Alexandra Roberts

Hometown: Wayland, Massachusetts
Current Job: Executive Director, Franklin Pierce Center for Intellectual Property; Assistant Professor of Intellectual Property, University of New Hampshire Law School
Education: JD, Yale Law School; AM, Stanford University; AB, Dartmouth College
YLS Year: 2008
Activities at YLS: Yale Law Women; Law Students for Reproductive Justice; Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities


Before teaching, you worked at the litigation firm Ropes & Gray. What was your experience like?

I really enjoyed my time at Ropes & Gray, which was the firm with which I interned during my 2L summer. I was happy to join a large firm with wonderful mentors and strong IP litigation and IP transaction practice groups. I had the opportunity to work on a variety of different matters, from patent, false advertising, and trade secret litigation, to data breach and antitrust investigations, to trademark prosecution, licensing, and due diligence. That practical experience has proved to be extremely valuable to me in my teaching career. Not only is academia coming to value practice more highly as a qualification in filling teaching positions, but my students also seek a practitioner’s perspective on issues that arise in IP litigation, such as alternative dispute resolution or engaging expert witnesses.

Do you think IP is a welcoming field for women?

I have found legal academia a welcoming field for women, especially for those of us who specialize in intellectual property. A push to hire more female faculty members in the last decade or two happened to coincide with an increasing desire to hire IP scholars, and that combination resulted in what is currently a pretty even gender split among IP professors. I have also found that IP academics as a group are supportive of one another’s work and encouraging of new voices, which makes for a welcoming community overall.

On the practitioner side, trademark and copyright law are more open to women—in fact, are in some cases dominated by women—than is patent law. Patent prosecution (which requires a technical background) and patent litigation both remain something of an old boys’ club, although I’m hopeful that we’ll see that dynamic change in the future. Outside of patent law, female IP lawyers have formed really strong professional networks, and will often go out of their way to mentor and refer work to other women. A lack of equity in a given legal specialty tends to be self-perpetuating, so senior lawyers need to want to see gender parity badly enough to work at breaking that cycle. I try to encourage female students who are interested in patent law to study it and pursue a career in it without being intimidated or put off by some of the forces that conspire to keep them out!


How did you discover and stay true to your passion in the law?

I’ve always loved working with words, and that love led me to IP. In my previous life, I was nearly an English professor, and initially I didn’t think I could touch IP work. But I worked as a paralegal at Irell & Manella—a California firm that does a good deal of entertainment and IP work—before applying to law school. There, I had a mentor who suggested that if I could read Shakespeare, I could read patents. He convinced me that the close-reading skills I had acquired as a scholar of literature could serve me well as an intellectual property lawyer. In fact, anyone can be a patent litigator—most senior litigators want someone on their team who can explain a complicated topic in plain English to judges and jurors who lack technical backgrounds.

So I came to YLS with a hunch that I’d enjoy IP and that I’d be suited for academia. I tried to confirm that interest through classes that helped me connect my English background to the areas in which I currently focus my scholarship, which are trademarks and advertising, entertainment law, and law and literature. (Two fantastic classes I took at Yale were The Information Society with Jack Balkin and Trademarks and Unfair Competition with Stephen Carter.) I also used my SAW as an opportunity to research and write on trademark theory and doctrine, which helped me confirm that I enjoyed both the topic and the process. Once I joined Ropes & Gray, I kept writing and publishing, not only because I enjoyed it but also because I knew writing was crucial if I wanted to pursue a career in academia. Overall, I’ve been able to draw upon my English major roots in shaping my legal career. As much as I loved studying literature, as a graduate student in English I began to feel like my work could only ever have very limited impact. For me, the move to law was a way to learn about and potentially influence real people and real policy issues. I think poetry and trademarks are not antithetical, but simply inhabit different positions on the spectrum from high culture to low culture.


Has it been a challenge to maintain a healthy work/life balance?

One way to approach work/life balance is to make decisions that enable you to feel that you’re in control of your career and your time. If you are able to “lean in” early on, though, it can pay dividends later by creating more opportunities to shape and define your career in the longer term. The different work/life balances I’ve struck at different points in my career have been conscious decisions. At the firm, for example, I knew I would work long hours, but I chose to give it what I could for the short term in order to take advantage of that hands-on experience and a caliber of training that I felt I couldn’t get anywhere else. Litigation ebbs and flows, but it often felt like a 24/7 job, with my Blackberry going off all of the time. Like my YLS peers at other big firms, I knew if someone said “jump,” I was expected to ask “how high?” That lifestyle is part of the reason why I moved to academia: I wanted more flexibility and control over my time. Teaching, scholarship, and administration can be just as time-consuming as practice, but they allow me the freedom to shape my own schedule.


What general advice would you give to current YLS students?

I recommend that every student make the effort to get to know one or two faculty members really well. If you’re not the type who shows up during office hours with questions based on cases you read or issues discussed in class—and I was definitely not that type—look for ways that feel more organic to you, like seeking out a professor as your advisor for a paper or independent study, or getting involved with a student group and getting to know the faculty advisor to that group. I think the same students (often women) who are hesitant to say too much in class for fear of seeming to dominate the discussion are also the students who think professors don’t have time for them outside of class unless they’re superstars. It’s not true. Finding a faculty mentor is incredibly valuable during and after law school, and I can promise you that professors find it valuable too—it’s a big part of the reason we became professors to begin with.