You were an English major at the University of Kentucky before going to law school at Cornell. What inspired you to join the legal profession?
I was drawn to the legal profession in college, when I began to seriously learn about the myriad ways that lawyers impacted our world. The problem was I didn't know any lawyers and there were none in my family, so I went on a journey to learn about law school and the profession. From working in a law library and meeting with various lawyers, I quickly realized that I wanted to join the profession.
At the same time, I realized that New York City was the ideal setting for practicing law. I was born and bred in Kentucky but had been to visit NYC several times as a kid and was enamored with the city. After completing undergrad at the University of Kentucky, I spent three years in Ithaca, at Cornell, before moving to NYC. I've now lived in New York nearly 20 years, and my Kentucky accent is barely noticeable these days, so I consider myself a New Yorker.
Your background largely focuses on commercial litigation. What drew you to commercial litigation practice and what types of matters do you handle?
My interest in litigation was cemented during my clerkship in Brooklyn federal court in the Eastern District of New York, where I was exposed to a wide variety of criminal and civil matters. I carried that varied litigation of my clerkship with Judge Sandra Townes into my commercial litigation practice, where I get to work across different industries and subject matters. At this stage, my practice is focused on certain industries, such as financial services, media/entertainment and life sciences. My practice also includes soft intellectual property (IP) disputes, which has become a growing area over the years as companies have really seized on protecting and monetizing their IP rights. I have focused my practice on litigating trademark and copyright infringement matters, royalty/licensing disputes and rights of privacy.
Are there particular challenges you've faced and overcome in your practice?
Like many people, I encountered some challenges in my practice during the pandemic. Courts were closed for a period of time, and there was a ton of uncertainty on what comes next. However, I continuously strive to be optimistic in the face of challenges, so I viewed the pandemic as an opportunity to learn, grow and develop better habits. As a result, I tried a variety of tools that were new to me (like Zoom) to stay connected to colleagues and clients, and quickly incorporated these tools into my practice. At this point, I've lost count of the number of Zoom depositions that I have done since March 2020. I also went back to school during the pandemic, where I trained to be a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) leader, which was helpful for some of the DEI roles that I held at my previous firm. I think I'm a better lawyer, leader and person than prior to the pandemic.
You have handled many cases involving intellectual property disputes, notably for well-known brands and music artists. Can you share a memorable matter, maybe one that you're most proud of or left you with lessons learned?
Over the course of my career, I have litigated a variety of IP disputes, but one of my favorites is a copyright dispute where my team helped create new law in the Second Circuit. We represented a well-known rapper that was sued for copyright infringement by an individual claiming that he created the "beat" for a song that went viral (but this was before we used that word) and became a multi-million dollar success. We argued in the trial court that the plaintiff's claim was a dispute about ownership of the copyright, not infringement, and was time barred by the statute of limitations. The trial court agreed with us, and dismissed the case. The Second Circuit affirmed, and held for the first time that a plaintiff alleged to be an "exclusive licensee" of a copyright must bring a claim within three years of the ownership dispute, like a copyright "owner," to satisfy the statute of limitations regardless of when the alleged infringement occurred. The Court also confirmed that a court can look beyond the claims of infringement to determine whether the dispute is really about ownership of the copyright.
You have a long track record as an advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion. Besides (or maybe in addition to) the moral and business cases for DEI, what makes you so passionate about bringing more diverse attorneys into the fold?
At my prior firm, I held a number of leadership roles over my tenure, especially related to diversity, equity and inclusion and recruiting. At one time, I was the US Deputy for DEI at the firm and then I took on a newly-created role as global Executive Director of Diverse Recruiting. These were big roles, but I have always had an interest in pushing for meaningful DEI progress in the profession because it has been clear to me, even as a law student, that there are disproportionately few diverse lawyers in the profession. There are historical reasons for this imbalance given that only certain people could go to law school or become lawyers for a long period of time in the United States, but there has been minimal progress on correcting this imbalance over the last 60 years when schools were legally open for all. Because of this background, no meaningful progress can be achieved without making concerted and intentional efforts to encourage and support diverse lawyers. That is what drives me to pour my energy in DEI. I'm proud of the progress we have made in the country, and in the profession, and look forward to carrying my efforts forward at Katten.
What's one thing people – colleagues and clients – would find surprising about you?
One of the surprising things I like to share is actually about my son, who has helped me hone some of my IP counseling skills because he was a child actor/model. When he was a toddler, he booked a number of print and commercial jobs, and eventually joined a talent agency and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). The highlights were a commercial directed by Spike Lee and a recurring role on a soap opera (One Life to Live). He is now a pre-teen, and his acting/modeling days are long gone.
What are your passion projects, the activities that motivate and inspire you?
One of my legal passion projects is helping individuals sentenced to death. I've worked on capital punishment cases since law school, and have carried that into my practice. Since 2008, I have represented an individual who is on Alabama's death row as result of a peculiar law in the state where the jury's life sentence was overridden by the judge, who imposed a death sentence. Although this practice has been ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court, our client remains on death row. We initially took up the case to correct his unconstitutional sentence, but quickly uncovered evidence of his innocence. It has been a long fight, and we will continue until we have achieved justice for our client.
To read The Katten Kattwalk | Issue 24, please click here.