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Leading by Example: Words of Wisdom from Women Leaders in IP

By Erika Harmon Arner and Jessica L. A. Marks

©2018. Published in Landslide, Vol. 10, No. 4, March/April 2018, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

Over the course of an inspiring week in the fall of 2017, we interviewed eight women leaders from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the judi- ciary, and IP-savvy companies. We asked each to recount how she became a leader and to share her advice for others, especially other women, who hope to follow in their footsteps and blaze new trails in intellectual property (IP). The conversations were as varied as these remarkable women, with stories of fledgling leadership skills emerging in places like summer camp and the Girl Scouts, lessons learned from good (and not-so-good) bosses, and leadership tips both lofty (“give back to your country”) and action-ready (“get out of your office and talk to people in person”). Here, we summarize common themes that emerged, mostly letting the women speak for themselves.

You Are Already a Leader

For many, the first step to becoming a leader is recognizing situations where you already are one. As Federal Circuit Chief Judge Sharon Prost recognized, “a lot of us have been leaders for a very long time. Women just fix things; girls just fix things,” which naturally leads them “to be called on to exercise leadership throughout their lives.”

This view was shared by Chief Judge Susan Braden of the United States Court of Federal Claims, who recalled being a leader at a very young age. “I was always the best seller of Girl Scouts cookies in my troop.” When she was eight or nine years old, Chief Judge Braden also started a fan club for her favorite comic book star, Katy Keene. “I became president of our local club, which I formed, and I would hold weekly meetings” for the boys and girls in the neighborhood. Toke Vandervoort, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel for Under Armour, had similar early experiences in leadership: “As a teenager, I was chief of my tribe in summer camp.”

Vandervoort noted that women may not initially recognize these early leadership roles as important in developing as a leader. “I never thought of my early leadership roles that way. But when I look back on that, I see it. Those same skills sort of set you up for later leadership roles. You learn to work hard. You learn to carry yourself in a way that other people are watching. You know that other people are counting on you in ways large and small.”

Michelle Lee, former Director of the USPTO, shared that sentiment. “I like to look at my leadership experience in a spectrum. The way it happens with many people is that you’re given small leadership roles along the way, and after proving yourself, you are given larger and more impactful leadership roles as you progress.”

A Leader Is Only as Good as Her Team (or, Why We Should All Want to Work for These Women)

According to Google Director of IP and Litigation Catherine Lacavera, “The main principle is that the leader works for the team. It’s not the other way around and I think when people get that wrong, leadership fails.” Chief Judge Prost agreed that for “most leadership roles, really your success is, or should be, measured not by how you’re doing, but by how the people that you are leading are doing.”

Supporting and promoting team members were common themes. For Debbie Segers, Vice President and Chief IP Counsel at FIS, “being an advocate for the people who work for me is a big part of my job.” Retired District Court Judge Faith Hochberg, who now runs Hochberg ADR, added that “your job is to make sure that you lead to their strengths by what you ask them to do.” She thinks of her leadership “as being the chief strategist, making sure that I assign the right roles to the right people.” Lee concurred, “My leadership style has always been extremely collaborative and transparent. I’m the sort of leader who likes to enable others around me to do the best they can.” Lee accomplishes this with “constant communication and showing individuals how what they do contributes to the broader mission, because once people buy into your mission, they see how what they do on a daily basis has a direct impact.”

Many times, supporting the team means giving team members the freedom to manage themselves, especially when the team consists of other lawyers. As Lacavera put it, “People ask me how I manage lawyers. I don’t try to manage them at all, actually. I make no attempt to manage them. They get a ton of trust, a ton of autonomy. I try to give them new opportunities, keep them excited, but if they need me, I’m there.” Chief Judge Prost noted that sometimes leadership roles explicitly do not include control over others. “In theory, I lead the court, but, like each of my colleagues, I have only one vote. I will have had a successful chief-hood if I cleared the underbrush for my colleagues so that they could do their jobs more easily.” As USPTO General Counsel Sarah Harris succinctly stated it, her job is to “hire good people, give them good work, provide them with support, and get out of their way.”

Chief Judge Prost advocates “understanding that you have an obligation not just to do your thing, but to try to help others do better at what they’re doing.” Lee explained that her role as a leader is “enabling those who work for me and under me to do the best possible job they can in areas where they have current skill sets, but even more importantly, helping them to discover other growth areas that they had not—muscles that they had not flexed.” Lacavera advises, “You need to support your colleagues; otherwise, they’ll never accept you as a leader.” She added, “People think you get a title that comes with all this authority. That’s actually not true. The authority and the trust—being called a leader—is an earned status.”

