Anand Sharma was a panelist at a National Bar Association meeting a couple years ago, discussing ways to increase the number of African-American lawyers practicing patent law.
During his flight from Detroit back home to Washington, the intellectual property lawyer came up with an idea on how to help achieve the goal.
Sharma, a partner at Finnegan Henderson Farabow Garrett & Dunner in Washington, began thinking about his own background. He was born in Guyana to parents of Indian descent.
His father received a scholarship to Howard University, a historically black college in Washington. He also had aunts and uncles who graduated from Howard. His firm is located only a few miles from the campus.
Sharma persuaded Finnegan Henderson to work with Howard to establish an introductory patent course at the school’s College of Engineering. Sharma, Finnegan’s diversity chair, and a colleague, Malcolm Meeks, teach the class on a voluntary basis.
"We’re exposing the engineers at Howard to patent law," Sharma says.
He hopes to persuade many of them to complement their scientific expertise with a law degree to defend technological advances from theft by competitors.
The recent BlackBerry lawsuit, which threatened to shut down the system, is an example of the fierce competition involving new ideas, Sharma says.
Companies are seeking more intellectual property help, making it one of the hottest legal fields. "There’s a war out there for talent," Sharma says.
He and his firm want to ensure that minorities are a significant part of the candidate mix. In addition to the Howard course, Finnegan Henderson also sponsors a patents and technology seminar at Howard each spring.
This year’s event, held in early April, featured lawyers from Wachovia, FedEx, Scientific Atlanta and AT&T. They spoke to about 50 students, some of whom asked thought-provoking questions about how to protect a breakthrough.
Diversity in the legal profession will take time. "If there were an immediate, quick solution, you would see it in place already."
—Anand Sharam, partner, Finnegan Henderson Farabow Garrett & Dunner
Such curiosity should serve them well. "As we move toward a knowledge-based economy, you’re all going to touch IP (intellectual property) at some point," Meeks says.
Fostering more diverse points of view in an area that is central to U.S. and global growth will benefit businesses, according to the Howard panelists. Having more backgrounds at the table strengthens legal solutions.
"Diversity is key to a culture of creativity," says Bert Jennings III, executive director of intellectual property and corporate development at AT&T. "Everyone is going to look at a problem through their own lens, and that lens is their experience."
Another argument for diversity is that companies must appeal to an array of consumer races and ethnicities in domestic and global markets.
"Our customer base is becoming more diverse," says Carmen Adams, senior vice president and assistant general counsel for Wachovia. "People feel comfortable when they look across the table and see someone who looks like them."
But making all law firms as diverse as Finnegan Henderson, where women or minorities serve as directors in nine of 12 departments, will take time.
"If there were an immediate, quick solution, you would see it in place already," Sharma says.
Workforce Management, July 14, 2008, p. 36 -- Subscribe Now!