America is a nation of problem solvers, and for every genius who creates a miraculous process or device, there is a legal counterpart with equal smarts, passion and vision to protect his idea and get it to market. Meet Amy Salmela, shareholder at intellectual property boutique Patterson Thuente IP, an ardent advocate of genius.
Salmela found an early kinship with her engineer father and was driven by her inherent aptitude for science and mathematics to pursue a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. While studying at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, she took on several challenging internship opportunities, including one at a taconite mine in Northern Minnesota. She graduated with honors, but despite her enthusiastic explorations, Salmela never found her niche in engineering. Instead, she found her passion in the law, where her organized intellect and zeal for gadgetry led her to a role for which she is ideally suited – keeping the passion alive.
“Americans in general hold inventors in high esteem,” Salmela said. “I think we all like to think that someday we’ll come up with that million-dollar idea. I want to keep that passion alive by helping people with great ideas. It’s a big part of the American Dream, and it’s exciting to play a role in it.”
“Americans in general hold inventors in high esteem. I think we all like to think that someday we’ll come up with that million-dollar idea. I want to keep that passion alive by helping people with great ideas. It’s a big part of the American Dream, and it’s exciting to play a role in it.”
While earning her law degree at the University of Minnesota Law School, Salmela joined Patterson Thuente’s law clerk program. Her successful career is a testament to its efficacy, as she went on to become a firm associate and is the first attorney to advance from law clerk to shareholder. “This firm was attractive to me, in part, because we do both prosecution and litigation. I started here my second year in law school, and at the time, the clerk program was fairly new. I received good mentoring and the opportunity to be hands-on early on. I learned practical legal skills and also received the mentoring needed to run a law practice and serve clients.”
The firm’s focus on client service takes on a unique character in this environment of invention, requiring that attorneys not only advise clients about the law, but also understand their individual businesses and objectives in order to innovate solutions. “We may have a creative legal solution in mind, but if in the end it doesn’t meet the client’s needs, a simpler solution may be a better fit. It’s important to keep the ultimate goal in mind and make sure what we’re doing is serving that goal. The better I know my clients and their businesses, the better things work.”
Salmela strives always to be reachable and to remain engaged with clients on their terms. “Everyone has a different preference about how they like to work. Being adaptable is something we pride ourselves on, and being comfortable working in a slightly different way if it makes it easier on the client. Our clients have many demands, and they can be a creative and quick-moving bunch. These characteristics are part of the challenge and what I enjoy about my job. It’s important to be responsive, efficient and easy to work with while providing effective legal counsel. All that adds up to good value for the client.”
Salmela’s background in electrical engineering and her keen legal mind are an asset to a wide range of clients, from domestic startups to multinational corporations. “I tend to work with clients whose needs are related to electronics, and the technologies I have worked on include medical devices, telecommunications, and retail analytics and logistics management for consumer products. The variety of my practice is really exciting. I love working with a startup of one or two people who are working passionately on an idea and hoping to bring it to market, or a Fortune 100 company. About half of my clients are outside the United States, which gives me an opportunity to look at things from a lot of different perspectives. The needs of a startup are very different from those of a large corporation, and a large corporation in the United States might need different things than a corporation overseas. I’ve seen clients go through the whole lifecycle, like in the case of one individual inventor who had a great idea, has now commercialized the product and is looking at the next steps of a sale or merger. It’s fun to serve someone through that cycle and see the end result. It’s really inspiring.”
Salmela spent two years of her career working as in-house counsel to a semiconductor company in Munich, Germany. In 2007, she courageously set out on her own to live and work in a foreign country – one where she didn’t speak the language – an experience she describes as one of the most profound of her lifetime. “Professionally, it gave me an understanding of how many of my clients operate and the demands on in-house counsel. I try to remember what it’s like to be in-house and hopefully serve them in a better way.”
She further expanded her world view by learning a second language and traveling the continent. “Since I worked in English, it wasn’t really a problem that I didn’t speak German, but the company hired a tutor for me. Eventually, I was able to get through everyday life using German. Looking back now, I can’t believe what I did, moving across the ocean where I didn’t know anyone. I think it’s one of the best things I ever did. It was a period of tremendous personal and professional growth that has helped to shape a lot of my career and life since. Any weekend, I looked for a cheap flight and did a lot of traveling to cities all over Europe. I came to realize that although the cultures seemed very different on the surface, in the end, they were all more alike than different. Everybody wants to be fulfilled professionally and have a happy personal life. In a general sense, we all want the same things.”
Her time in Germany was a success, but Salmela was happy to return to Minnesota to be near her family and resume her career at Patterson Thuente. One of her greatest accomplishments since is her role in establishing the first ever patent pro bono program, an innovation that has sparked multiple national programs and is now the prototype for an international initiative. “We had to invent the program and procedures from the ground up, and I co-authored the handbook that was used later by many programs across the country. Six years later, there is full coverage across the United States. There are so many good ideas by people who can’t afford to protect them. These individuals and small companies deserve to have access to the legal system.”
Salmela represented the first client in the program and continues to assist aspiring inventors. “On the day we were matched, I called him about scheduling a meeting. He said, ‘I can jump on my bike and be there in 20 minutes.’ He was so excited and grateful for the help. He had solved a lot of problems on his own and gotten fairly far in the patent process, but then didn’t know what to do. I believe strongly in pro bono work and giving back, but I never felt very comfortable helping someone outside my legal expertise. I’m lucky now to be able to do that. The clients are amazing.”
Salmela and her colleagues at Patterson Thuente support those who dare to dream, whose innovation fuels the American economy and inspires our way of life. Their collective dedication and ingenuity are vital to the process. “Sometimes, getting the patent is the easy part. It’s the regulatory aspects, trying to make a prototype or find investors, that get tough. Every day, we see problem solvers who come to us with good ideas. We’re passionate about helping them navigate the system and seeing their hard work lead to results.”