According to Lee, “A team focus, or a focus on the priorities of the agency, is so critically important. As a leader, I’d like to say that you enable your employees. So it’s got to be about others and the overall mission, rather than about self.” Another way to support a team is to share credit. As Chief Judge Braden noted, acknowledging other’s work reaps benefits all around. “Do good work and give other people credit, and you’d be amazed at how people will promote you for giving them credit.”

What Makes a Good Woman Leader

The interviewees were quick to point out that their advice applied to all people, not just women. As Lacavera put it, “I don’t try to lead like a woman leader. I try to lead like a leader.” Lacavera summed up the feelings shared by several of the women with an optimistic sentiment: “I think unconscious biases are real, and they do exist, and so I don’t want to downplay them. I hope to get past them. I try to encourage people to focus on the merits, and in the end the merits will win the day.”

But many of the interviewees acknowledged that women may have different experiences than men when leadership opportunities arise. Judge Hochberg recounted an experience early in her career when she was grilled during a press conference in a way that her male counterparts never were. But she addressed the questions asked without flagging. “I guess they were just trying to see if they could rattle me, and of course, they never did it again. It was one time. I didn’t get rattled, and that was the end of it.” As Lacavera recognized, as a woman “you will, occasionally, get feedback that you’re too harsh or you’re too soft or you need to be more this or you need to be more that. It’s kind of gender-loaded criticisms. The best advice I have for that is don’t internalize it. Don’t second-guess yourself, and don’t let that impact how you move forward.”

Chief Judge Prost acknowledged the difficult choices women must sometimes make to take on leadership roles. “The most important thing that a lot of women do in their lives is take the time to have children and the time necessary to raise them. Leadership implies a long steady career of dedication. And there’s obviously some compromise and push and pull involved in that, and it means choices.” But she added that having to make these choices was not inherently bad. “In certain respects, having those choices is a luxury and a blessing.”

Certain characteristics were seen as more typical of women leaders than their male counterparts. According to Judge Hochberg, “Too often people hold themselves back by thinking they’re not ready. In fact, women do this more than men. Women are the ones who have all the self-doubt about whether they’re ready or not. I just have always plunged in and figured it out, and I think that’s what a lot of people do.”

“It’s true,” commented Harris, “that women can be the leading authority on XYZ, yet many suffer from self-doubt. However, from my perspective, successful female leaders—or any successful leaders for that matter—outwardly exude confidence and competence, despite the fact that they have certain insecurities. Insecurities aren’t necessarily a bad thing, however. Many times they promote continued growth and learning.”

Gender issues aside, all of the women agreed that hard work is required to lead effectively. “As a leader,” says Segers, “I don’t ask anybody to do anything that I certainly have never done or I wouldn’t do myself. If there’s something that needs to be done, I’m right there in the trenches with everybody else.”

Advance Your Career by Stepping Up to Volunteer Opportunities

Most of the women noted that volunteering played a vital part in their careers. Chief Judge Prost found that “whether it’s for volunteer work or in your own job, volunteering for new and different things, you will learn something new, and you’ll get the chance to interact with different people.”

“When you’re a younger attorney,” says Segers, “you need to be open to anything that might come your way or open to anything that you see needs to be done and nobody’s doing it or nobody wants to do it. You should take on those types of assignments or jobs.” Segers’s own experience has borne this out. At her former company, “intellectual property at the time wasn’t a big area of the law for them. So whenever anything IP-related arose, I would handle it. I would figure it out. And I think that is why I was the one they thought of when they were looking for someone to promote.”

The value of volunteering for less well-known or more difficult opportunities was touted by several participants. Chief Judge Braden advised getting involved in bar association committees, but “don’t pick the lead one. Pick something no one else wants to do. Do it well and watch how other people get to where they are. Find out how they did that and replicate that.” Lee agreed: “Volunteer for some of the harder projects. The project that no one thinks can be done, that no one wants to do, and if you excel on that project, guess what? You will get leadership opportunities.”

