Editors’ Note: As part of our ongoing Diversity and Inclusion Spotlight series, Haris Durrani, a 2L at Columbia Law School, interviewed Washington, D.C. partner Mark Whitaker. In the excerpt below, Mark, who is a member of our Intellectual Property Group, discusses how his military career led him to law and the importance of creating a personal brand.
Haris: Why did you decide to practice law?
Mark: I knew I wanted to be a lawyer since I was 9 years old. Back then, the civil rights struggle was ongoing and I developed a keen interest in constitutional law at a very, very young age.
I started my career in the U.S. Navy, although I was not an attorney initially. My first position after Naval Officer Candidates’ school was as a surface warfare officer. I was stationed onboard two U.S. warships and I served in a number of different billets, including engineering and navigation. I think that is where my interest in technology started. I also served as a legal officer taking care of non-judicial punishment issues.
I applied to the Navy’s law education program, was accepted, and went to Georgetown. When I finished Georgetown, I worked as a Navy judge advocate general. I worked primarily in criminal law litigating cases.
After I left the Navy, I joined a law firm here in Washington, D.C. I started off doing commercial litigation, but I soon discovered you can actually practice litigation in the technology area. For the past 21 years or so, I’ve been doing technology-based litigation, mostly in patents.
Haris: Why were you interested in patent litigation? What keeps your interest today?
Mark: I like being exposed to different technologies and learning about them. As a litigator, I like being able to teach others. I like synthesizing fairly difficult technological concepts into something a jury or judge, who may have no technical training in a specific area, will be able to understand. To me, that is both fun and fascinating.
Haris: I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about diversity. What is it like to be partner and also a person of color?
Mark: As an attorney of color, one of the things that I’ve found to be difficult for other attorneys of color in law firms is the issue of isolation. They go into a firm, where there is either conscious or unconscious bias, and they get pushed to the side or not fully integrated into the practice.
I always encourage attorneys of color, women attorneys, and LGBTQ attorneys to engage. Don’t allow yourself to be kept out of the social part of law firm life. Part of working in a law firm is getting to know people. Make yourself known.
I think MoFo does this better than most firms I’ve seen, and I think that is a testament to the firm’s dedication to diversity.
Haris: What advice do you have for associates who want to make partner?
Mark: Regardless of who you are, it is never too early to start working on your personal brand. When you start at a firm, do your assignments and work to the best of your ability. That is critical.
The other critical part, that I think a lot of people don’t do until much later, is trying to create your personal brand. Contribute to your professional growth and join a professional association. Get exposure to people outside of your firm as well as within it.
Write an article with a partner or associate in your group. Find an area of the law you are passionate about and write about it. Get yourself published. Get yourself noticed.