From Engineering to Patent Law

Vera Elson ’82 (cybernetics), MS ’85, is a trial lawyer and partner in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP and is based in Silicon Valley. She focuses her practice on intellectual property trial and counseling for the firm’s technology clients. Elson has tried numerous intellectual property cases to verdict in federal circuit, district and state courts, and has extensive experience representing clients before the International Trade Commission. Before practicing law, Elson was an engineer at both TRW and Hughes Aircraft for seven years.

What made you want to go into engineering?

I read a lot of science fiction growing up; all the greats, including Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and many others.  One of my favorite quotes was: “The meek shall inherit the earth; the rest of us will go to the stars!”  When I was in high school, my mother was an accountant with a large aerospace company called TRW located in Redondo Beach.  I was fortunate in that in those days, TRW offered their employees a phenomenal perk – their children could obtain summer internships in the various engineering labs.  So my very first job was as a programmer for TRW in their state-of-the-art Satellite Integration Lab.  I got to learn how to program, as well as see how the communication satellites were being built and tested in the high bay, all while being paid a whopping $10 per hour – I was in heaven.  The path into engineering seemed obvious.

You received a bachelor’s in cybernetics and a master’s in electrical engineering from UCLA, how did that lead you to law?

After graduating from UCLA with my bachelors, I returned to TRW for a few years.  I then began working at Hughes Aircraft’s Advanced Circuit Technology Lab in El Segundo designing high speed integrated circuits for the A/D converters used in their aircraft radar systems.  Hughes also offered their employees a wonderful perk in the form of masters fellowships, which allowed me to obtain my Masters Degree in Engineering from UCLA.  I will be forever grateful to the late Professor H.J. Orchard, who was my advisor and inspired me.  After about five years doing circuit design with Hughes, I became more interested in the business and began to explore the idea of obtaining an MBA.  However, my roommate at the time was getting his law degree from UCLA’s school of law.  He introduced me to one of the law professors who told me about the nascent field of intellectual property.  I opted to pursue it.  In hindsight, it was a very fortuitous decision since shortly thereafter the aerospace business when into a slump, while intellectual property enforcement was on the upswing.  To be clear, while I am registered to practice before the United States Patent & Trademark Office, my practice centers on patent and trade secret litigation in U.S. courts and administrative agencies such as the International Trade Commission.

Did you spend some time in the engineering profession and how might that have helped you in your transition to law?

I did spend seven years in the engineering profession as I mention above.  In my first year of law school, the scientific way of thinking actually hampered me.  I had never before been exposed to the legal field, and I came into it with the misconception that there had to be a right answer to every question.  As I quickly learned, in law, there is no single right answer.  Everything is shades of grey and the goal is to spot the issues and analyze them from many different perspectives – not to come to a quantitative conclusion.  Having to argue many sides of the same issue was a challenge that I ultimately came to enjoy.

Specifically, how has your UCLA Engineering degree benefitted you in your career as a patent litigator? Has it?

My UCLA Engineering degree has been of enormous benefit.  When I transitioned to law, I initially thought that I would have only occasional use for my engineering degree.  Happily, I was wrong.  I have worked for over 18 years now as an intellectual property trial lawyer on cases primarily involving patents and trade secrets.  I use my degree virtually every day and on every case.  It saves the client enormous expense to hire someone who already has a general understanding of the technology, who can ramp up quickly on the patents, and who can communicate efficiently with their engineers and technical experts to develop the case.

It’s been said that engineering degrees can help one be versatile, would you agree with this statement and why? Is it the way you’re trained to look at and think about the world?

I would absolutely agree that an engineering degree can help you be versatile.  As I tell my own children, an engineering degree is a wonderful springboard for so many different professions – engineering, business, law or medicine, to name a few.  A solid understanding of the physical sciences, as well as the knowledge of how to design and build products, gives you tremendous confidence and credibility in the marketplace.  My only caveat is that engineers can have a tendency to become somewhat myopic and too rigid.  They can get so focused on overcoming the technical challenges that they will sometimes give insufficient attention to other critical areas such as the corporate structure, market demand, aesthetics, and other business aspects of product design, including the protection of their intellectual property.

With the shortage of girls in school interested in math and science, how would you advise educators to encourage them to consider engineering?

While many boys who enter engineering were hobbyists in electronics, or were taught to tinker with electronics by their fathers, very few girls enter engineering with that same level of hands-on experience.  While I recognize that the current budget cuts are an obstacle, more first year labs where girls can develop hands-on experience building things (as well as blowing them up for fun), would be a big step in reducing the intimidation factor of going into engineering.  I found that I learned and retained more from the one microprocessor programming lab that I took my first year than a half dozen classes in theory.

What kind of advice would you give women entering into male dominated fields like engineering and law? Do you have a secret to success?

I could write a book on the subject.  There is no one secret.  In this short space, I would just say that young women entering business, whether it’s law or engineering, often tend to be more tentative and open about their concerns in taking on a project, which they perceive to be the more honest “full disclosure” approach.  A man, on the other hand, is more likely to accept a project without expressing the slightest hesitation or doubt lest they be perceived as weak.  For example, a woman is far more likely to say, “Well, I’ve never done that before. . .” or “I’m not sure I could get that done on time. . .,” which is often misperceived by her male colleagues as projecting a lack of competence.  I think women need to be keen observers of how males communicate, and better understand how their own words and even body language can be misperceived by colleagues and clients.  The upside of these observations is that the more you learn to project confidence in your voice, manner and approach, the more confidence you develop in your own abilities.

What kind of advice would you give engineering students or even career engineers interested in pursuing another profession? What should they keep in mind?

Many people are raised thinking that they must pursue one profession and stick with it.  They struggle with the idea of launching into an unknown field.  Yet, it is my observation that after about five to seven years of pursuing and excelling at any one particular endeavor, people often need a new challenge – a change.  Moreover it is often by combining diverse areas of interest that people can develop a specialty that few others offer, or bring new insights to their new profession making themselves even more marketable – moving from engineering to medicine for example.  Just be open-minded and enjoy the ride!

What kinds of opportunities are out there for patent litigators today? Is it a field you would recommend in today’s market? Why?

I would highly recommend patent litigation, particularly for hard-working folks in engineering who find that they also enjoy interacting with others, writing, and/or developing their presentation and oratorical skills.  There are ways to explore those aspects of your personality before applying to law school.  Join toastmasters.  Act in a local play.  Write an article for a magazine.  Do you find that you would rather have a face-to-face conversation than send an email?  If you find you enjoy these activities, then law is an option to consider.  It is highly rewarding, the technology changes with each case (which keeps it fresh and exciting) and you get to interact with all sorts of very bright people, including some very hard-working judges and juries.  Your mission. . . to explore strange, new worlds.