“Many times opportunities arise, and you have a choice,” says Segers. “You can choose to keep the status quo and say, ‘I’m not volunteering for that. I am too busy. I don’t think I have the skill set. That makes me uncomfortable.’ Or you can decide to take that fork in the road, take that leap of faith and try something different. And a lot of times when you take that road less traveled, you build up a skill set that others don’t have and that naturally starts to put you into a leadership role. Whatever the subject matter or the topic is, you suddenly become the go-to point person.”

Volunteering also is a great way to network and expand your influence. According to Chief Judge Braden, “You can’t build a practice sitting in your law office doing good legal work. You have to get out of your office and go other places. Find out what’s going on, get involved, get in bar associations, volunteer to do a meeting, be in charge of the meeting. If you do a good job, they’ll ask you to do more.” Vandervoort agrees. “Get off the phone. Get off e-mail. Get out of your office. Go and interact with real people. We get caught up as lawyers in face time and office time. I’m happy when I don’t see my teammates if they’re interacting with clients. When they’re included in the business process, then they’re out there making a reputation for themselves and the team as strategic partners.”

Judge Hochberg noted that part of being strategic with volunteer efforts includes a bit of research. “There are so many opportunities, but people don’t even research to find out that they exist.” For example, “there are district conferences in every judicial district once a year. Most of the time, they’re open to members of the bar. So you intermingle with the judges. You volunteer to be on programs. You try to get to be a presenter in an area that you have some expertise, and you want to get your name out there so that people begin to notice who you are and what you can say and do, and those are necessary first steps.”

“Aside from being the ‘right thing to do,’ giving back and volunteering creates new opportunities for personal and professional growth,” Harris says. However, she cautions people to be committed to any volunteer effort by dedicating adequate time to do a good job. “I can’t guarantee that if you do volunteer it will advance your career, but I can guarantee that if you volunteer and then shirk your responsibilities, it will likely impede any advancement opportunities.”

Advance Your Career by Switching Jobs and Trying Something New

Although changing jobs is stressful, many participants encouraged it. “You take prudent risks with your career,” said Judge Hochberg. “If leaving something you’re already doing well and taking on something new has a chance of increasing your human capital, your visibility, and widening the scope of expertise that you have, do it.”

Chief Judge Prost concurs, “I’ve worked in a lot of different organizations, which is, I think, beneficial. I used to advise my clerks to never stay at a job for longer than three years because there’s so much to learn in so many different ways and every job is worthwhile. Most jobs are worthwhile for three years from what you get to give and from what you get to learn.” When looking for a new job, “think a little more broadly about the kind of positions that you can take, and do not pigeonhole yourself,” says Lacavera. “By having a little bit more of an open mind and a willingness to take on some learning curve, you can put yourself into a good position to move on to your ultimate leadership position.”

Judge Hochberg advises applying for jobs that feel a bit beyond your current reach. “You should assume that you can do the job until proven otherwise. Apply for it, and if someone doesn’t think you’re ready for it, they won’t give you the job. But if you just decide not to apply for it because you don’t think you’re ready, you’re never going to get that job. And don’t protect your ego by self-selecting out of an opportunity.”

Vandervoort admitted that the transition to a new “stretch” job can be intimidating. “Have I ever taken a job that I really wasn’t sure of? Every one I’ve been in. Honestly. I’ve approached it with that kind of humility. I have to make sure that I double down on this, work hard, and pay attention.” But as Lee pointed out, “in many cases, you just rise to the occasion, and you have to have enough confidence in yourself and what you’ve done and accomplished, and all of the skills and experiences that you’ve had that you will be able to guide the agency or a department, or a team” to success. “You have to have the confidence in your ability—given all that you’ve done in the past—to take on that role.”

How to Grow as a Leader

To improve as a leader, do excellent work and take note of leaders to emulate. “Every time you are given a project or opportunity, and I know this may sound obvious, but just do the best you can to hit the ball out of the park,” says Lee, “because with every excellent project you do, you will get additional responsibility and eventually a leadership role.” Chief Judge Prost recommended “taking active roles in the bar association, which provides visibility. It gives you an opportunity to interact with people at different levels and an opportunity to learn from the policymakers.”

Segers advises “finding good mentors. Find people who you think are good leaders and talk to them about it. Have someone who is mentor to you who you can bounce ideas off of.” Vandervoort adds, “I don’t think you ever outgrow the need for a mentor.” You should look for mentors inside and outside of your organization. “There are things that you can’t discuss with your colleagues. They would reveal too much in terms of that relationship and that grooming. So have a mentor outside of that, someone who’s not a peer,” Vandervoort recommends.

