Solo Practitioners’ Perspectives: Jeanette M. Braun

Interviewed by: Stephanie Nikitenko

Stephanie: Where do you work?

Jeanette: I work at Braun IP Law, LLC.  I converted my patent firm (Braun Patents) into a law firm when I was sworn into the Illinois Bar on November 7, 2019.  I have been a solo practitioner (patent) since April of 2018.  I was still in law school when I opened Braun Patents.

Stephanie: What do you practice?

Jeanette: I prosecute and litigate intellectual property law (copyrights, trademarks, trade dress, trade secrets, and patents), entertainment law, and business transactions. I use an integrated approach to secure a company’s market advantage by layering intellectual property rights over its business plan.  My mom, Kajane McManus, was a solo patent practitioner and I started working for her when I was in middle school.  I would walk to her office after school and typically “be in her hair” because I was bored.  One day she handed me a stack of yellow legal pad sheets torn from the pad and said “here, type this just as I have written it.” She composed on yellow legal pads until the day she received her ticket to heaven, which was earlier this year.  It was an Amendment and Response to an Office Action from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.  I typed up the A&R, and she was blown away by how well I did it.  She put me to work as a legal secretary and I have been in the intellectual property field ever since.

Stephanie: Why did you decide to start your own law firm?

Jeanette: I started my own law firm to gift myself the greatest gift possible: time. I was giving incredible amounts of time applying for law firm positions and did not love the adventure.

When I was laid off as the Director of Intellectual Property for a start-up, I was just finishing my 2L year.  I was a night student and still had to complete the externship requirement to graduate on time.  I waited until the last possible minute to complete the externship requirement because it could not be completed at night: some portion of it had to be completed during the day.  This made it very difficult to be a professional and working student. 

A few months after I was laid off, I was in the running for my dream position at a highly ranked national firm that has an incredible reputation for treating its associates with respect and care. After three rounds of interviews, the firm had whittled down their candidates to two, and I was one of the two.  The firm was willing to modify the title of the position to accommodate me not being a lawyer yet.  We had the fourth interview scheduled for the day I received the news that I was accepted into the externship program and I shared this news immediately with the firm.  Some would say this was a mistake.  My fourth interview with the firm was cancelled after I shared the news.  Two partners believed flexing for 10 weeks would not be a problem, but the hiring manager thought it would be too burdensome.  The timing would hinder the onboarding process and critical first weeks of relationship building with the team.

After not being selected for the dream position, I spent countless hours applying for paralegal and patent agent positions, only to be turned down because the firms wrongly concluded I would jump ship the minute I was sworn into the Illinois Bar.  I was in purgatory: no one wanted to hire me as a paralegal or patent agent because I would soon be an attorney, and no one could hire me as an attorney because I was not yet bared.  When applying for law firm associate positions, I received the same feedback from multiple firms: 1) if I was hired as a 4th or 5th year associate (commiserate with my experience level), I would disrupt their promotion tracks, which would in turn, damage a promotion track for someone else; and 2) if I joined as a 1st year associate I would excel to quickly, which would also damage the promotion track for another associate.

I also had a tough time finding a law firm whose mission was aligned with mine: to use an integrated approach for growing a client’s market advantage by layering IP rights over a business plan.  Most law firms want to silo associates into either trademarks or patents or business transactions, and further narrow the silo by having the associate choose either prosecution or litigation. I wanted a position that would allow me to put the entire puzzle together for a client and not just work on one piece without being able to see the others. 

To find my forever home, I decided to gift myself the investment of time by hanging my own shingle on the day I was sworn into the Illinois Bar – and that is exactly what I did.  When doors close, invest in yourself and build your own.  It will be better than any door you need another to open for you.   

For newly barred attorneys, keep in mind you will run into a very stressful period when you have made enough rain to need help but haven’t solidified a cash flow to support bringing on a full team. Balance will be key here, and I recommend you look for someone to support you that is strong where you are weak.  If you struggle with bookkeeping, find someone who is strong in that area to take that responsibility off your plate so you can focus on doing what you love to do: being an attorney.    

Stephanie: Did you use any particular resources when starting your own law firm?

