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The STEM Career lesson that matches this interview, “IP Law”, can be found in Codelicious High School Computer Science. Download a similar STEM Career lesson, Computational Linguist, to try in your classroom. In this lesson, students will discuss human language processes and learn about the programmers behind Google Translate and Siri.
Name: Deborah Pollack-Milgate
Title: IP Law
Company: Barnes & Thornburg
STEM Career Lesson: IP Law
Course: High School Computer Science
How can we learn to ask the right questions, especially about topics where we aren’t experts? This is a really important skill for intellectual property (IP) lawyers, like Deborah Pollack Milgate. Deborah works across many fields, and she needs to be able to understand different industries to represent and protect clients’ ideas.
Learn more about Barnes & Thornburg: https://btlaw.com/
Find Parity Podcast online:
-[Katie] How can we learn to ask the right questions, especially about topics where we aren’t experts? This is a really important skill for IP or intellectual property lawyers. IP lawyers work across many fields, and they need to be able to understand different industries to represent and protect clients’ ideas.
Today, you’ll hear my conversation with an accomplished IP lawyer. Deborah Pollack-Milgate is a partner at Barnes and Thornburg, helping protect intellectual property through copyrights, trademarks, and patents. Welcome to “My STEM Career,” inspiring the next generation of leaders. The show is brought to you by Codelicious Computer Science Curriculum. I’m Katie Baird.
In this first section of the episode, we’re diving into questions from our IP Law STEM Career lesson from High School Computer Science, built for grades nine to 12. Then we’ll transition and learn more about Deborah’s life, career and advice.
-[Katie] All right. Hi, Deborah. Thank you so much for joining us on “My STEM Career” today.
-[Deborah] Oh, good morning. I’m so glad to be here with you, Katie.
– [Deborah] Yes. So my name is Deborah Pollack-Milgate, and my job title is partner. It’s not so descriptive, and I am a partner at Barnes & Thornburg.
– [Katie] We’re gonna start with a really high level question here, and that is, what is IP or intellectual property?
– [Deborah] Yes, so I could talk about this topic for hours on end, but I will start with the basics of IP Law. The way that I like to think about what intellectual property is is to compare it to what it’s not. So we know what real property is, right? That’s the house you might own. It’s a book you might own. It’s a camera you might own or a phone you might own. That’s real property. Intellectual property is the opposite of that. It’s your ideas. It’s the things that you dream up that you want to protect so that other people don’t take your ideas. So it’s the opposite of that. It’s instead of tangible property, it’s intangible property.
– [Katie] And there are a lot of different types of IP. So I’d love for you to explain the difference between copyrights, trademarks, and patents.
– [Deborah] Yes, that’s a great question, and people get these mixed up all of the time. So let me break down the basics of what these three different things are, and there are other intellectual property law categories as well, but these are the three big ones. So let me start with patents. So patents covers like an idea itself or the thing itself. So you might have a patent to a coffee cup. I say that because I’m sitting here holding a coffee cup, right? You might have a patent to a better mouse trap. So you have an idea of how to build something, and the patent will cover that. It will give you the right to exclude others from making your better mouse trap. Copyright is very different from that because it doesn’t protect an idea at all. It protects the expression of ideas. So everything that I put out there in the world that’s unique to me, when I write a book, when I draw a picture, when I take a photograph, all of those things are the expression of ideas that only I have created, and those rights are then copyright, actually, is really interesting because those rights are created as soon as you take the picture, as soon as you make the drawing. And then trademark, which is a really fun area of IP law. Trademarks are going to protect your branding, your logo. I see you have a t-shirt on today that says Codelicious. Hopefully that’s a registered trademark, and we’ll talk about this later. But I’m a co-host of a podcast myself called “Parity Podcast.” It has a trademark associated with it because we don’t want anyone else to use “Parity Podcast” and confuse themselves with us. So those are the three different areas that you asked about.
– [Katie] It’s funny you should say that because there is a little TM here at the top of my shirt. So we do have that trademark.
– [Deborah] I know you work for good people, so I’m not surprised.
