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By Debra Bruno
October 2, 2017
With members in all 50 states and more than 80 countries, the D.C. Bar is beginning a regular feature to profile the people who make up our community. Read about your peers, their lives, and their work around the world.
A lawyer who chooses a career path inside a boxing gym might be seen as a bit pugilistic.
But Jennifer Maisel, 29, an associate with the intellectual property firm Rothwell, Figg, Ernst & Manbeck, P.C., is actually a soft-spoken, careful IP attorney with a background in engineering and cyberspace.
In fact, as an undergraduate at Cornell, she started as an operations research engineering major, which is, in her words, “an engineering approach to problem solving” using math modeling and statistics. “A lot of my classmates went on to become quants,” she says. (Translation: quantitative analysts.)
“I’ve always been interested in computers and I saw the explosion of data and systems being used,” Maisel says.
Then she switched to a new major at Cornell – information science systems and technology – studying information systems and the flow of data through them. Cornell also introduced Maisel to another new arena: boxing. The school’s physical education requirement meant she needed to take an athletic course for credit. Plus, who doesn’t like to get in a few good punches every once in a while?
“I got hooked,” she says. “It wasn’t necessarily the combative aspect,” but “about being able to push your body.” Also, she adds, boxing gets you in “really good shape really quickly.”
She joined Cornell’s boxing club and met a few law students there. One suggested that with her engineering background she look into patent law.
Her professors were keen on the idea. The more she explored, the more possibilities she uncovered. “In my senior year I discovered cyberspace law and thought, Hey, there aren’t many people who can really bridge that gap between engineering, technology, and law,” she says.
She went to The George Washington University Law School right after graduating from Cornell in 2009, when the economy had tanked. Even when she finished law school in 2012, job prospects were still bleak. About half of the graduating class had job offers. “It was a pretty rough year,” she says. “I was one of the lucky few.”
Rothwell Figg, which had given Maisel a summer internship between her second and third year in law school, offered her a job, and that’s where she’s been since. Today she calls her work intellectual property and patents, mainly, she says, because the field of cyberspace law is not well defined. “It can be transactional work, mergers, transfers of intangible property, all the way to hacks and privacy laws,” she says.
One of the first cases she was involved in for the firm was a patent troll lawsuit in the Eastern District of Texas, a place where, until recently, it was easy for virtual companies to set up shop and bring patent cases in court. (A patent troll is a company that uses patents to sue companies for copyright infringement.)
Rothwell Figg represented three big media companies that had been sued by Personal Audio LLC over what was initially known as the “podcasting patent” that allowed episodes to run in a sequence.
Although the firm technically lost that case, the jury awarded damages that was very low, “which shows the merits of our case,” Maisel says. Since that decision, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office found the patent is invalid, which means that Personal Audio’s patent may still be ultimately ruled invalid.
Another set of cases Maisel worked on, also in the Eastern District of Texas, involves Rothwell Figg’s representation of 14 big media companies that had been sued by Bartonfalls LLC over a software patent that allowed users to switch between TV channels and shows. Bartonfalls argued that URLs or web addresses of online videos also were TV channels, and that any site that used software in which one video automatically appears when the first video is done used the same patent. There, Rothwell Figg won the case on an early motion to dismiss because Bartonfalls had no plausible basis for arguing that TV channels described in its patents cover URLs.
Maisel also has had a hand in another interesting case involving Newsweek writer Kurt Eichenwald, who last December was sent a tweet with a strobe effect that sent him into an epileptic seizure. Eichenwald, who has written about his epilepsy, sued the man who allegedly sent the tweet. Rothwell Figg is handling the case on a pro bono basis through lead attorney Steven Lieberman. The civil suit alleges battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and purposeful infliction of bodily harm.
Eichenwald drew the attention of the alt-right crowd, says Maisel, because he was “vocal during the presidential election in his criticism” of then-candidate Donald Trump. The civil suit has been stayed, according to Maisel, so that the federal and state criminal case can go forward against John Rivello, the Maryland man who sent the initial tweet.
After the December tweet, some 90 others have also sent Eichenwald tweets with strobe effects.
“Mr. Eichenwald wants to raise awareness of these issues that people who have epilepsy face online,” Maisel says. “He also wanted to send the message that you can’t attack journalists.” It’s similar to sending someone anthrax through the mail, she adds.
When she’s not working on technical cases, Maisel continues to set herself personal challenges. Last October, she ran her first marathon.
“It was a complete disaster,” she says. The weather was unseasonably hot for D.C. in the late fall, with a high of 80 degrees on the day of the race.
“I made it to mile 23, got a little sick, and had to take a timeout,” she says, walking the last few miles. But it hasn’t put her off marathons altogether. She is training, she says, for the Anthem Richmond Marathon in November, sometimes called “the people’s marathon.” She figures the weather will be a little cooler.
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