IP Lawyer-ing in a Pandemic World: a Conversation with Jessica Fenton

I had the chance to interview Loyola Alumni Jessica Fenton about her legal career and how it’s been affected by the COVID pandemic. Jessica is currently in-house counsel for RUSH University Medical Center. Working as in-house counsel means an attorney provides legal assistance solely to a single corporation or entity, rather than working at a law firm for multiple clients. She was previously an Intellectual Property (IP) litigator. As an IP litigator, Jessica defended and challenged intellectual property in court.

Jessica’s role at RUSH consists mainly of making sure RUSH’s IP assets are protected. IP assets can include patents to protect inventions, copyrights that protect, among other things, writings, and trademarks to protect the brand. Having the proper protection for IP assets can be crucial for making sure the cost spent researching and inventing something is worth it. Patents are likely the most important asset for RUSH since they are a research university, meaning that they are focused on making discoveries which are often valuable and can be protected with a patent. Patents legally permit their owner to prevent others from making using their inventions. Because others can’t make the patented invention, this allows the patent owner to recoup the cost spent on development through sales of products sold at a premium without competition and licenses.

I enjoyed hearing about Jessica’s journey to IP and her perspective on law school and working in a pandemic.

Why did you go to law school and how did you choose Loyola?

I worked as a paralegal for 3 years before deciding to go to law school. Candidly, I got sick of doing lawyer level work just to have an attorney stamp their name on it. It might sound petty, but I wanted to be able to claim my work as my own, so I made the jump! Loyola was the easy option for me because it was close to where I lived and has a good reputation in the Chicago area especially when it comes to litigation, which includes all the work involved with bringing a lawsuit or defending against a lawsuit.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in IP? 

So, I never really knew that IP existed before speaking with a friend/attorney about different options that would be available to me at law school. My friend asked me if I would be interested in using my neuroscience degree during my law practice. I was kind of confused by the question, because I never thought that would be possible. She explained patent law to me, and explained that it often involves scientifically technical issues that require someone to have a science background. Immediately, I was interested. I’m sure you hear similar sentiments from others, but IP strikes the perfect nerd-balance between science and advocacy.

Were there any classes, externships, jobs, or other opportunities that you would recommend to current students?

First, take every class offered by Cynthia Ho. Do I have PTSD from civil procedure? Yes. Still. But is the information engrained in me forever and did it make that part of the bar exam a cake walk? Also, yes. I was randomly assigned to her civil procedure course as a first-year law student. But after experiencing her teaching style I elected to take IP classes with her including Intellectual Property, as well as an IP elective my first year of law school.

Describe the day to day of your current practice. What kinds of IP issues do you deal with? 

When I first became an attorney I worked heavily on patent litigation (which involves all the work surrounding disputes in court regarding patent ownership or validity) and trademark/patent prosecution (which involves taking the proper steps to obtain the intellectual property). I definitely find that litigation is a lot more fun and suits my skill set better. However, I also had a unique experience of helping to draft patent applications related to the marijuana industry and marijuana products – which was very cool.

I recently switched over to an in-house position at Rush University Medical Center. RUSH is very research oriented so much of my work deals with research contracts, data sharing, privacy issues, etc. While data sharing and privacy aren’t technically IP, they are adjacent to IP and can impact IP assets. In the realm of research, it is very important to protect IP assets – and it can get a little complicated when multiple scientists and inventors are collaborating on an invention. My job is to make sure that (among other things) we are protecting our IP, such as by timely filing patent applications (since otherwise we can lose the ability to patent inventions). In addition, I am making sure we are maximizing the value of IP we already obtained. I ensure we have appropriate licensing deals in place, etc. A patent owner can license their patent to allow others to utilize the invention for fees and royalties.

Broadly, how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your practice?

This is an easy one. The reason I switched from my litigation role to this in-house position at RUSH is the sheer fact that the job would be fully remote. I know people’s opinions are pretty split on this but for me COVID-19 was eye opening. I was honestly getting so much more work done from home than I was ever getting done in the office because there’s far fewer distractions at home and who doesn’t want to work with a kitten in their lap?

Plus, the amount of time that I was saving by not having to commute gave me such a good work life balance. Honestly, I think it is really important to search for balance early in your career otherwise you kind of get stuck in this mindset that work is the most important thing in life – and you forget to set boundaries. So, when the opportunity to work permanently remote for RUSH arose I jumped at it.

Are there changes that you hope don’t go back to the way they were before? Is there anything you miss that you hope comes back?

I miss the happy hours. Initially I was worried that it would be difficult to network and make friends with coworkers remotely, but it’s 2021 and it has proved way easier than I thought. By way of example, it seems that friendships between young associates are now remotely formed by emailing memes back-and-forth to each other rather than becoming friends by commiserating in the office during a late-night filing or bonding over lunch. There is a give-and-take to everything but I kind of like the shift towards remote or hybrid remote working. Oh wait, and pants. I work in leggings 24/7 now and I would not have it any other way.

What advice would you give yourself if you could talk to your law school self? 

After my 1L year I was disappointed at how many B’s I had received (I had always been an A student and felt like a failure). I complained casually to one of the Deans about how my performance isn’t what I thought it would be and that I was worried. I never forgot her response. She said “Well, you’re at the tip of the iceberg now.” Honestly, I didn’t know what she meant by that, so I asked her to explain. She told me to look around the classroom, and realize that up until this year, ALL these kids were A-students. I was now sitting amongst the best of the best – learning and competing for the highest grade. I can’t really explain why that moved me so much, but it did.

I started to look at my classmates as people who inspired me – people I could learn from – people who could help me grow and move higher up the iceberg. I think to summarize, my biggest takeaway would be to get to know your classmates, get to know your professors, get to know your boss, and learn as much as you can from all these people.

Madison Causey
Associate Blogger
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023