|Oregon State Bar Bulletin APRIL 2010|
On occasion, an older, male lawyer will try to intimidate Brenna Legaard in the courtroom. He should be so lucky.
“Yell at me all you want,” she says. “I do not care; I’m very difficult to intimidate.” After all, when you’ve been a nationally ranked, second-degree black belt in judo, “the verbal part becomes a lot easier to laugh off,” she readily admits.
Legaard (the accent is on the first syllable, LEE-guard) took up the pursuit in her freshman year in college at Idaho State University. She explains that judo is considered, in fact, a sport that one “plays,” but it is derived from the martial art of jujitsu. Tellingly, in that latter form of self-defense, leverage is applied so that the strength and weight of an opponent are used against him or her.
Potential opposing counsel also should take note: She stands 6 feet tall, to boot. You may want to rethink your courtroom strategy or consider settling.
Legaard is a patent lawyer and litigator with Chernoff, Vilhauer, McClung & Stenzel, and how she went on to become that is a fascinating story that includes but goes well beyond her activities on the mat.
Teaching in Japan
Born in Nebraska, Brenna and a younger and older brother were raised mostly in Pocatello, Idaho, by parents who were “extremely effective” special-education teachers, working with severely handicapped children, she says. The family also lived in Kansas and Utah for a time, before returning to Idaho.
Both her parents encouraged her not to go into teaching. Her father, in particular, felt frustrated that teachers often do not have much autonomy about how and what they can teach, and he urged his daughter to pursue law, partly because he respected a public-interest attorney in Idaho who had won victories in the school district and the state related to the Americans with Disabilities Act. He told his daughter, “This lawyer was able to do things he wanted to do, on his own terms.”
Still, Legaard entered her hometown university, Idaho State, unsure of what direction she wanted to take. She thought about becoming a photojournalist and had an interest in biology. She ended up majoring in Latin American literature and international studies. But she did take the LSAT and applied to one law school, Case Western Reserve University, which offered her a scholarship.
She describes herself at the time as “moderately athletic, without coordination,” but that didn’t deter her from joining a school judo club.
“I was dramatically bad, but I was hoping for a challenge. I truly became addicted to it: cutting classes, doing it on weekends.” She lost most of her matches, but became determined to stick with it and improve.
Legaard met some Japanese exchange students in the club, and one friend from there told her about a small school in Japan where English is taught. Legaard longed to travel and see the world, so immediately after graduating with high honors, she sold her Toyota and bought a plane ticket to Japan. She arrived not realizing she first needed to obtain a visa; but after interrogating her, an immigration official sent her on her way with a 90-day tourist pass.
She traveled by train to the English school, which hired her to teach students ranging in age from 4 to in their 60s. The school was “out in the sticks,” and she was the only English speaker in the small town. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she confesses. “I didn’t know how to teach, or drive on the left side of the road, or use chopsticks. I was completely out of my depths.”
But the school secretary took Legaard under her wing, showing her how to shop in the local grocery store and how to find her way around. “I would not have made it without her,” she says. “I had the best time once I figured out how to swim in that particular river. I was open to any experience. I learned so much about the world and people, and how to communicate. It was a wonderful experience.”
She also joined a judo club there. “Japan is the home of judo,” she notes. “I was open, excited, friendly, enthusiastic, so I was treated well wherever I went. But you realize you are not ever going to be part of the society.”
After about a year there, she decided to return to the United States and go to law school. “I was craving a way to make a difference in the world. Law seemed a good way to do that, but I had no idea what a lawyer actually does and never had met one. It was a way to get more education.” To her astonishment, Case Western “held my scholarship based on a hand-written note I sent from Japan after their acceptance deadline.”
Finding Her Niche
During her summer clerkships, Legaard scratched off specialty areas of law she was exposed to and wasn’t interested in, including criminal law and a plaintiff practice. She liked working in a public-interest environmental law center but felt she had too much debt to enter that field.
“I didn’t have a job and didn’t know what I was going to do,” says Legaard, who decided to place cold calls to different types of lawyers to ask how they liked their work. What stood out for her was that all the patent lawyers she contacted said they loved what they were doing.
She decided to take that route, but the attorneys she talked with advised her that she first must obtain a science degree. So Legaard returned to her alma mater of Idaho State and in three semesters earned a second bachelor’s degree, with honors, in general biology.
“I got very much back into judo at that point,” she relates. She joined a women’s team and had her first, real competitive success, qualifying for the U.S. Open Judo Championships. “I lost, but it was such an amazing experience to be around people that good, and play with that level of intensity.”
While nursing an ankle injury from that event, Legaard nabbed an interview with Chernoff, Vilhauer, McClung & Stenzel, an intellectual property firm that handles a lot of litigation. In the interview, she was told, “We wanted to hire a litigator, and you seem too nice. Can you handle a tough deposition?” Her response was, “Yeah, I actually enjoy choking people!” (Choking is a judo move, one of the ways to win a match.)
She got the job — perhaps partly because the firm may have been afraid not to hire her after that exchange — and Legaard found her niche. She litigates patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets in a variety of technologies, provides opinions regarding patent infringement and validity, prosecutes patents on consumer goods and medical devices, and represents her clients in licensing negotiations. In 2008, she won a $14.7 million patent-infringement courtroom case.
Her clients’ goals largely “hinge on their intellectual property,” she says. “I think I’m genuinely helping them succeed.”
Julianne R. Davis, assistant general counsel for intellectual property at Nike Inc., who formerly worked at Legaard’s firm and hired her, says of that initial interview: “I knew after about five minutes that she was somebody special, not just for her competence as a lawyer, but also that extra intangible that you don’t see very often. I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who have that. She dazzles, on both the personal and professional level.”
Between having children — her second is due this month — and recuperating from many injuries from judo, including surgery that left metal anchors in her shoulder, Legaard continues to participate in judo. Along with her husband, Scott Fournier, she also enjoys riding motorcycles. She has ridden since she was in law school and is a member of the BMW Motorcycle Owners Association.
She concludes about judo’s relationship to practicing law that judo is a rough, “very contact-intensive sport.” To do it well, you have to be comfortable in your own skin. “That’s something that’s very important in all of life, but especially when you’re trying to resolve a dispute.”
And, in a further analogy, she often reminds her law colleagues: “You know you’re going to get thrown onto the mat. You just have to get back up.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2010 Cliff Collins