Three students immerse themselves in IP law through program involving Catherine Romero '96

June 18, 2014

Three Seattle University School of Law students had an extraordinary opportunity to explore intellectual property law and make valuable career contacts through the HNBA/Microsoft IP Institute in Washington, D.C. in early June. Al Mullins, Leticia Hernandez, and Maria Saldana were among 25 students in the country selected for the program.

Catherine RomeroA joint effort of the Hispanic National Bar Association and Microsoft, the Institute aims to increase the number of Latino lawyers, specifically IP lawyers. It was the brainchild of a small group of Microsoft employees, including Seattle University School of Law graduate Catherine Romero '96, a senior attorney at Microsoft and a member of the Latina Commission of the HBNA. Microsoft contributed $200,000 to fund the pilot program for three years.

The HNBA estimates that only 4 percent of practicing attorneys are of Hispanic descent, and only a fraction of those practice IP law.

"Innovation is the lifeblood of the U.S. economy and IP law is an increasingly important factor in America's future economic strength. Yet statistics show that Hispanic lawyers are underrepresented in the field of IP law," said Horacio Gutierrez, corporate vice president and deputy general counsel for Microsoft. "The low numbers suggest a lack of understanding about IP law, a lack of role models, and a misconception about the skills and background needed to practice in the IP field. The HNBA/Microsoft IP Law Institute is committed to changing those statistics."

More often than not, Latino law students have obstacles others students do not, Romero said. Many are the first in their families to attend law school or college.

"They have a lot of skills, and they really fought to be where they are, but they don't have the connections in the legal field," she said. "I review every application, and we really look at the whole person. They may not have straight As, but they clearly have the drive."

Nearly all of the 3Ls from last year's inaugural program found jobs, Romero said, and the 2Ls secured great internships. That's thanks to the outstanding skills and contacts they make in the program, including law firm mentors that are assigned to each student.

Leticia Hernandez, Al Mullins, Maria Saldana

Students Leticia Hernandez, Al Mullins, and Maria Saldana in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Rodney Choice)

Students were exposed to fields such as patents, copyrights, trade secrets and trademarks. They met with Congressional staff working on IP law and visited agencies such as the US Patent and Trademark Office, the Copyright Office, the Federal Trade Commission, International Trade Commission, and IP practitioners at law firms. They heard oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and met with the Hon. Jimmie V. Reyna. They live on the campus of George Washington University and attend IP law lectures at the GW Law School. All costs for attending the program are covered.

Twelve national law firms provide support — Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft; Covington & Burling; Davis Wright Tremaine; Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner; Fish & Richardson; Lowenstein Sandler LLP; Merchant & Gould; Morrison & Foerster;  Perkins Coie; Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton; Shook Hardy & Bacon; and Sidley Austin. Each student was paired with a mentor from one of the firms, who provides guidance and support.

"Everyone involved in running this program is committed to our success," said SU participant Al Mullins. "That's really special, especially in an area of law with few Latino attorneys. This experience fueled my passion and opened my eyes to opportunities I never knew existed in the area of intellectual property."

Mullins said he was inspired by the watching the oral arguments and hearing from Judge Reyna. He plans to return to D.C. in the fall to follow up with people he met.

"I highly recommend the HNBA/Microsoft IP Institute to any law student interested in exploring IP law," Leticia Hernandez said.  "It was by far one of the most rewarding experiences I have had thus far in law school."

The third participant, Maria Saldana, said she appreciated the introduction to judges and to some of the leading lawyers in IP law.

"I returned with more confidence in my abilities to practice IP law, new mentors, and a feeling of connectedness to the IP law community," Saldana said. "I trust that in the future when I confront a difficult question, my mentors will be responsive to my call. Having that type of a connection to the legal network is worth a lot to a law student like me."

Romero gets to know each of the students before and during the program and she stays in touch with many of them.

"You have a really good group of students at SU," she said. "They're kind of all my mentees."

Romero, a single mom of two daughters, said she found herself encouraging other single moms going through law school. Several have doubts or have been criticized for going to law school when they had children.

"They told me it was great to see that you can be a single mom and a successful attorney," Romero said. "People told them they couldn't do it, or they feel guilty. For Latina women, that can be a hurdle."

A Stanford graduate, Romero was an engineer at Boeing for seven years before going to law school. After graduating, she worked for Perkins Coie before running her own firm that provided legal services to Microsoft. She worked in-house for T-Mobile before joining Microsoft. She has taught a mergers and acquisitions lab at the law school as an adjunct professor. Though she has an engineering background, she stresses to students they don't need a technical background to practice IP law.

She says the students stay in touch with each other. Alex Villegas, an SU Law 2L who attended the inaugural program last year, reached out to this year's students. He is a part-time student who works full-time as an IT Audit Manager for Microsoft's Internal Audit department. He appreciates the relationship he built through the program and reached out to his fellow students who went this year.

"The HNBA/IPLI facilitated a unique opportunity to build lifetime networking relationships with inspirational individuals that share a similar cultural background and have a passion for intellectual property law," he said.

That's exactly the kind of results Romero hoped for when she and her colleagues conceived the program.

"What I'm really excited about is five or 10 years from now when there's this huge network of Hispanic lawyers all over the country who have been through this program and they can all help each other out."