Careers in intellectual property

February 4, 2008Duke Law News

Feb. 1, 2008 — What does it take to thrive in the field of intellectual property? According to a panel of six IP practitioners, a strong interest in science and technology and excellent writing skills are the primary requirements, but coming to terms with your "inner geek" can’t hurt, either.

Sponsored by the Intellectual Property and Cyberlaw Society, the Jan.29 luncheon panel featured a wide range of IP professionals — from large-practice and boutique firms, in-house counsel, and academia — who discussed their experiences in copyright, trademark, and patents, as well as transactional work and IP litigation.

Jim Cannon ’91, a patent attorney at Myers Bigel Sibley & Sajovec in Raleigh, had degrees in biology and mechanical engineering and worked for four years as an engineer before deciding to go to law school. “When I got to [law] school, I was approached several people who said, ‘Oh, you’ve got a technical degree, you should be a patent attorney,’” Cannon said. “And my immediate thought was, ‘No, I can be a real attorney.’

“I finally gave in when I realized that deep at my core I’m kind of a geek,” Cannon continued. “We spend all day with science and technology. If you are that kind of person, then it’s a really interesting and entertaining job. If you are someone who is trying to get out of science and technology because you don’t like it, it’s going to be a miserable job for you.”

Though a background in science, math, or engineering can be helpful in an IP career, both James Thomas ’87, a partner at Troutman Sanders in Raleigh, and Sapna Kumar, a lecturing fellow at Duke Law, emphasized that it is not necessary. Thomas works on what he called “soft IP” — copyright, trademark, and some transactional work involving patents — and Kumar practiced at Kirkland Ellis before choosing to pursue an academic career.

Mark Webbink, former general counsel for Red Hat, Inc., an international technology company located in Raleigh, said he could not have asked for a more interesting career. “[Working in IP has] given me, as an individual, the opportunity to be on a much larger stage: testifying before Congress and participating in anti-trust matters both in the U.S. and in Europe,” said Webbink, who is now a lecturing fellow at the Law School and an adjunct professor at North Carolina Central University. “I’ve had a chance to meet really fascinating people along the way and work on cutting-edge issues.”

For Michelle Cunningham, an associate at Alston & Bird in Raleigh with an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and a PhD in pharmaceuticals, the variety presented in her job is what she enjoys the most. “It’s not just variety in technology, but also variety in the clients. We work with big corporations, universities, and smaller start-up companies and all of those clients have different issues,” Cunningham said.

A current law student potentially interested in the IP field should make a concerted effort to get to know other students with similar interests, advised Steve Gardner, a patent attorney at Kilpatrick Stockton in Winston-Salem, N.C. “When they are in-house counsel, at a company, or have a referral… when they have a really interesting, hard intellectual property matter, you want them to think of you,” he said.

Gardner also suggested involvement in professional IP organizations. “Join the American Bar Association’s intellectual property section, the American Intellectual Property Law Association or other IP-oriented groups,” he said. “You’ll start to see how the bar works. You’ll [also] start to see what the cutting-edge issues are and who to emulate.”