December 01, 2019 Feature

Leading by Example: Elevating Women through Intentionality

Erika Harmon Arner, Jency J. Mathew, and Courtney Kasuboski

©2019. Published in Landslide, Vol. 12, No. 2, November/December 2019, 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.

In the March/April 2018 issue of Landslide® magazine, the article “Leading by Example: Words of Wisdom from Women Leaders in IP” shared insights and inspiration from eight women leaders in the field of intellectual property (IP) law. For this article, the authors returned to the original interviewees and asked them to nominate women they perceived as “rising stars” or “women to watch” in IP.

  • Sarah Harris, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) general counsel, nominated Farheena Rasheed, senior counsel for patent law and litigation at the USPTO, and Jackie Bonilla, deputy chief judge of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB).
  • Susan Braden, retired chief judge of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, nominated Corinna Alanis, counsel for technology litigation, licensing, and transactions at Teradata.
  • Faith Hochberg, retired federal district court judge, nominated Lisa Pensabene, head of the life science litigation practice at O’Melveny & Myers.
  • Catherine Lacavera, vice president of legal at Google Inc., nominated Lisa Larrimore Ouellette, associate professor at Stanford Law School, and Karen Robinson, vice president of intellectual property and litigation at Adobe.
  • Debbie Segers, vice president and chief IP counsel at FIS, nominated Elizabeth Lester, assistant general counsel of intellectual property at Equifax Inc.
  • Sharon Prost, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, nominated Kathi Cover, general counsel at Directed LLC.

The authors interviewed these next-gen leaders about the qualities of a good leader, the hallmarks of successful mentorship, the role that men can play in elevating women, and advice to future generations of leaders in IP. Here, they share key takeaways from those conversations, because, as unanimously agreed upon by these impressive women, when one woman succeeds, we all succeed.

Qualities of a Good Leader: Kindness and Authenticity

A successful leader is authentic. Rasheed regards Harris as “very genuine. She’s very warm. She’s very caring. She’s also very tough on tasks and expects streamlined processes that enable her to make decisions based on full information, and without oversimplification.” Alanis opines that an inspiring leader does not “try to fit into a box that they think other people expect; someone aspiring to be a leader should remember that she can both be herself and excel.” Similarly, Pensabene speaks highly of Judge Hochberg’s authenticity, and her “courage to just be who you are, and you can succeed in it.”

A successful leader is also genuine and kind to those whom they mentor. Pensabene describes Judge Hochberg as “both interesting and interested. She gives so much of herself. I think a lot about the power of being nice. Being nice is very powerful, in both negotiations as well as in leadership. And that’s part of being an authentic leader.”

Mentorship through Experiences

Several of the women interviewed agree that instilling confidence in a mentee and encouraging her to step into new opportunities is one of the most helpful things a mentor can do. Judge Bonilla looks up to those who “help you think outside the box, and support you when you put your neck out and say: ‘I want to do something I haven’t done before.’” She notes that Harris is just that type of supporting mentor, which is very impactful to a number of women at the USPTO.

Mentors can also offer an inspirational path during times of uncertainty. Judge Bonilla spoke of the experiential learning opportunities that a few notable colleagues at the PTAB provided to her when she first arrived. Those mentors “encouraged me right off the bat to take the lead in handling cases and conference calls with parties, and to be the judge who led a hearing—just really putting me out there even when I might not have suggested it myself, because I wasn’t sure if I was ready. I got to see people who were so capable themselves have confidence in me. This allowed me to get up there, even if I failed a little, and receive encouragement and feedback.”

In addition to instilling confidence in their mentees, mentors can use their work experience to provide mentees with the requisite knowledge to succeed as a leader. Professor Ouellette received experiential mentorship from others, including Lacavera, whose input she valued because “no academic writing about IP can personally have all of the professional experiences that are relevant for writing IP scholarship, but you can learn a lot by talking to people who have had those experiences.”

