Careers in Intellectual Property Law Beyond the Firm: Creativity, Public Interest, and In-House Opportunities

Author: Program on IP & Technology Law


The Program on IP & Technology Law’s current webinars this Spring addressed the unexpected circumstances associated with the coronavirus. These weekly webinars spotlighted areas of the student experience that changed or became increasingly important as law schools, IP law firms, government agencies such as the USPTO, courts and other actors in the legal field addressed the risks and mitigated the impact associated with COVID-19. On Wednesday, April 22, the Program hosted a webinar on Careers in Intellectual Property Law Beyond the Firm: Creativity, Public Interest, and In-House Opportunities. The webinar explored how IP law is continually practiced outside law firms through in-house positions at corporations and at nonprofit public interest organizations and government agencies. Guest speakers included Brendan Regan, a trademark examiner at the USPTO and 1998 NDLS alumnus; Jan Feldman, Executive Director of Lawyers for the Creative Arts in Chicago; Tim Flanagan, Associate General Counsel at the University of Notre Dame and 1998 NDLS alumnus; and Johanna Corbin, Vice President of Intellectual Property Law at AbbVie and a 1997 Notre Dame alumna. Our speakers reflected on their daily practice and the impact coronavirus has had on their roles, in addition to providing perspectives on these career opportunities for students. As you continue to explore the creative aspects of IP and technology law and its policies over the summer in these unexpected times, consider these takeaways from our discussion.

#1 Think outside the box

Exploring a career path outside a law firm as a law student may at first seem daunting. While law firm positions may already be presented as pre-packaged opportunities for law students, positions outside law firms often require a creative perspective.  As Tim Flanagan notes, embrace your passion for a subject matter and don’t feel pressured to follow a cookie cutter route. One of the hallmarks of lawyers who hold positions outside law firms is the entrepreneurial spirit they exhibited in pursuing their career opportunities. Johanna Corbin, for example, took the patent bar while in Law School and reached out to the Chief Counsel at Abbott Laboratories, AbbVie Inc.’s precursor, and followed his advice, developing her IP skills as he suggested. The Chief Counsel then interviewed Ms. Corbin, hiring her as an in-house counsel right after graduation. Identify a person outside a law firm whose career you would like to emulate and reach out. Be persistent and bold in your pursuit.

Likewise, pursue related interests you may have outside the law. Sitting on the boards of arts organizations led Jan Feldman to his role as Executive Director at Lawyers for the Creative Arts. If you are interested in Arts and Entertainment Law and in supporting members of the arts community, explore your own interests in this area, get involved with organizations, and take classes in law school that support those interests. For the arts, intellectual property and media law are certainly helpful and so are courses in business, nonprofit, and even securities law. Many lawyers who become active in arts organizations develop their own clientele and find supporting arts organizations to be a stepping stone to other opportunities in the field. Engage in active learning, taking advantage of resources such as LCA’s.  In addition, do not discount a passion for legal research and writing. Brendan Regan parlayed these skills into his career examining trademark applications at the USPTO. If you enjoy research and writing more than transactions or litigation there are ways to successfully embrace that interest in your career. Know also that many areas of intellectual property and technology practice do not require a technical background. Think creatively in terms of procedure and substance: identify a career opportunity that may require creativity and related skills, but be creative about your pursuit of that career path too.

#2 A combination of flexibility, responsiveness, and accountability is important for today and tomorrow

By nature positions outside a firm require a holistic perspective of the intellectual property and technology landscape. In-house positions are often defined by case management, supervision of other attorneys, and interactions with other non-legal departments. As Tim Flanagan notes, time often plays an important role in the evolution of in-house positions. His work as Associate General Counsel at Notre Dame has included addressing the entire life cycle of intellectual property and technology research at the University, from initial funding for labs and venture capital management to licensing negotiations. Johanna Corbin’s position as Vice President of Intellectual Property at AbbVie, by contrast, involves patent prosecutions, trademark work, and litigation. Managing AbbVie’s global intellectual property portfolio during these times of the coronavirus may slow down intellectual property filings as scientists and clinicians refocus efforts, but litigation has not slowed and has brought novel issues such as video depositions and virtual hearings and possibly trials. In addition, practicing as in-house counsel, especially today, requires an evaluation of the responsibilities of your organization. AbbVie, for example, has dedicated a portion of their intellectual property to the public to aid the search for a coronavirus cure, making an impact on the intellectual property of tomorrow. Dedication to the public may not, however, always be in the public interest. As Tim Flanagan notes, part of intellectual property’s promise to the public includes recognizing the work of inventors and innovators first. Recognizing the good that intellectual property brings to society, especially in these times, may mean allowing intellectual property to have an impact through flexible licensing models that will allow stakeholders to recover costs for future work.

As a member of the trademark examining corps, the vast majority of whom work from home, Brendan Regan has continued working remotely during the pandemic exactly as he has since joining his agency’s telework program in 2002. International events play a role in how positions outside firms support intellectual property rights. Trademark applications from China, for example, decreased in December and January, but have picked back up. International opportunities and dialogue between legal systems also exist in these positions outside firms. Corporations may have international lawyers on their in-house counsel teams.

The arts community needs particular help during this time, as artists and nonprofits see their income streams and revenue disappear. Lawyers for the Creative Arts has created a Service Response Center to provide resources for the arts community and to support the connections the organization already makes between attorneys and artists, nonprofits, and other arts stakeholders in need. While the education program regularly run by Lawyers for the Creative Arts addresses the needs of the arts community, the Service Response Center and complementary Resource and FAQ pages on their website have been a particular response to the needs of the arts community in Chicago at this time. As you seek out in-house, government, and public interest positions, realize that your role requires you to act within the greater intellectual property and technology law universe, with an awareness of the impact the private or public organization you represent can have.