As a junior studying computer science at Boston University, Junia Janvier didn’t know what a possible career path in intellectual property could look like, or that it was even an option.
But after participating in Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner LLP’s five-week program that introduces undergraduate and graduate students to the opportunities available in IP, Janvier said she’s now considering law school and other possible intellectual property jobs.
“Finnegan got me interested in it,” Janvier said. “I was just considering the traditional software engineering route. But personally, I like programming but I’m not interested in coding too much, so I was kind of nervous about what route I could take. So I would not have considered this otherwise.”
Janvier was part of Finnegan’s inaugural IP University session cohort, which aims to increase the diversity of the intellectual property field by targeting students who could be interested in the industry before they hit law school—when most firms start their recruitment efforts. The program attempts to solve the problem of diverse students finding out about intellectual property careers too late, when they’re already in law school and can’t rewind the clock to finish a STEM degree they would’ve needed to go into patent law or become a patent agent.
The firm recently decided to run the program again, likely in the fall, after drawing around 100 applicants for this year’s first class, which ended in March. Participants spanned the globe, representing 57 different universities and countries including China, India, and Iran.
“We were overwhelmed with the level of strong interest,” said Esther H. Lim, the firm’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. “It really gave us a strong message that there is great interest out there if we can get the message out and make the pipeline accessible to interested potential students.”
Fewer than 22% of patent attorneys and agents registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are women, according to a 2020 study by Harrity & Harrity LLP. The average number of PTO registrants who are racial minorities has been around 6.5% over the past 20 years, and the numbers of racially diverse women are even smaller, the study found. Only 1.8% of all intellectual property attorneys are Black, according to the American Intellectual Property Law Association.
Traditional law firm efforts to increase diversity in the field rely on law schools and lateral attorney hires. Some firms, like Finnegan, have started to rethink how they can address the lack of women and racial minorities in the patent field by focusing on college students. Finnegan wanted to broaden their usual audience and introduce more people to a potential career in patent law. The advent of Zoom during the pandemic gave them that opportunity to reach more students with IP University.
While the lack of diversity in science and engineering fields are one of the many factors contributing to the low numbers, expanding the number of students who know intellectual property is an option will help broaden the pipeline, said Lateef Mtima, an IP professor at Howard University who’s worked with Finnegan on other initiatives.
“If the typical engineering undergrad or grad student doesn’t know that that’s an option, where you can well imagine, you know, a minority in those fields, that’s the last thing that you would have any exposure to,” Mtima said. “The IP University takes care of that by going after these people.”
Lim said the firm had heard consistently when attorneys have taught courses at Howard Law School that students there wished they had found out about intellectual property sooner. A technical degree isn’t required to practice copyright or trademark law, but attorneys need to have certain types of degrees to sit for the patent bar.
“We often have students express disappointment that they did not know about a career option in IP before they finished their undergraduate program,” Lim said, “and that they would have considered continuing with STEM degrees if had they known that it was an option.”
Janvier first learned about the IP University through another Finnegan program at Boston University, and she decided to apply. Throughout the five weeks, Janvier participated through Zoom, learning about how current Finnegan attorneys found intellectual property law, the ins and outs of patent applications and prosecution, and the different career paths available in IP. Finnegan attorneys also held smaller breakout sessions for students to talk in a more informal setting.
None of the Finnegan attorneys had known about IP as a career option as undergraduates, said managing partner Anand K. Sharma. The program included networking sessions so students could start developing relationships for future mentoring—which could help them get jobs with Finnegan or another firm down the line—and talk more about how to plan for a career path.
“It’s important early on, because you can start planning really early, especially for something like law school,” Janvier said. “It helps you put things into perspective. I liked building those connections and being able to make an informed decision at the end of the day.”
Sharma emphasized that even if the students don’t end up in law school, they’ll have more options available to them. Finnegan has already seen IP University attendees apply for technical specialist positions.
“Based on what we’ve seen the hope would be that we continue to have students across the country continue to be involved and express an interest,” Sharma said. “As long as that continues, it’s fulfilling in and of itself just to expose undergraduates.”