– [Katie] So let’s talk about a working IP lawyer job description. As an IP lawyer, you represent businesses that are looking to protect these different types of intellectual property. What are some of the industries that you’ve worked with so far in your career?
– [Deborah] Oh my goodness. I think it’s harder in some ways to find an industry that I haven’t worked with over the course of my career. So intellectual property touches everyone. A smaller organization that does counseling will have more copyright heavy protection that they want to get along with the trademark, right? Every company has a trademark, presumably, that they’d like to protect. If it’s a more manufacturing heavy industry, then they’re going to have a lot of patents. So I’ve worked in the chemical space. I’ve worked in manufacturing. I’ve worked for automobile makers. I’ve worked for, you know, plastics, the plastics industry. You name it, I probably worked for someone in that industry, and, in fact, if I were going to tout the career as an IP lawyer, I would say this is a huge benefit is that you get to work in all industries.
– [Katie] I would imagine that you have to really be able to learn throughout your career if you’re working in so many different fields all the time, being able to understand sort of the more nuanced bits of each field would be an important skill for you to have.
– [Deborah] Yes, and that’s a challenge, but that’s what’s really fun is that you are always learning, and I think the thing you can figure out very quickly is how to ask a good question to make sure that you get the information that you need to provide the advice. So that’s really the skill is asking those questions, but again, that’s what makes it really, really fun is to always learn about something new.
– [Katie] And this is actually a really good segue into our last question in part one, which is, what traits do you think an IP lawyer must have? So asking good questions is one.
– [Deborah] Asking good questions. I think it’s really a matter of being very logical and very critical and having, you know, very high level analytical skills. So when you’re in this space, you’re always trying to figure out how you protect what you have but also how you don’t infringe on the rights of others. So there’s always this careful balance where you’re trying to carve out that space for yourself. And if you’re not careful, thinking about it from both sides of that issue sort of defensively and offensively, you can get into trouble because you might not protect what you care about or you might protect what you care about and yet, it overlaps with someone else’s rights. Again, it’s asking good questions, but really thinking about these issues carefully and analytically. I think that just the critical thinking skill is probably the most important skill that you bring with you as an IP lawyer and you can develop, by the way. You know, if you think you aren’t a critical thinker, that’s something you can learn to do.
– [Katie] Absolutely. We talk about that all the time in computer science, how really, at the end of the day, coding is a skill, but you’re really learning those critical thinking skills that then you can take with you into any career, including IP law.
– [Deborah] Absolutely. I think that’s a great point.
– [Katie] Those questions drew from our IP Law STEM Career lesson, part of Codelicious High School Computer Science for grades nine to 12. You can find more information about the course in the show notes. Now onto the second part of our show. Join me as Deborah describes her experiences practicing law in Germany and responsibilities as a partner of her firm.
-[Katie] All right, so now we’re going to make our transition into part two where we’re going to dig a little bit more into your career, and I’m really excited to talk to you about some of the experiences that you’ve had, but first, we’re going to take it all the way back. And I would like to ask, what got you interested in jobs in intellectual property?
– [Deborah] Well, what I think my career demonstrates is that sometimes things are really serendipitous. So when I first interviewed for the job I have now, I didn’t know anything about IP law, but there was a position open, and I really wanted to work at Barnes & Thornburg, and so I took it. My specific job is IP litigation. So I fight with people. I do lots of things, but I also fight with people for a living on behalf of a client. Again, I didn’t know what that meant, but I took it just, again, not knowing what I was getting myself into, and I just ended up, I found that I loved it for the reasons we’ve talked about, that you’re always learning and the law is always evolving. So it was really serendipity that that led me to this specific career, and I’m so glad I got here.
-[Katie] So I love that you say you fight with people for a living because I think a lot of people’s experience with law is through TV shows like “Law & Order” and “Suits,” and that’s really what you see. But can you maybe talk to us a little bit about how that actually happens in real life, how these fights really go down in the courtrooms?
