Denise Mingrone is chair of Orrick’s award-winning Intellectual Property Business Unit. She leads the charge to enforce and protect clients’ technology rights. No stranger to the courtroom, she has handled complex litigation for technology giants including Synopsys, Brocade, Applied Materials and Oracle. Her team won the “Top Verdict of the Year” from the Daily Journal for its jury win on behalf of Brocade against A10 Networks. She earned “California Lawyer of the Year,” and was named The Recorder’s Top 250 Women in IP and a Future Star by Benchmark Litigation.
Anne Collier (AC): You’ve had a very interesting career, clerking for 15 years and then becoming a partner at Orrick. Tell me a little bit about that path.
Denise Mingrone (DM): Yes, and it’s a bit unusual to clerk for that long. But, I wouldn’t trade the experience. As a former career law clerk to several federal judges, I learned to appreciate that cases do not turn on facts alone. I learned how to fight and win not just based on the merits of my client’s case, but on procedure. My niche is trade secrets and software piracy, and in those cases, the initial and immediate battleground is always getting or defending against injunctive relief to protect the client’s business interests. So it seemed a natural progression to move from my clerkship to private practice handling technology cases.
AC: How did you get your first client?
DM: I got my first client through a now retired partner at Orrick and just days after I’d joined the firm. I’ll never forget the excitement! Remember, I was a career law clerk for the first 15 years of my career, so business development wasn’t on my radar until I came to Orrick. Obviously, I knew I needed and still need to build my own practice, but when it started to happen, it was so exciting. What’s even more exciting is that the company is still a client, and my relationship with the general counsel and his staff is one of mutual appreciation.
AC: Tell me a little bit about your most recent new client.
DM: My most recent new client was also a referral from a partner in our corporate group. The client is a start-up with IP issues. An employee departed the client’s company to start his own competitive business. Sadly, the former employee took the client’s proprietary technology with him and planned to use it in the launch of his new venture. I was able to get the technology returned to the client and preclude the former employee form further use. In fact, 99% of my new clients are from referrals.
AC: Why do you think that is?
DM: Think about it: a client has a lot more confidence in a lawyer that comes to him or her via a trusted advisor than any other way.
AC: So how do you go about getting yourself on other lawyers’ short list for referrals?
DM: As soon as I came to the firm, I began to build my network. Recall, I was more than a decade older than the average associate and was hoping to be up for partner within two years. A fast–track for a new associate, I decided that if I was to become partner that I needed to quickly develop a broad network in the firm, and I only had two years to do it. I started at our Silicon Valley office, where I worked, but I also took advantage of every opportunity that knocked on my door. I volunteered to assist the pro bono coordinator. I volunteered for office events. I asked to lead the summer associate program for the Silicon Valley office. I led or attended a lot of events that were client marketing or community based. I took every opportunity that I could think of or create to meet people within and outside of Orrick.
In fact, I created the “Successful Women in IP Program” (SWIP) because at that time, there weren’t very many women litigators specifically devoted to IP practices, and I thought we needed to know and support each other, even though we might be at different firms. We worked to raise women’s profiles in the predominantly “coat-and-tie” field. We still get women together; we invite general counsel, law school faculty and judges.
AC: Impressive! Where else do you network?
DM: I am also involved in ChIPs, Chiefs in Intellectual Property, which started as a small group of women heads of IP at major tech companies in Silicon Valley, but has vastly grown to include all women in technology, with meetings and opportunities on the West and East Coasts. It’s a great group to be involved with, and yes, I’ve gotten referrals from and refer business to friends in the group.
AC: How many of your referrals come from within the firm versus from outside the firm?
DM: I would say about 20% are from outside the firm. About 80% are internal referrals, which includes lawyers who have retired or left the firm and are still practicing. Orrick does a great job of cultivating and maintaining our alumni network. Many of our lawyers go in-house or to other firms but cannot handle the work due to conflicts. They want their client well taken care of, so they refer back to us because they know and trust us.
AC: It sounds like you prioritize keeping in touch with former colleagues.
DM: Most definitely. We all want to work with people we know, trust and like. In fact, I also refer work out to former colleagues when I run into conflicts. And I try to partner with others when I have the opportunity.
AC: I’d like to know more about the 20% of referrals from outside the firm; where do they typically come from?
DM: Anyone can refer business. That said, referrals usually come from people I’ve gotten to know over the years or even just met through ChIPs or SWIP. I meet people when I speak, I meet fellow panelists and then I develop relationships, which turn into referrals. Remember, the referrals go both ways. I refer business too.
AC: What advice do you have for senior associates and junior partners who want to build their business?
DM: I have one word for you: network. It’s the single best thing you can do for yourself. There’s the obvious hard work that the practice of law entails, but in all seriousness, opportunities come to you only if people know who you are.
AC: As a coach, I hear attorney clients complain, “I know, I know, but I have so much to do.”
DM: That is true, and it doesn’t change as you progress. I think senior associates and the more junior partners are overwhelmed by the breadth of all they have to do and achieve. My advice — step back, and recognize that networking is in the small everyday activities, such as sitting on a committee, attending meetings, connecting with alumni, and getting coffee or lunch with friend or colleague. Many lawyers are already doing a lot of it. They need to recognize that it’s important and to be strategic about it.
AC: It sounds as though you recommend a constant marketing approach.
DM: I don’t know if I’d put it that way, but the truth is that you are always marketing yourself, even within your own organization. You need to connect with partners and communicate with them that you want to work and want to advance. You want them to see you as a partner if you aren’t one already or as leading complex cases.
AC: What have been your biggest barriers to success and what advice do you have to overcoming those barriers?
DM: I think this is true of everyone: It’s my own fears. I still give myself a pep talk when I walk into a room full of strangers. Strange for a litigator, isn’t it?
AC: Or a room of friends you haven’t met yet!
DM: Right! I also still downplay my personal achievements and prefer talking about the team. I’ve gotten around this when I speak with potential clients by being enthusiastic about the work, which is authentic.
AC: What else? Is there anything that I haven’t asked you about that you believe is important to business development?
DM: Yes, there is a piece of advice I would like to offer most especially to all the rising female women in technology and it is: approach your career as a marathon and not a sprint. There will be obstacles and delays along your path but always keep the finish line in your sights and you will cross it in victory.