Jeanette:  The resources I used were my many years of experience in the legal field, my vast network of professionals, and my local bar association.  I recommend newly barred attorneys join their county bar associations.  Bar associations help connect attorneys with resources and I met the most fantastic malpractice insurance agent through the DuPage County Bar Association.    The most challenging part for me when I started my own firm was finding a malpractice insurance company that would insure a newly barred patent prosecutor and litigator.  Intellectual Property comes with a high risk because if something goes wrong, many millions of dollars can be at stake.  I met an insurance agent at a DuPage County Bar Association meeting and he was instrumental in helping me find an insurance company that understood while I may appear to be a 0-year IP attorney, my experience makes me more like a 5-7 year IP attorney.  Opening Braun IP Law, LLC was not my first rodeo, which may be unlike most newly barred attorneys.  I had been in the IP field for over 25 years prior to opening my law firm and had helped multiple solo attorneys launch their firms as a contracted intellectual property paralegal. 

Stephanie: Before law school, you were a patent agent for many years. How does that previous experience help with your practice today?

Jeanette: A few firms I interviewed with said my experience prior to receiving my JD did not count for anything. I immediately knew I would not be a good fit for the culture of these firms and crossed them off my list. Weighing this feedback with my success presents two interesting hypotheses to analyze.  Either I have a special talent that most others don’t, or my experience does count for something.  The reasonable person would conclude my previous experience is why I am so successful today, with less than a year of being an attorney under my belt.  I don’t have any special talents that others don’t.  I have held nearly every position in a law firm during my career: legal secretary, paralegal, patent agent, accounts payable, accounts receivable, human resources, marketing, and more.  I also have in-house experience at both large corporations and start-ups. The one thing I do have that most recently barred attorneys don’t, is more trips around the sun.  I have taken all of my experiences and learnings and integrated them, which is the most efficient way to find the area under a curve. 

If you encounter the view that your prior experience counts for nothing, move on from that opportunity because it will require you to discredit powerful portions of yourself.

Stephanie: What do you do to generate business?

Jeanette: My rainmaking strategy is simple. I identified the niche of business that I want to support (e.g., disruptive technology start-ups), found a few untapped resources for meeting decision makers in my niche, created an elevator pitch about how my experience and skill set will help them add to, and harvest profit from, their intellectual property (capital assets), and viola: surpassed six figures in my first 8 months as a law firm. Innovation is everywhere and it doesn’t take much searching to find clients in the intellectual property space.  All an attorney has to do is go where his or her dream clients congregate, engage with them, and have a little patience.  The rain will come.  When it comes, be ready to execute your plan for bringing on team members at the right time to mitigate the growing pains you will experience.     

Stephanie: Do you have a team you work with and how do they help you?

Jeanette:  John C. Maxwell is credited as the authoring the quote “teamwork makes the dream work.”  I do have a team and I am successful because I have the right team in place.  My team comprises not only people in my employ, but also colleagues and mentors outside of my employ. Being solo does not mean an attorney is practicing without guidance.  It will be most important for the recent law school graduates to find colleagues and mentors that will help them to slay a challenge, provide a gut-check, be a sounding board for a strategy, have a sympathetic ear to listen, or put your head back on straight when you have taken a kick to the head (when you are succeeding, this will happen).  I have three people in my employ.

Stephanie Nikitenko is a law clerk/intellectual property specialist at my firm. She recently graduated from UIC John Marshall Law School in May 2020 and is sitting for the October 2020 Illinois bar exam. Nikitenko brings over a year and a half of experience with trademark prosecution and copyright matters between her time working with Braun IP Law and her time serving as a clinical student in the UIC John Marshall IP Trademark Clinic. 

Stephanie Savage is a law clerk/intellectual property specialist at my firm. She is in her second year of law school at UIC John Marshall and is building on her 10 years of engineering work experience by specializing in intellectual property law.  Savage brings an exceptional understanding of multi-billion dollar international corporations, numerous product categories and technologies, new product development, regulatory assessment, and operations.

Cindi Schermerhorn recently joined my firm as an IP Manager.  She is a seasoned IP Paralegal with 25 years of IP experience and 7 years of assisting with computer science prosecution.

