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Sanjana Sharma, associate general counsel for IP and knowledge management at UL, recalls her early interest in being a brand attorney and describes the rewards of working in a collaborative environment.
Why and how did you become an associate general counsel?
I’ve known since college that I wanted to be a brand attorney. It might seem odd to have a specific career plan at such a young age but in college I took a public relations management class and during the chapter on trademark, copyright and advertising law I was hooked on IP and brand management.
During law school, I interned at the Rutgers University Trademark & Copyright Licensing Office and worked during the summer of my second year of law for Lucent Technologies’ trademark and copyright law group. From these experiences, I knew in-house life was for me.
After graduation I clerked for two years, then spent six years in private practice, first at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, then at Winston & Strawn. While in private practice, I gained experience in all aspects of trademark, advertising and copyright law, including litigation, transaction, and prosecution.
One of the partners I worked with held the belief that to be a good IP attorney, you need to be able to understand anything that could affect an IP asset, whether that was a bankruptcy, a licence, a merger or an infringement. Following that philosophy gave me the breadth of experience that has been invaluable in an in-house setting.
In 2012, I left Winston to join the legal department at UL (Underwriters Laboratories). At that time UL was almost 120 years old and I became UL’s second IP attorney. I’ve now been at UL for eight wonderful years.
What constitutes a typical day at work?
I’m responsible for managing the team that protects and enforces UL’s global IP portfolio. This includes our patent portfolio; the famous ‘UL-in-a-circle’ certification mark, which is registered in 90 countries; and more than 1,400 “UL Standards for Safety”— encompassing UL’s extensive safety science research and engineering expertise, to guide the safe commercialisation of evolving technologies. I supervise UL’s IP disputes and litigation, which includes UL’s anti-counterfeiting efforts and trademark policing campaigns to maintain the integrity of the UL brand. In addition, my team supports the UL marketing function in all aspects of brand management.
On a typical day I’m required to switch gears often. On any given day, I may be giving a presentation to a business or marketing team, advising on risk for a service offering, working on a certification mark protection strategy, reviewing a new or ongoing existing enforcement case or reviewing marketing collateral. From the outside it might look chaotic, but I like to think it’s orchestrated chaos.
What’s the best part about your job?
I love the variety of my job and the breadth of IP issues that I might be asked to tackle at any given time. The job is always evolving and growing.
What’s the most difficult part?
Having enough bandwidth to give each matter the amount of consideration I think it needs.
Have you faced any barriers or challenges in your career? How have you overcome them?
The biggest challenge throughout my career has been creating mentorship and support networks. The practice of law is inherently time-consuming, which makes devotion to non-legal activities difficult.
As I’ve progressed through my career the demands of both my professional and personal life have increased. Having children has created another layer of complexity. However, I’ve learned that it is essential to carve out time to create a network of friends and mentors who will support and guide you.
What’s your biggest achievement?
My biggest achievement is my children. Professionally, the cross-functional teams I have had the pleasure of leading or participating in are my biggest achievement. Participating in a highly collaborative team environment allows you to grow as a person, learn from others, create friendships and achieve success together.
As in-house counsel, I’m often allowed to stretch myself outside of strictly legal matters. Some years ago, I was allowed to collaborate on the development of a programme that is now UL’s Marketing Claim Verification service.
The service, with its UL Verified mark, is the first of its kind in the marketplace and it provides customers with third-party, independent confirmation of the accuracy of marketing claims. While our UL Certification mark denotes compliance with a minimum set of requirements, the UL Verified mark—featuring customisable claim language—enables customers to distinguish themselves by promoting measurable marketing claims about their product, processes, systems or facilities.
The development and launch of this programme allows UL to extend its brand into geographies and industries where we are not as well known, and it responds to customer scepticism in the marketplace regarding the truthfulness of marketing claims. I was lucky to be part of the development team and I continue to support this service offering as it grows in scope.
What advice would you give to those looking to become in-house counsel?
Get as much broad experience as you can in private practice and go in-house because you want to be a true business partner. Practising in-house requires flexibility, and the ability to distil your legal advice into practical, clear guidance.
When you do go in-house, the relationships you establish with your internal business clients are important because those strong relationships will allow you to be an effective business advisor.
Who or what inspires you?
My children and my husband.
What was your most unusual job before becoming a lawyer?
I had two: working in the gift wrap department of a now-defunct department store and selling my class notes to a notetaking service in college.
Women in law
What are the major issues facing women in law?
Opportunities to succeed are not evenly distributed in the legal workplace. The perceptions of who is and could be successful are undermined by various conscious and unconscious biases. For female attorneys there is an expectation that we must be superwomen, and this same level of expectation is not placed on men. In addition, there is still an overall lack of support for parents in the workplace and this disproportionally affects women.
Is the legal profession doing enough to improve gender diversity? What more needs to be done?
The legal profession continues to be one of the least diverse professions in the US, with respect to race and gender. Despite equal or higher numbers of women entering law school and the profession, our industry has not made great strides in retaining women or placing them in leadership positions.
“Practising in-house requires flexibility, and the ability to distil your legal advice into practical, clear guidance which instils trust.”
This includes the IP Bar—in fact the number of women in IP law is fairly high, but you still see that the leadership positions are dominated by men. In my experience, the glass ceiling persists, and it will continue to do so until we are holding ourselves accountable.
The American Bar Association published a report in November 2019 titled “Walking Out the Door: The Facts, Figures and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice”, which is eye-opening. One of the main conclusions of the report is that the culture and structure of law firms needs revamping if there is an interest in retaining women lawyers.
How are you involved in promoting diversity?
As a woman of colour, I am a diverse attorney. While I am privileged in many ways, I understand the feeling of exclusion and “othering” from personal experience. To me, diversity is about inclusivity, so my goal for anyone who reports to, or works with, me is to feel that they can bring their authentic self to the table.
I’m a member of the South Asian Bar Association, Chicago Women in IP and the International Trademark Association and my participation in these organisations allow me to mentor others in the profession.
Underwriters Laboratories, brand attorney, public relations, trademark, advertising, copyright, global IP portfolio, mentorship, IP bar, gender equality