– [Deborah] Yeah, and I’m not so much talking about the courtroom. So I don’t wanna pretend that it looks anything like what you would see on TV because it doesn’t, but what you are doing at all points in time is you have an obligation to always present your client’s side of the story with vigor. And so every problem I come to, I am looking at it with the specific task of getting the best result for my client and looking at everything from my client’s perspective. And so really when I say fight, what I mean is argue. I’m always going to put forth what I think logically is the argument that’s gonna win the day, and that goes back to the critical thinking skills, right? Now, at the same time, I’m thinking about what the other side’s gonna come back with me, and I’m trying to head off those attacks, right? I’m trying to head off those arguments from the other side that are gonna undermine my position. But really when I say fight for a living, I mean always putting forward the best argument on behalf of my client.
– [Katie] Absolutely, and that doesn’t only happen in courtrooms, right? That might happen in meetings or emails or-
– [Deborah] No, it happens, I mean, yes, that’s exactly right. It happens sometimes in courtrooms. More often than not, it does not. It happens in correspondence with the other party, it happens in meetings, it happens in briefs that are submitted to the court, and then sometimes there are obviously arguments before the court and trials and things like that, but my day to day is not arguing in court.
– [Katie] Good deal, and you said earlier in your original answer that when you accepted your job in IP law, you didn’t know anything about IP law, right? So-
– [Deborah] No, I didn’t.
– [Katie] I would like to kinda go back to maybe talking a little bit about your law school experience because really, the first step to be any type of lawyer is to receive your law degree. So based on your experience, what would you say is the number one piece of advice that you would have for students who might be interested in pursuing law school one day?
– [Deborah] Well, I think the great thing about law school is that you don’t have to come into law school with any specific background. So I think that for your Bachelor’s degree, you can feel free to explore whatever you want. Now, having said that, you are probably better prepared for a career in IP law if you have a science background. So that’s something to think about if you really want to practice IP law, but for law school, that’s the really nice thing about it. There’s really no prerequisite for it.
– [Katie] And what was your undergraduate degree in? Did you pursue something in science?
– [Deborah] No, I didn’t. I was a double major in German and communications.
– [Katie] So there’s always an exception to the rule, but that’s true. So after law school, this is interesting that you mentioned German because you eventually made your way to Barnes & Thornburg where you spent some time in Germany. So how did you come upon this opportunity to really practice your German skills and get to work there in your field?
– [Deborah] My husband is a professor of German studies, and unlike people who work in industry, he gets a sabbatical every seven years. And so I really wanted to find some opportunity to be in Germany during his sabbatical and for my own benefit because I speak German. When I learned German, I wasn’t a lawyer, and I really wanted the ability to be able to talk about my career, to practice my career in German. And so one of my primary goals was to be there so that I could learn the vocabulary I needed to talk about things like patent infringement, right? That’s just not something I learned when I learned German. And so I looked for an opportunity with a client, and the client was amenable to having me be there in house, working for their litigation or working for their legal department, which was next to their patent department. So I had experience with their legal department as well as their patent department for about six months. So that was great. That’s how that came about, and Barnes & Thornburg was great. They said, “Have at it. Enjoy. You’ll be a richer person for the experience, and we’ll take advantage of what you learn while you’re there,” so it was perfect.
– [Katie] What a great way to get immersed, like you said, into that field and be able to learn the vocabulary that’s really specific to your career. I know you can’t get into specifics, but can you talk at a high level about some of the things you worked on while you were in Germany?
– [Deborah] Yes. So a lot of what I did was education. So it was nice for the company because they had the opportunity to have sort of the resident person to talk with about US law. So I held a lot of seminars on US law, and my thing I was most proud of was, you know, a three-hour presentation on patent litigation in the United States in Germany, sorry, in German. So I felt very, you know, very good about being able to deliver that presentation at the end of my stay there, so that was one thing. Another thing was really sitting in on a lot of different meetings to talk about how the issues that the company was facing would overlap with issues of US law. So I was also there to just directly advise on the decisions that they were making and what the impact under US law might be. I was also a go between at the same time between some matters that were active in the US and were active in Europe at the same time. So there were just a number of areas was where I was able to jump in and I hope provide some value for the lawyers who were there that they could then use once I was gone, right? Since I was only there for six months.
