By Sheila Pursglove
Attorney Beth Coakley has a signed thank-you note from Martha Stewart, for trademark work done two decades ago, before the business magnate and TV personality reached celebrity status.
“I like to think the trademark licensing work I did helped us both launch a career that’s still thriving today,” says Coakley, a principal at the global intellectual property firm of Harness, Dickey, & Pierce in Troy, where she focuses on trademarks, copyrights, domain name disputes, licensing, and anti-counterfeiting.
According to Coakley, while a company’s brand is often its most valuable asset, trade names and trademarks are not typically valued or treated as a tangible asset from a shareholder or tax standpoint.
“In practice however, if the name of a business or the name of a newspaper is removed or covered up, there would be considerably less interest in them because there would be no goodwill associated with these ‘brand-less’ resources.”
Coakley enjoys taking care of what often starts as nothing, and turning it into a valuable asset.
“I also enjoy working with some of the most famous marks in the world and enforcing those rights and making sure they are well protected.”
The “real fun,” she notes, is developing comprehensive global strategies that meet or exceed the client’s business objectives by maximizing the benefits of trademark laws and then enforcing those trademarks (when need be) against third parties who use the same mark or something confusingly similar to it.
“I also like working on licensing or transactional matter that allow the trademark owner to take something to the next level and engage in product extensions so that someone who was selling pizzas one day under a certain mark can enjoy the benefits of that same mark by selling toys under the same mark the next day,” she says.
Thanks to the success of Harness Dickey for close to a century, Coakley has had the privilege of working with very highly regarded businesses around the world, including working with the largest Opposer in the United States. As a result, she has had front-line responsibility for hundreds of contested matters (Oppositions and Cancellations) before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), the U.S. Court of Appeals, and with the help of her litigation partners, the U.S. District Court.
“Knowing TTAB procedural rules and handling contested trademark matters every day has also improved my procurement or prosecution skills,” she says.
In one challenging case, Coakley took a call from U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gerald Rosen in Detroit, telling her a motion seeking a temporary retraining order had been filed. Rosen knew from past dealings with Coakley that she probably wanted to defend the case.
The client was being sued for importing—and starting to sell—thousands of counterfeit children’s tennis shoes. Coakley was successful in establishing the counterfeit goods were innocently imported, obtained a credit for substitute merchandise from the Chinese vendor, and then voluntarily agreed with the court to remove the goods from store shelves and have all the counterfeit labels removed from the shoes.
“I then suggested my client donate the shoes to underprivileged children which resulted in favorable publicity and a charitable tax deduction,” she says. “What started out as a very bad situation for my client turned into not only a complete ‘fix’ but also a real benefit to others. This shows a creative, yet professional bulldog approach—that is, never give up that bone—can and does work!”
Coakley joined Harness Dickey in 1993, and her many kudos include Best Lawyers in America, Best Lawyer of the Year Trademark Law, Michigan Super Lawyers Intellectual Property, and DBusiness Magazine Top Lawyer Intellectual Property. The career move has been a great match-up. “Our firm is one of very few places where clients will find that their lawyers truly care about them, their business and business objectives, and developing and protecting their intellectual property,” she says.
She brought to the firm eight years’ previous experience as Chief IP Counsel for Kmart Corp. and Vice President of Kmart Holdings, in charge of maintaining and enforcing one of the largest trademark portfolios for the world’s largest retailer at the time.
“I had tremendous front-line opportunity and negotiated trademark disputes that involved huge volumes and complex worldwide transactions that included everything from dog food to diapers,” she says. “As a result, my mantra was to become a ‘deal maker’ and not a ‘deal breaker’ and this has served our firm’s clients well over the years. I left Kmart over 20 years ago, long before it fell into its various troubles or before it lost its footing among competitors and feel very lucky to have I left on such a ‘high note’ and while my stock options had value.”
A certified neutral commercial arbitrator for the American Arbitration Association, Coakley was appointed to the Panel of Neutrals for the INTA Alternative Dispute Resolution Program, and is a certified mediator.
“Having tried many bench and jury trials in federal and state courts in Wayne and Oakland County during the first 10 years of my career, I learned the serious constraints of the rules of evidence and limitations imposed by jury instructions. With arbitrations and mediation these rules are generally ‘loosened’ if not eliminated,” she says. “When I’ve served as a neutral arbitrator or mediator, I’ve been able to get to the crux of a dispute or the core of a problem and reach what is generally thought to be a very fair result.”
Raised in an environment where people always help people, Coakley saw the law as providing an avenue for accomplishing this objective without having to draw “real” blood as was required in medicine. After earning her undergrad degree, with honors, from Oakland University, she earned her J.D., cum laude, from Detroit College of Law, where she appreciated the pragmatic approach or “real world” techniques that several of her professors included in their lectures.
“I didn’t come from a family of lawyers, and only knew one very distantly growing up, so the Socratic method and the war stories I heard certainly taught me a new way of thinking and how to deal with problematic issues,” she says.
After graduating from DCL, Coakley worked at the Michigan Supreme Court for Chief Justice G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, the 41st governor of Michigan and under whose tenure the Mackinac Bridge was constructed.
“He was also kind enough to swear me in to the State Bar of Michigan in his chambers with my husband and 90-year-old grandparents,” she says.
Although Coakley’s politics were different from those of Williams, a Democrat, in a letter of recommendation Williams indicated that he recognized and relied upon her even-handed analysis of the issues before the court.
“With all due respect, I thought at times he had stayed on the job and in politics too long and should have retired sooner, but then I’ve come to learn that this is what almost all young lawyers think about almost all gray haired lawyers! Anyway, it was quite valuable to see and work with only an appellate record and to learn how to best use that limitation throughout my career with matters on appeal to any higher court.”
Coakley garnered her competitive spirit in her childhood in Rochester Hills.
“I was a competitive swimmer and learned that winning was some of the best fun that could be had with hard work very early on in life,” she says.
Married for 33 years, Coakley and her husband, attorney Mike Coakley, dated before they both entered law school.
“My advice among two-lawyer families is to be sure to work at different places—we could barely stand commuting together to different jobs when we only had one car,” she says with a smile.
The couple’s two children, Jack and Annie, are students at Tulane University and Georgetown University, respectively.
“They’re the love of our life,” she says. “We’re family people and grew up with clans of relatives and still think holidays are best when there are at least 25 or more at our dinner table.”
Active in school events when her children were younger, she is active in the American Red Cross, and works with Detroit Goodfellows to raise money, dress dolls, and pack gifts to children who would not otherwise receive holiday gifts. She also is past president of her neighborhood association, involving enforcement of ordinance and deed restrictions for the largest neighborhood in Bloomfield Hills.
With biking skiing, and swimming among her leisure time pursuits, Coakley also tries to make time each day for her at least one of her passions of cooking, reading, and gardening at her Bloomfield Hills home.
“We have two acres, and we’re always working on our home or property to keep it in good repair and doing something in one of the gardens. Even at home, I work on IP matters for our clients night and day—24/7—and like to think I’m always available for them when it rains and when the sun shines.”