Lester credits her friend Segers for support and encouragement as a fellow in-house lawyer. “It’s been huge to be able to reach out to her and say, hey, how do you handle this? Or, if you get a question about this, what’s the type of response you give to the business?”

Not Always a “One Size Fits All” Approach

Many women recommended having multiple mentors, rather than turning to a single person for all mentorship needs. Robinson suggests piecing together advice from multiple mentors. “I can find excellence from one area I’m dealing with and someone else who has excelled in another area, taking little pieces and building a mentor.” Cover frequently finds inspiration in other women, asking them for advice about their own successes. “When I see the accomplishments of a friend or colleague, it helps me believe that if they can do something like that, I can do something like that, especially if they will help me. And they do.” Cover also found mentorship in a group of women with diverse professional backgrounds who gathered to train for and complete an Ironman distance triathlon. “We gave each other strength and courage that I don’t think any of us really knew we had until we got out there and conquered this incredible challenge together. These women have stayed some of my best friends, and I have found them to be some of the most empowering women in my life.”

Different mentors may serve different purposes at different times. Alanis recalled the mentors she maintained relationships with throughout various stages of her life, including her fourth grade teacher and her research and writing professor, both of whom served as role models, as well as a mentor she met through a bar association while she was in law school, who helped Alanis through frustrating periods of time at work. “She was always willing to be there for me and to listen to me.”

Successful leaders also cultivate healthy mentor-mentee relationships with those they lead. In particular, a mentor should serve as a sounding board for others and be present for her mentees. Pensabene regards her relationships with her female colleagues at work as “the sustaining nourishment of my career, really. We laugh together, cry together; we’ve shaken our heads together and cheered for each other.” As such, the vitality of having others to rely on cannot be overstated.

Cultivating Inclusion Requires Deliberate and Sustained Work

A common theme that arose was the deliberate effort required to elevate other women. Judge Bonilla emphasized the importance of “women recognizing other women in their ability and helping them have a seat at the table.” Rasheed built on this idea, recalling Harris’s efforts to empower the women around her. “You can tell that what [Harris] is doing is deliberate, and it’s a sustained commitment to helping women, in giving them opportunities to succeed.”

Professor Ouellette uses her classroom as a place where she advocates for a culture of inclusion. “In group discussion environments, if you are someone who speaks up frequently, try counting to 10 in your head before jumping in to see if someone who hasn’t spoken as much has something to add.” She also advises that “if you’re nervous about speaking, you should remember that your perspective is valid, that the group deserves to hear it.” One way to let others know they have been heard is acknowledging those who spoke before you by name and restating their ideas before sharing your own thoughts.

The demands of work can make it challenging to sustain healthy mentorship relationships. Therefore, it is important and helpful to remind ourselves of the essentiality of those relationships. Judge Bonilla advises, “The higher up you go, the busier you often get. You get so wrapped up in your day-to-day that you forget to both be a mentor and a mentee. It’s important to just take a breath and think about that, looking around at both who can be a mentor to you and developing relationships there, and not forgetting that, to others, you are a mentor.” This type of relationship building should happen at all levels. Robinson encourages the junior women on her team to pursue and sustain professional relationships because “those are relationships that will follow you—as you get promoted, as your peers get promoted.” It is essential to maintain these relationships, as they allow your network, knowledge, and experiences to grow. These relationships can help women succeed at their current stages in their careers, and can also help them reach the next steps.

If Opportunity Doesn’t Knock, Build a Door

Because mentorship relationships can be formal or casual, there’s no one “correct” way to find a mentor. Cover speaks highly of networking organizations, stating that “ChIPs provides a really great forum and an opportunity for women working in law and technology to meet each other and develop friendships. At ChIPs you have women who have done all kinds of different things. There are people in-house, at the government, at law firms, returning from an extended maternity break—you name it, somebody’s done it.” She looks to have friendly and open relationships with people, layered with trust. “When a friend or colleague confides in you, they trust you to keep in confidence what they want to tell you. And that’s the kind of relationship I try to cultivate with everyone, not just a mentor or mentee.”