– [Katie] What would you say was the greatest lesson that you learned when you were in Germany?
– [Deborah] I learned so many lessons when I was there, but I think the most interesting thing for me was to see how we all come at things with different perspectives and how those perspectives play out when we’re trying to make decisions in business, I’ll put it that way. And so what’s interesting in an international company, and I think this is really helpful now when I advise companies myself, is to understand an international company is coming with a perspective that may be different depending on whether the company is in Japan, is in Germany, is in Switzerland, is in France is somewhere else, and every person who’s part of that relationship brings in a different perspective, and if we’re not careful, we miss each other. And so we always have to be very mindful that something might get lost in translation along the way. So I just thought it was fascinating to see all of these different cultures come together and what happens when you put them all in. If you can get something out of it at the end of the day, then you’ve done your job, right?
– [Katie] Absolutely, and that even goes back to what you said about being able to ask the right questions and doing your best –
– [Deborah] Absolutely.
– [Katie] -to make sure that things aren’t getting lost in translation, right? And you’re truly trying to understand each other.
– [Deborah] Yes, that’s a great point because sometimes it is hard because you don’t know where the misunderstanding is, and so it’s really hard to figure out what the right question is to understand what is the, yeah, what is the disconnect if there is a disconnect in that communication.
– [Katie] Would you say that that came to you with practice and as you had been in more of those situations or how did you develop that skill?
– [Deborah] Yes. It goes back to being the critical thinking skills, which is you always want to question yourself in the way that you approach a problem. Is there another way to approach the problem? What assumptions are you bringing into this situation? And the more that you practice that with yourself, I think the more that you’re better in your interactions with others.
– [Katie] Absolutely. So now we’re gonna move on kinda more recently in your career. You’re practicing at Barnes & Thornburg as a partner. So what are some of your responsibilities as a partner at the firm?
– [Deborah] Yeah, so I have a lot of different responsibilities. So I have all of the responsibilities, first and foremost, of being a good lawyer, and that I would say is trying to be a good lawyer, right? That’s the responsibility of every attorney. No matter what level you are, you’re really trying to serve your client to the best of your ability, so that’s part one. Part two is really getting more involved in the administration and thinking about what do you want the future of the firm to look like and how can you contribute to that? So that I view as the thing that distinguishes between being an associate and a partner at Barnes & Thornburg is really taking a more active role in shaping what that looks like, and that might be programming that you offer within your department. It might be mentoring. It might be thinking about DEI and how you can do better on the DEI front.
– [Katie] Great, so there’s sort of an element of management that comes in there where you’re-
– [Deborah] Absolutely. Yes.
– [Katie] Yeah, where you’re thinking strategically and thinking forward in addition to your daily responsibilities as a lawyer.
– [Deborah] Right, and I think the important thing, too, is you are a business owner. This is something you don’t learn in law school. At the end of the day, when you’re a partner, you are a business owner. I have responsibilities to the client, and I have responsibilities for managing that relationship, and if I don’t do a good job, there are plenty of other options out there, right? Then the client can go somewhere else. So I’m also always being responsive, not just to their legal needs but obviously, you know, legal needs are not inexpensive, and so there’s a lot to manage in that relationship. So it’s really important for people to understand going to law school. You’ll be a business owner. You’re gonna have to know how to do marketing. You’re gonna do a little finance, although you’re going to rely on other people to do that for you because I’m certainly not in finance. There are many different elements to it.
– [Katie] What I’m hearing throughout this whole interview is that, to be a lawyer, you really do have to be a renaissance person. You’re not only practicing law. You’re learning about the industries that you work with. You’re running a business. I don’t know, we’ve talked about so many things. Even with the engineering, having an engineering background to be able to better appreciate IP. This seems like a great career for people who want to be lifelong learners. It seems like there-
– [Deborah] Absolutely.
– [Deborah] Yes, that is the fantastic part of it, yes, and let me just add, always relying on other resources, right? I don’t do any of this by myself. So if it’s a specific IP problem and it has to do with some chemical process, I’m gonna go talk to the chemist, right? You have to learn to say no when you realize you don’t have the skill set, and you go somewhere else and you get it. So you have to rely on others for the answers, too.
