Michigan Law hosts panel featuring women in IP field

By Renee Griffin
Michigan Law

The range of opportunities available in intellectual property law were on prominent display at a recent “Women in IP” panel held at Michigan Law. The featured panelists represented government, law firm, and in-house employers. Their stories about how they found their way to the IP field varied widely.

“I knew early on in law school that I wanted to do IP—mostly trademark and copyright—because I was really passionate about those classes,” said Sharon Sorkin, ‘04, a Michigan native who started her current job as chief trademark counsel at Ford Motor Company about six months ago.

Sorkin confirmed her interest in IP, particularly in-house IP, through internships at AOL and Harley-Davidson while she was a student at Michigan Law.

After working at Loeb & Loeb LLP and Mars Wrigley Confectionery after graduating from law school, she jumped at the opportunity to move back to Michigan and work for Ford.

“I was at the point in my career where I wanted to take that next step and lead a trademark team,” Sorkin said. “I’m responsible for a team that, when it’s complete, will manage the global trademark portfolio of all of Ford, both on the automotive side and on the technology side.”

Laura Peter, deputy undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property and deputy director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), took a very different path to IP law based on her interest in the “intersection between technology and policy,” she said. She studied engineering as an undergraduate and then added graduate degrees in public policy, international business law, and international intellectual property law. That led her to Silicon Valley.

“I love intellectual property, and I love seeing inventors actualize their inventions in the form of a patent to capitalize on their work,” Peter said. “And then this opportunity [at the USPTO] came along, and to go to the USPTO is like going to the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz.

“It is the heart, it is the soul of intellectual property,” she added. “It is where we really push to make sure that intellectual property is true to our core values of protecting inventors and inventions.”

Bea Swedlow, co-chair of IP litigation at Honigman LLP in Ann Arbor, offered her story to law students as yet another way to get into the field.

Swedlow had no background in science or technology. “I thought I’d save the world, and I did that by choosing a law school that has a very strong focus on public interest law,” Swedlow said. “What actually happened is that I did a full-time co-op during law school as part of my program working for a large Boston firm. My brain was on fire, and I worked with people at the firm who were actually just like me. Similar hopes, values, and dreams. I chose to join that firm after law school. One of my most exciting cases as a young associate was a patent case, and I was hooked on IP. So, don’t shy away from IP just because you have a more liberal arts background.”

By comparison, it was perhaps more predictable that Merle Elliott, intellectual property counsel at Stryker Corporation in Kalamazoo, Michigan, ended up in IP, given that her mother, grandfather, and uncle had all worked as patent attorneys.

She was candid about the challenges that women face in the legal profession, particularly when it comes to work-life balance. She noted the differences between her mother’s practice and her own. “My mom was probably one of the first female patent attorneys in Chicago [in the 70s],” Elliott said. “In some ways, things are definitely better now and, in some ways, things are harder. She was able to work part-time and do litigation, and I think that was possible due to the lack of technology at the time. If someone sent you a discovery letter, they sent it in the mail, it came three days later, and you had a couple of weeks to respond. It wasn’t an email that showed up in your inbox demanding a response by 10 p.m. that night. Structurally, she could manage a practice that I think would be very, very challenging to do today.”

In advising law students about finding their way into IP law, the panelists emphasized the importance of relationships formed with colleagues in law school and beyond.

“I’ve had a wonderful professional experience, and I’ve had wonderful mentors, both women and men, who have given me really great opportunities,” Elliott said.

The panelists also offered advice to female law students in particular about how to succeed in a field in which women are underrepresented.

“It’s about being in the room, and it’s about making sure that your presence in the room is recognized and respected,” Swedlow said. “The more you establish that voice and your right to be where you are, you’re in the fight.”



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