Years of hard work, dedication, and strategic risk-taking can set you on the path toward becoming a successful inventor, patent holder, and attorney for a multibillion-dollar company. If you ask Michael Baker, chief IP counsel for semiconductor and advanced wireless technology pioneer Qorvo, however, there’s one essential component of the equation that’s easy to overlook: building genuine relationships.
Growing up as one of eight siblings on a family tobacco farm in Florida, it’s something Baker learned early. Due to the intensive harvesting requirements for tobacco, Baker’s father would hire seasonal workers to help with the labor. When lunchtime rolled around, Baker’s mother would prepare a feast, and Baker’s parents would invite the workers inside for a home-cooked meal.
“You could smell my mother’s cooking on the way back to the house,” he remembers. “We would have things like fried chicken, collard greens, and cornbread. It was more like what we in the South would think of as a Sunday meal, which is generally shared with family. My dad would have my siblings and me wait outside, while the workers would get to serve themselves first.”
As they ate together, Baker says his father would work his way around the table, asking each person about what was happening in their lives and how he could help them. “Often, at the end of the day, we’d have some vegetables—like okra, corn, and tomatoes we’d grown on the farm—and he’d give them away as well,” he says. “I realized that my father was taking that lunch period and inviting the workers into our home for the purpose of building relationships and getting to know them.”
“The added benefit of that, for him, was that those people would work harder for my father than probably anybody else, because he worked to build those relationships with them and do whatever he needed to do to help them be successful,” Baker adds. “I take that lesson I learned then into the work that I do here.”
Before becoming a lawyer, Baker completed his undergraduate work at Florida A&M University and earned a PhD from the Georgia Institute of Technology, focused on semiconductor manufacturing. Baker held positions at Hewlett-Packard, Sharp Laboratories of America, and IPValue, a partner of Xerox. Now he is helping Qorvo navigate IP litigation, protection, and patent procurement.
“One of the most effective things an in-house IP counsel can do is build and cultivate strong relationships at all levels of an organization and outside firms,” Baker says. “These relationships can pay huge dividends in a multiplicity of ways—risk mitigation, litigation support, and early capture of inventions.”
“My philosophy is focused around the early procurement or capture of inventions,” he adds. “My team and I work pretty closely with the engineers and the business units to identify opportunities where we’re developing important technology for next-generation products.”
One specific strategy is the use of team-centered IP capture sessions.
“The vast majority of our IP is generated in-house, and a great deal of it comes from these IP capture activities,” Baker says. “Typically, I’ll take a team of ten or twelve people offsite and we’ll focus on IP related to the technology that’s being developed. We create a forum where ideas can be shared and can maximally resonate. I think that’s critically important. It’s a key strategy we use here to align the IP we’re generating with our business interests.”
In building relationships between teams, Baker says he fosters engagement by participating in technology-review meetings, talking with engineers about current projects, and being actively accessible to them. Legal team members often deal with risk assessment, and he says it’s common across industries for lawyers to be perceived as presenting obstacles instead of solutions.
“I really want to be seen as a resource and an asset to our teams—one who helps solve problems and follows through, rather than be seen as ‘that patent guy’ who sits up there with the executives,” he says. “I’m an electrical engineer myself, so I tend to wear my electrical engineering hat more so than my legal hat when I’m working with the engineering teams.”
Baker has also created successful patent portfolio development strategies, in which he focuses on building synergy between patents.
“I’ve learned that the most effective way to build a portfolio of patents is not one by one over time,” he says. “If you can build a patent portfolio where you have clusters of patents having claims ranging in scope and directed at key technologies, it will more readily lend that portfolio to commercialization over time, if and when the company gets ready to sell or license that portfolio.”
It also has the added benefit of positioning or arming the company to make impactful, multipatent assertions, should legal proceedings arise. Although Baker says his team doesn’t drive innovation, it does complement Qorvo’s innovation through various legal means by which the company’s innovations are protected.
“If you’re in the IP space, part of your role is to work collaboratively with very creative people,” he says. “If you can build a relationship with these people … these innovators, they’ll be more willing to engage you. If you can build an honest, transparent, and trusting relationship where they feel comfortable sharing ideas with you, they will seek you out every time.”
“Building a powerful IP portfolio requires strong relationships between the engineers, counsel, and business stakeholders. Mike Baker is the gold standard in this regard. We have seen first-hand how Mike skillfully aligns Qorvo’s IP portfolio to its technology and business roadmaps. Mike’s efforts are a fundamental reason why Qorvo’s innovation continues to drive its success as a company.” –Alston & Bird