– [Katie] That’s really powerful is knowing when you don’t know because sometimes, “I don’t know” is a great answer as long as you’re ready to take action on the other end of that to figure it out, so.
– [Deborah] Absolutely. It’s, “I don’t know, but I will find out.”
– [Katie] Definitely. So what advice would you give to students who are interested in becoming an IP lawyer?
– [Deborah] So if we go back to law school again or even before, I mentioned that if you do have the opportunity, if you are interested in a science background, that that is a good prerequisite for becoming an IP attorney, especially if what you want to do has something to do with patents and prosecuting patents. So there’s a whole group of attorneys at our firm, and they do lots of things, but their primary responsibility is they have an inventor. The inventor tells them what the invention is, and they go to the patent office and try to get patents. And so they manage a whole set of a patent portfolio for different companies. For that, it can be really important that you have a science background, chemistry, biology, physics, computer science. It can be any number of those things, but that’s optional, right? I didn’t do that. I mean, I’m in communications and German. That was my background. So other than that, my advice is just to, again, work on those critical thinking skills, and if you like, as you said, being a lifelong learner, if you want something challenging, IP is absolutely one of those careers that is going to fit that bill for you.
– [Katie] That’s great advice, and we’re going to wrap it up today by plugging your podcast. So you have a podcast called “Parity Podcast.” I’d love for you to tell us a little bit more about what you talk about on that podcast.
– [Deborah] Yes. So this podcast is now in its second season. It’s called “Parity Podcast.” It’s “P-A-R-I-T-Y Podcast.” I recently had someone ask me if it was “Parody,” and I said, “No, no, in fact, it is “Parity Podcast.” And we have a pear as part of our logo, so “Parity Podcast.” You can find it everywhere, Apple, Spotify. You can also just go to our website, par-ity.com, and there’s a link to all of our episodes there. We’re in our second season now, and I think we were number six on best gender, “Parity,” gender equality podcasts in 2021. And what we really talk about are the specific issues that face women, particularly in male-dominated career paths. And we have a SCRIPT, and all of our episodes really revolve around the SCRIPT, and it’s SCRIPT, S-C-R-I-P-T. S is stop trying to change women, C is create diverse teams, R is recognize unconscious bias, I is intentionally include, P is partner with men as allies, and T is talk about the issues. Our view is that if we can master these six areas, that we really can achieve parity in the workplace, and we provide in every segment concrete tips and solutions for achieving the workplace that we want.
– [Katie] I love what you said about including men as allies, and I have the summary of the podcast here, and I just wanna read a part because I think it’s so powerful what you have in here, and it’s, “Women have had the right to vote for 100 years, but most experts believe we will not achieve workplace parity for another 135 years. 135 years is a long time, friends, to wait for gender equality in a level playing field at work. The goal of this podcast is to accelerate change by being a coach, mentor, and trusted friend for all of you, not just women, all of you who are ready now.” And so I think that’s great. I would encourage everyone who’s listening right now to listen to “Parity Podcast.” I’ll drop a link in the description box below for this episode. Definitely very interesting on the heels of this conversation with you, Deborah, who is a amazing female advocate and role model in IP law.
– [Deborah] Thank you, Katie. Those are very kind words.
– [Katie] Absolutely. So that was our last question for this podcast. Thank you so much, Deborah, for coming on “My STEM Career” today. Really appreciate your words of wisdom.
– [Deborah] You are so welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here with you. I really appreciate you moderating this conversation.
– [Katie] All right, well, have a great day. We’ll talk soon.
– [Deborah] Thank you, you too.
– [Katie] Thank you, Deborah Pollack-Milgate, partner at Barnes & Thornburg, for coming on the show today. Listen to every episode of “My STEM Career” at ellipsiseducation.com or wherever you get your podcasts. See you soon.
Teachers and students: explore STEM careers and discover the ways computer science knowledge can help regardless of your path. In this show, we speak with industry experts that share information about their careers, describe their professional experiences, and offer advice to students. This show is hosted by Codelicious Computer Science Curriculum.