Lee says, “I learned a lot by observing others around me and their leadership styles, and what works, and what does not work, adopting aspects of the leadership style that I really liked, respected, and thought were most effective, and avoiding leadership styles that I thought were not so helpful.” Harris has also “tried to emulate effective leaders and stay away from the unproductive characteristics of the unsuccessful ones.”

Being open to advice is also key to growing as a leader. “Seeking feedback from all sources (e.g., supervisors, peers, and employees) can be a very useful leadership development tool. For example, I found 360 reviews to be extremely enlightening and instructive,” says Harris. Vandervoort likewise advises asking trusted mentors, “‘What do I need to do to get where I want to be?’ You never ask the coach, ‘Why am I not getting playing time?’ You ask the coach, ‘What do I need to do?’ So it’s important to continually challenge yourself that way and ask your leaders or your mentors or your sponsors for advice.”

Pay It Forward

Vandervoort recognized that “we come from a generation of pretty high achievers. There were other women who paved paths before us, and we owe them an enormous debt.” Harris shared that she feels it’s her duty to follow the advice given to her by her first female supervisor and mentor “to always give back to the profession and support the advancement of women in IP” and to encourage other young women to do the same. As Judge Hochberg expressed it, “it’s the duty of the young woman who wants to rise to have the gumption to seek out mentorship, and I think it’s the duty of the more senior woman to whom she makes the request to find the time, and to respond, and to help bring out the leadership ability of the next generation.”

Vandervoort keeps the advancement of her team members at the forefront of her mind. “In making my own way, I want to support and advance people, not just bring them along.” She also believes that “it’s ok to ask a client to ‘please tell my boss.’ There is no downside to hearing about the respect people have earned.”

Judge Hochberg passes it on by mentoring others. “I do it one-on-one, with whichever young women are working with me at any given time. And sometimes, it’s addressing a deficit that’s hard to talk about, but it’s the only thing holding them back.”

Chief Judge Braden holds formal trainings for her interns on how to interview for a job. During these sessions, “they have to say who they are and what they’re interested in doing, and I critique them. I tell them how they should speak up, whether they need to be sure to look directly in the eyes of the other person, how they’re expected to dress for interviews on that day when people come in.” But her tough love is not without purpose. She does it “because it’s a formula, it’s a bit of a game. It’s really important to understand if you’re going to do it, you need to play that game, and you need to play it well.”

Make the IP World a Better Place

For women looking to advance IP policy, Chief Judge Braden recommends getting involved in bar associations and other organizations, especially by joining the right committees. Look for leadership roles by “joining the committee that nobody wants to be a part of; committees that you can really turn around and find opportunities quickly. Joining committees in the bar associations is an effective way for those who really want to make a difference in IP policy.”

Chief Judge Braden also recommends “getting involved in politics. I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat or what you are, but go out and get involved. If you aren’t, who is? You’d be amazed how much you can do. And the people you will meet, you would never meet any other place in your life.”

“Don’t wait for the invitation,” advises Lee. “If you have a viewpoint that you believe is not being expressed or that you think needs to be added to the discourse—male, female, big companies, individual inventor—all those viewpoints need to be expressed, so you don’t need to wait for the invitation.” Lee says the USPTO has worked hard to implement this advice. “The agency requests comments from everybody, and that’s an opportunity to influence IP policy. The invitation is open to everybody. Our system, in order to work well, requires the input of all to get a broad cross section of viewpoints on the impact of any given proposal on innovation.”

Harris noted the unique opportunity for influencing policy that public sector work provides, particularly for women. “Working on helping to develop the government’s position on any particular matter is incredibly meaningful because you are advocating for what is best for the public and the system.”

Lee concluded with some encouraging words: “Jump in, and make your contribution in whatever ways you can because we’re all stewards of the system, and based upon each individual’s perspective and experiences, we can all be part of the overall improvement of a system that has served our country well.”

Erika Harmon Arner

Erika Harmon Arner is a partner at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, LLP in Washington, DC. She represents clients before the Federal Circuit, where she has argued and won appeals from the PTAB and district courts in technologies ranging from graphical user interfaces to complex telecommunications systems to large scale scent diffusion devices.

Jessica L. A. Marks

Jessica L. A. Marks is an associate at Finnegan in Reston, Virginia. She specializes in the protection of sustainable products, plant patents, and ANDA litigations.