The most important thing is to get not just your client to trust you, but your adversary to trust you.”
Robin Bren got her first law school exam back with a terse note from the professor: "Are you sure you want to be in law school?"
Well, no. She was in shell shock: she hadn't realized how much work was involved, or how bare-bones VLS was in this, its third year. The exam's first question had been "What is in rem jurisdiction?" "I didn't know the answer-and there was only one question," she recalls. She white-knuckled it through her first year, was drawn in by the interesting course topics and avidly attended every summer session, and was acing courses by the end-while surreptitiously fitting in a day a week of skiing.
Today, Robin is a well-known trademark attorney, the first woman partner in the prestigious intellectual property firm of Oblon, Spivak, McClelland, Maier & Neustadt, LLP, in Alexandria, Virginia. She counsels clients that range from multinationals to start-ups on how to adopt, clear, and protect their trademarks and to fend off infringement problems. She also advises on unfair competition, false advertising, and copyright matters, and lectures widely on trademark issues.
After VLS, she worked in White Plains, New York, for a hard-bitten former DA from the Bronx who hired her because at $75 a week, she was cheaper than a paralegal. She found that defending clients like a wrongly accused rapist and a desperate shoplifter was absorbing but emotionally and financially wearying, and so reluctantly took a job at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The first application she examined was for "Whoops"-fake plastic vomit. "I sat there looking at it with a sinking heart and thought, ‘Is this why I went to law school?'" she recalls. "Luckily, it went uphill from there-it had to!"
After two years, she moved to a law firm in Manhattan to work in trademark law. Eight years and two firms later, in 1990, she joined Oblon, Spivak as a partner. Today, her clients include Toyota, Bard, and Hubbell, top companies in the automotive, medical, lighting and wiring fields, and-one of her personal favorites-Car-Freshner Corporation, owner of LITTLE TREE air fresheners, seen nationwide on rear-view mirrors. She was the long-time counsel for Toys "R" Us, defending one of the most parroted trademarks around. "There were so many infringements that I could really hone my skills," she laughs.
The Internet, she says, has made stealing trademarks a game anyone can get into. "When I started out, to infringe a trademark someone had to have a certain amount of money because they needed a business and an office. Now you can have $5 in your pocket and live in Outer Mongolia." One "R" Us transgressor was located by the warrant office in a trailer in a field in Florida-and the door was answered by a naked man, who in turn hollered for his wife, also nude. She finds the best and least litigious approach is often a low-key but straightforward discussion. "The most important thing is to get not just your client to trust you, but your adversary to trust you," she says.
She believes in teaching her clients to get along without her-an unusual but appreciated approach. "When people ask about me, ‘Does she think outside the box?' my colleagues say, ‘What box? She doesn't even know a box exists!'" she says. She won't allow any contract language that isn't crystal clear, a precept she teaches to law students as an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law. And although she loves her clients, she's happy the stakes are not as high as in criminal law. "I once heard a judge say, ‘Trademarks are about money-that's all they are.' It helps you sleep at night."
A strong VLS supporter, she attends almost every reunion, and fondly recalls the mittens she had to wear in class in winter and pet dogs sitting in on lectures. And as for that traumatic exam question- "Twenty years after I graduated, I finally used in rem jurisdiction-in a case involving a domain name!"