Similarly, Pensabene cofounded Women in IP Network (WIN) and celebrates the women leaders she surrounds herself with through WIN as “empowering in the nicest possible way, in a completely noncompetitive, supportive, positive, professional way.” During the first WIN event in New York, she couldn’t help but smile thinking about all of the incredible and diverse women who had come together for the purpose of supporting one another.

Interests outside of the professional setting can also create opportunities for growth and resources. Regarding the network of mentors she built through her triathlon group, Cover shares that “together we went through this transformative process where we trained hard, learned new kinds of diligence and discipline, and found joy in suffering. Together we figured out that we could do the impossible.”

Finding Support in Male Allies

It is undisputed that men play a critical role in the advancement of women in the workplace. While the importance of having male allies cannot be overstated, it can be challenging for men to know the best ways to help.

An important step toward being an effective ally is acknowledging certain implicit or affinity biases. “Recognition is the start,” Lester notes. Robinson and Alanis agree that one way men can counter potential biases is by building mentor-mentee relationships with the women whom they seek to elevate. Alanis suggests that male mentors can be particularly helpful because “someone who has historically been excluded may be more hesitant to reach out in the same way that others might reach out,” but “men can help bridge this gap in perspectives by taking the first step to reach out.” Robinson notes that by seeking out a mentor or mentee of the opposite gender, men can take advantage of opportunities that may otherwise be missed if relying solely on others to arrange a formal mentorship relationship. Professor Ouellette embodies this message in her practice by “proactively reaching out to students and academic fellows who don’t seem to be plugged into traditional networks, especially if there is some reason to think that they might be nervous about reaching out to you.”

Men can also help by being intentional about giving women the same opportunities they give to their male peers. Crediting a male supervisor for excelling at this, Cover fondly recalled that “he gave me every opportunity that he gave to the other junior male associates in my starting class.” Robinson shared similar experiences and added that she “wasn’t asking for anything special,” but rather just the same opportunities that she “would have been afforded had she been a white man.”

Beyond creating opportunities for women, men can also provide support for their female counterparts during and after challenging experiences, just as they would do for other men. Robinson underscores the importance of giving “real feedback that is actionable” and cites receiving contemporaneous feedback and constructive criticism from both men and women as a source of her success, adding that “reviews should be substantive. Reviews should help people figure out what needs to be better or where the improvements need to be.” Lester adds that by learning of the signs and effects of implicit bias, men providing feedback to women can “make sure that they’re not responding in a certain way because it’s a female’s work versus a male’s work.”

Creating a seat at the table for women is equally important. Lester advises that “those with power should make sure that when there are opportunities to go to clients or give presentations, that it’s done thoughtfully in a way that provides all of their associates with opportunity.” Pensabene expresses her gratitude for the various male in-house counsel who displayed the “courage and confidence” to have a woman as their first chair when many others were reluctant to do so. Rasheed is similarly grateful for the men who recognized her aptitude and ensured that she was given the opportunities to showcase her knowledge and skills. “It has really helped me immensely being invited to meetings where there are a lot of principals and players who are important to decision making, regardless of whether it’s internal meetings, conferences, or important meetings of the Department of Justice at the highest levels.”

Representation goes both ways, and women should seek to include men in the conversation. Pensabene suggests creating seats for men on panels relating to women’s issues, emphasizing that male support on such issues helps further discussion and furthers the IP community as a whole. “There’s not a lot of benefit in exclusivity, but there’s a lot of benefit in inclusion and welcoming.” Though bridging the gap in perspectives may seem challenging at times, the value in doing so far exceeds any perceived difficulties.

Diversity Helps Professional and Personal Growth

The IP law community thrives when diverse individuals are given the opportunity to achieve their full potential. Robinson advocates for giving diverse persons a chance at success, expressing gratitude for those who acknowledged the value that her experiences as a woman and person of color gave her, and those who presented her the same opportunities that were given to others.

