in the realm of IP law when it comes to the retention of underrepresented attorneys at IP law firms?
Virginia Carron: Because of the desirability for and lack of diverse IP attorneys it is even more challenging to retain diverse IP attorneys at IP-only law firms. Many companies, law schools, and agencies are interested in hiring diverse IP attorneys who have experience at a law firm and have thus been trained and developed. Attorneys from an IP-only law firm are generally understood to have extensive in-depth IP skills after a few years which makes them more attractive for hiring away. In addition, IP law firms often do not have the same salary and/or profit scales as Big Law firms and this makes diverse IP law firm attorneys susceptible to also being lured away for higher pay by Big Law.
From your experience as an IP lawyer and the position you occupy at Finnegan today, what would you say to underrepresented candidates about the opportunities that are available to them in the IP law space? What could they do and where could their careers as IP lawyers take them?
Erika Arner: I encourage candidates to learn about the wide variety of work under the IP law umbrella – not just patent law, but also trademarks, trade secrets, false advertising, etc. IP law offers such varied opportunities, that there is something for everyone, including adversarial in-court-every-day litigators, expert negotiators handling licensing deals, patent prosecutors working with cutting edge technology, trademark lawyers with marketing expertise, etc. The challenge for the IP community is helping candidates from underrepresented communities learn about these terrific opportunities.
Scott Burwell: From my perspective, the opportunities are far greater today than when I began nearly thirty years ago. Underrepresented attorneys have demonstrated the ability to lead Fortune 500 companies as general counsel, and in some cases as CEOs. Although the profession is not yet fully representative of the makeup of America, the increased importance that companies and firms are placing on legal diversity demonstrates that much progress has been made over the past 30 years.
What advice or message would you like to give to students from underrepresented groups who are curious about pursuing careers in IP law? What would you want them to bear in mind as they make their decisions?
Scott Burwell: A career in IP law is intellectually stimulating and fulfilling. It can often be challenging, and it can require the same sacrifices that other high-powered positions do. But for those seeking the opportunity to assist inventors and companies working on the cutting edge of technology with the legal aspects of their inventions and product development, there is no better career to choose than one as an IP lawyer.
Virginia Carron: There has never been a better time for underrepresented attorneys in IP law! Go for it as you lean into your differences and rely on them to set you apart to your advantage and to make our practice better because of its diversity.
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