Making a Late Career Pivot to In-House Work
Steve Spears, global IP litigation and trademark counsel for Baker Hughes, was an IP partner in McDermott’s Houston office between 2008 and 2017. We reconnected with him recently to learn about his experience at the Firm, the people who supported him and how his work at McDermott helped prepare him for his current role.
What brought you to McDermott in 2008?
Two things: First, McDermott has an excellent reputation and lawyers in my practice area, IP litigation. It is a top IP group in the country, with great people to collaborate with and learn from.
Second, the Firm has a strong financial base and model, much stronger than the firm I came from. Both factors were a big draw for me.
What is your current role, and how did you end up there?
I’m the global IP litigation and trademark counsel for Baker Hughes, and I also interact with the cybersecurity team.
Going in-house was something I had always thought about, because I have always been interested in learning how a business runs and how to bring more direct value to the process. But it is easier to move in-house earlier in your career. When you’re five-to-eight years out of law school, you can get in on the ground floor of a company and work your way up. In my case, when I came across this job at Baker Hughes, it provided a senior-level position that was a good fit for me, and where I could bring them a skill set that benefited them. Filling a senior-level position with someone with no previous in-house experience is rare.
How did your training at McDermott prepare you for your current role?
When I was at McDermott, we opened a new office in Houston, and I ultimately became the office head for a while. That made me a non-voting member of the Management Committee, and it gave me a view into how a business of that size runs. When you go in-house, you have even more of an interest in how the business unit and product lines run and how you can contribute value to the process. Patent disputes can be expensive, but they can also bring licensing revenue or other value to a company. So with our business interests in mind, I can ask why we’re doing this, what the economic benefit will be and what the best avenue is for pursuing our objective.
The connections I made with people throughout the IP community while at McDermott have been helpful. As in-house lawyer, they equip me to better understand issues and facilitate resolutions. Having a personal relationship with the person on the other side of a dispute provides a baseline level of trust to help you find common ground and a better understanding of where each other is coming from.
Can you tell us about any accomplishments in your current role that you’re particularly proud of?
Baker Hughes has undergone a lot of directional growth as an energy technology company recently. It used to be part of GE, and when I joined, GE was spinning the company out to stand independently. Through my role, I was able to be part of that process, see how it worked and help facilitate it. Being Global Trademark Counsel has been particularly interesting during this process because, as the company is separating from GE, we are rolling out new branding and logos, which is a particularly rewarding process to be involved in.
Our core values here are “lead, collaborate, grow and care.” To participate in how an organization comes to grips with those values going forward, and looks for implementation across its leadership team—not just with words, but with actions—has also been enriching.
Finally, the past seven months during this pandemic have been tough for everyone, and has had a particular impact on oil field services, which is a significant part of what we do. One of my undertakings has involved looking for ways to further control costs while getting results in our IP controversies that are good for the company in a short period of time. That has taken some strategic thinking and working outside of the box, which has helped the company and has been a rewarding challenge for me.
How did McDermott support your professional development and career growth?
The Firm was always generous with dedicating resources to these objectives. People in other practices were eager to jump in and help with client work when I needed them, and our cross-sell effort was strong. Sarah Columbia was my practice group leader, and she was always encouraging regarding client development efforts, asking if and how I needed support. Peter Sacripanti, co-chair at the time, told me he was there to help with anything, not just at the Firm, but to help me reach my career goals no matter where those might lead.
What has been the biggest surprise about your career path?
I was one of the first in my family to go to law school, and as a result, I didn’t have a full appreciation for the variety of career paths available to someone with a law degree. Getting into the practice of law, keeping my eyes open and seeing how many opportunities are out there, including roles I didn’t know about or consider before, has been the biggest surprise for me.
What makes you proud to have worked at McDermott?
The people and the high level of integrity and professionalism are key factors. Across the board, my experience was that the Firm has great people in its practice areas. They’re very highly respected and have good reputations, not just for professional accomplishments, but personally, in terms of how they conduct themselves.
What piece of advice would you offer young associates starting their careers?
Your career is yours, not anyone else’s. No one will give it to you, no one will hand it to you on a platter. It’s yours to go figure out and pursue for yourself. And don’t forget to enjoy the ride.