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I recently had an opportunity to talk with Zaneta Robinson, a board certified specialist in trademark law. Zaneta is an associate clinical professor and the founding director of the Intellectual Property (IP) Law Clinic at Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem. She previously directed the Intellectual Property Clinic at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law Institute for Innovation. Upper-level law students enroll in law school clinics for course credit and provide free legal services under the supervision of a licensed attorney. Before transitioning to academia, Professor Robinson managed domestic and international trademark portfolios and counseled clients on IP rights protection and enforcement strategies.

Professor Robinson earned her JD from Wake Forest University School of Law and her BS from James Madison University. She is a member of the North Carolina State Bar, all North Carolina Federal District Courts, and the Supreme Court of the United States.

Q: Please tell me a little bit about the path to your career in intellectual property?

I had an idea when I entered law school that I wanted to focus on intellectual property, largely because I took some time off to work between undergrad and law school. One of my first jobs after college was in the corporate office of a company exploring new ways to provide cardiovascular care. It was fascinating to me because the company was in growth mode and a lot of what they were planning at that time had not been done before. It was there that I was first exposed to the inner workings of a complex business—the role of investors, human resources and employment, accounting, advertising, and name it. To this day it is one of the coolest places I have ever worked, but not because my roles had anything to do with intellectual property. I loved it because I had mentors that were willing to help me understand not only the how, but the why. I felt like I was in the mix.

When I talk to my students about what it is like to be an IP lawyer, I describe it as always being in the mix. What does being in the mix look like? If your client makes widgets and happens to develop a novel and non-obvious widget, if you are a patent attorney you are probably going to be the first to know about it. If your client is about to drop a new product or clothing line and you are a trademark attorney, you will probably know about the product before the general public even knows it is coming because someone (you) will need to clear the brand. And the copyright attorneys? They work with the creatives—artists, designers, photographers, musicians, authors, programmers, writers, and so on. Basically, most of the things that we may want to purchase, events we may want to attend, experiences or restaurants we may want to indulge in, devices we may use—nearly all of it is governed by some aspect of intellectual property law. As IP attorneys, we usually have a front row seat for all of the things that go on behind the scenes, from starts to finishes, collaborations, mergers and acquisitions (or breakups), and the disputes or rights transfers that may be sprinkled throughout the representation. That’s the mix. Whether you are working with literal creatives like artists or people with a creative new startup, law practice doesn’t get any more real world than IP.

Q: What inspired you to pursue board certification as a specialist in trademark law? 

Certification in any field usually signifies that something or someone is of high caliber. So, I would probably pursue certification in whatever area of law I focused on to make my services stand out among others.

Q: What aspect of the daily job of being a professor is the most rewarding and/or challenging?

The classroom component is the most rewarding aspect of my daily job. By the time students get to law school, they already know what it is like to work hard or get good grades or excel in any given subject. In law school, everyone works hard, everyone is capable of making good grades, but everyone can’t get excellent grades. That can be destabilizing, especially in the first year of law school. Because I primarily teach second-year and third-year students, I usually get them after that period of destabilization, and probably after a bit of a reset. In an in-house law school clinic, students often get their first opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in a real legal scenario with a real person. That can be scary! But once they’ve gone through the experience and have some time to reflect, they realize that finally, after grade school, undergrad, and at least a year of law school, they can actually do the thing they’ve spent all their lives working towards. Good grades and recognition are great, but nothing beats confidence. Nothing beats knowing you actually did the thing, whatever it is, because then you know it is doable.

Q: Tell us about your work founding and running the Intellectual Property Law Clinic at Wake Forest University School of Law?

Starting the Intellectual Property Law Clinic at Wake Forest has been surreal. I graduated from Wake Law, and while I was a student, I took every intellectual property law course that Professor Simone Rose taught. At the time, she was the sole IP professor and remains largely responsible for growing Wake Forest’s intellectual property curriculum. Now there are five faculty members that teach IP courses, including Professor Rose. Witnessing, and being part of, the growth of our IP offerings is nothing I could have imagined.

Q: If you could go back and give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Wow. There are so many things I would tell my 18-year-old self. If I had to choose only one piece of advice, it would be to trust your gut. You know yourself better than anyone else.

Q: Tell me about some of the most influential people in your life and how they impacted you.

There are too many influential people in my life to name. I’ve really been blessed in that way. What I will say is that the most influential people are those that seemed to take an interest in me or my career when they were under no obligation to do so. For those people, I will be eternally grateful.

Q: Can you share any inspiring quotes or mantras that help keep you motivated?

“So be it. See to it.” Octavia Butler is responsible for that gem.

Q: What is your next goal in life?

There are too many to list. I just hope I have time to reach them.

Q: Is there a question you wish I had asked you, and how would you have answered?

Anything that can be answered with, “Go Deacs!”

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