Catching Up with Ex-PTO Chief Michelle Lee on Her Next Role

Michelle Lee could have chosen any number of areas to focus on after leaving her role as director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in June. But she’s sticking to technology because that’s where the action is.

“I have always found it to be most interesting to work at the forefront of law, technology and policy, because there are no answers to those questions,” she said in an interview with Big Law Business.

Lee is currently the Herman Phleger Visiting Professor of Law at Stanford Law School in Palo Alto, Calif., where she will be teaching a course on so-called disruptive technologies this winter. Specifically, students will examine the case studies of driverless cars and artificial intelligence.

“These technologies naturally butt up against the system of laws and regulations in the areas of safety, liability, ownership issues, and these laws and regulations have the ability to either encourage or discourage these disruptive technologies,” Lee said.

Michelle Lee, under secretary of commerce for intellectual property at the U.S. Department of Commerce, speaks during the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Dana Point, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg
Michelle Lee speaks during the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Dana Point, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Among other things, she plans to teach students how tech companies can engage lawmakers and policymakers to shape the legal environments they’re radically changing.

“You’re always going to encounter bumps along the road when there is something new and a legal and regulatory regime that was designed for the status quo,” Lee said. “But there are things that one can do to smooth that path, and I say that with the perspective of having been the head of an executive branch agency.”

Lee’s continued interest in disruption comes as little surprise. In 2014, she broke new ground as the first woman to serve as Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and head of the USPTO.

Before joining government, Lee was deputy general counsel at Google Inc., where she led the tech giant’s patent and patent strategy efforts.

While at Google, Lee co-founded Chiefs in Intellectual Property (ChIPs), a non-profit dedicated to advancing women at the intersections of technology, law and policy. While at the PTO, she remained an advocate for increasing the numbers of women inventors in the U.S.

“I think it’s an economic imperative and a social imperative that we tap into all of our talent,” she said. “You don’t want to overlook or waste a single inventor or entrepreneur.”

Lee also hopes to increase the ranks of women lawyers working with those inventors, who must overcome gender barriers in both science and the law, she said.

Where Lee will go next remains a mystery, as she remained mum on her plans after Stanford.

“I have a number of opportunities in the works, and I’m looking forward to sharing more later on,” she said. “But it has not been dull or slow.”


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