Alanis underscores the value in the differences that one can bring to the table. “You do not have to fit inside somebody else’s box to be valued, to become a leader, or to move forward in IP law. We really need people who are different. We need that person who has a different perspective to come in to affect all the people with the same opinion, to bring to that discussion a different perspective and a different opinion.”

Lester recognizes that those in a position to help should do so, noting, “I have to be very aware of intersectional feminism and sort of what is my privilege as being a white woman versus being a black or brown woman.” Pensabene advocates for creating networks based on diversity and inclusion and operating “out of a sense of abundance” as one way of affecting progress.

Intentionality as a Vehicle for Change

It is undisputed that a culture of inclusion has a positive impact on the workplace. But an increased understanding of the issues and obstacles that women face is only half of the equation. The other half is creating actionable situations through intentionality. Whether it be through creating space for a diverse perspective on a committee or inviting a junior female colleague to a business development event typically attended by only men, these circumstances help build the confidence and skills necessary for a successful future.

The path toward equality isn’t always easy. Professor Ouellette thinks encouraging intentionality “is important to foster a culture in which people are rewarded for their efforts in making sure that everyone has an opportunity to contribute.” Rasheed agrees, acknowledging that “change is a hard thing to do. Change is especially hard for people who have succeeded in the current model. They’ve done well, and so why would they look back and think there’s anything wrong with it.”

Ultimately, supporting women is not only important, but essential. In Rasheed’s view, “If you’re not supporting women, you are hindering women.” She reflects on the people who choose to rise to the occasion: “There are so many people who want to help and be there to support women—not just because that’s the right thing to do, but because it’s good for business, for progress.”

Advice for Future Generations of Leaders in IP

Relying on others to present opportunities for you can only get you so far. As an additional or alternative approach, Professor Ouellette recommends that young professionals take proactive steps to pursue and create opportunities. “I know some women are afraid to ask for what they want, but I’ve found that even very busy people are often generous with their time when they’re asked for advice about something they know.” She adds, “there are a lot of women who have generously responded to my cold emails, met me at conferences, or been willing to sit down with me and give me advice along the way.” Judge Bonilla agrees with this sentiment, adding that “you have nothing to lose by asking.”

Mentees should also seize opportunities provided to them by their mentors. Doing so opens the door to even more opportunities and provides a vehicle to demonstrate one’s perseverance and skills. Rasheed recalled that any time that she was given an opportunity, she always “put in everything I had, even if the opportunity was outside my comfort zone.” Because opportunities can come in many forms, and sometimes when least expected, Cover advises her colleagues to “always be open to new possibilities, even if you don’t immediately recognize them as opportunities for change.”

Professional success can also be attributed to qualities that transcend a job description. Judge Bonilla attributes a part of her motivation and drive to being passionate about her work, and recommends that others find work that they are similarly passionate about. “Whether it’s where they are or where they’re going later, what inspires people to keep going and move toward new things, including leadership roles, is having interesting work and doing things that excite you and motivate you.” She advises that young professionals “look out for the projects that you’re really interested in and ask people if you can get involved with them.”

Pensabene advocates that young professionals try to embody the same qualities that she admires in her role models: positivity and authenticity. “Be a good team player and be nice. That’s how you’re going to build your network. That’s also how you’re going to enjoy your career—having a terrific bunch of friends and colleagues to practice with. And also, don’t forget about being happy as you’re doing your work.”


Erika Harmon Arner is a partner at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner LLP in Washington, D.C. She represents clients before the USPTO, district courts, and Federal Circuit in technologies related to computer software, financial systems, telecommunications, and electrical arts.

 Jency J. Mathew is an associate at Finnegan in Reston, Virginia. She focuses her practice on patent litigation and patent portfolio development across a broad array of technical fields, including medical devices and computer software.

Courtney Kasuboski is an associate at Finnegan in Washington, D.C. She specializes in patent litigation, particularly in the electrical and mechanical arts.