I have surrounded myself with agents and attorneys that lift me up and work to help me be the best I can be, starting with my mom.  She instilled an incredible work ethic in me, taught me that money is not to be the motivator to do what you do, and to have a high level of integrity with everything that I do.  A few of my other mentors and trusted colleagues are all attorneys that I worked for in the past and have become my good friends: Peter K. Trzyna, a solo IP attorney focused on computer science innovations; Scott McDonald, retired General Counsel of Mars, Inc. who shared a cubicle with me; John Tolomei, an IP attorney at a small law firm and longtime friend of my family; and Stacey Kalamaras, a solo IP attorney who has been an invaluable gut-check resource and sounding board for some of the interesting cases that have come my way.

“You don’t know what you don’t know.” ~Scott McDonald, retired General IP Counsel at Mars Inc.  Your blind spots will get you into the most trouble. Find people that can check those spots for you. Surround yourself with people you want to emulate. They will lift you up and help you be the best version of yourself.

I highly recommend newly barred attorneys find a mentor to help guide them. Staying on the right side of ethical requirements is incredibly challenging and can turn hair grey prematurely.     

Stephanie: Why should younger attorneys go solo?

Jeanette: Going solo will help a younger attorney rapidly upskill in all areas: from practical knowledge to emotional intelligence.  Attorneys are notorious for not being the greatest business people.  When you are starting off, you will wear every hat a business requires: from accounting to docketing, from legal secretary to attorney.  Learning how to run the back office of your firm while providing impeccable legal services for your clients will require upskilling in every area of your knowledge base.  If you love learning, slaying challenges, achieving goals, and gain tremendous satisfaction from seeing yourself achieve things others told you were impossible, solo is the way to go.

Stephanie: Should solos start as generalists, or should they specialize in a particular practice area right away?

Jeanette: I recommend solos first identify who their dream clients would be.  Once they have identified this, figure out what services their dream clients would need most and offer those services.

Stephanie: Do you have any last pieces of advice?

Jeanette: I have three pieces of advice: 1) remember you are not alone; 2) don’t let the naysayers dim your light; and 3) side with collaboration over competition because you are not competing against others, you are competing against yourself.  There are many attorneys (from solos to in-house to big-firm partners, including me) willing to help you along in your adventure. We are aligned with the school of thought that when you reach a level higher than another, you send the elevator back down.  If you reach out and the attorney does not reach back, reach out to another.  You will find a supportive attorney without too much trouble. 

Pick collaboration over competition when doing what you do best.  Earnest Hemingway put it best: “[t]here is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”  You are not competing against others.  You are only competing against your current self, and failure is a necessary steppingstone to success.  I don’t believe that failure actually exists.  Learn from the experience and do not repeat it. Keep the collaboration over competition mindset even when working with opposing counsel.  As you progress along your path, enjoy everything about the journey and have a positive attitude, even when you are under tremendous heat and pressure.  Remember, that is how diamonds are made.       

About Jeanette:

Jeanette M. Braun is the founder of Braun IP Law, LLC, a second-generation patent practitioner, and first-generation attorney.  She started working in the intellectual property industry when she was 13 years old and learned the business from her mom, Kajane McManus, who was a solo patent practitioner. Prosecuting patents is coded into her DNA.  She practices in nearly all technology fields: from mechanical to chemical to computer science to aeronautics. She has written patents for innovations in fashion to deep space propulsion using antimatter.  She also assisted with prosecuting the first tattoo that was ever registered as a trademark. 

Jeanette graduated magna cum laude from the UIC-John Marshall Law School and served as the Vice President of the Intellectual Property Law Society.  She graded on to The John Marshall Review of Intellectual Property Law, was a Staff Editor, and was published in Issues 2 and 4 of 2018. She received multiple scholarships, was a member of the legal honors society Phi Delta Phi, and was awarded the Cali Award of Excellence a few times.  

Prior to law school, Jeanette graduated cum laude with Chemistry Department Distinction from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a B.S. in Chemistry and a Minor in Mathematics.  She worked full time while obtaining both her undergraduate and law degrees.

Jeanette lives in the Western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and enjoys restoring classic cars, playing various instruments, and will begin earning a helicopter pilot license in the coming months.

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