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lka Patel, an intellectual property attorney in Pittsburgh, has had much success as an attorney, engineer, wife and mother. Her latest triumph comes with a bona fide award—she’s recently won the Society of Women Engineers 2006 Distinguished New Engineer Award. The SWE presents this award annually to a woman who demonstrates outstanding technical performance during the first 10 years of her career.

There’s a lot to reward. Having graduated as the only woman in her engineering class at the University of Pittsburgh, Patel went on to obtain her JD and MBA and launched a career in another male-dominated field: intellectual property law.

I cannot emphasize the importance of mentors, whether they are men or women.

Today, Patel is an associate with law firm Pepper Hamilton and specializes in intellectual property. In addition to winning professional accolades, she also balances marriage and motherhood. sat down with Patel to discover her secrets for success.

What was your route to law school?
After completing my engineering degree, I worked in a steel mill for three and a half years. I did not know what I wanted to do and ended up taking the LSAT. My rationale was that if I didn’t do well on the LSAT, I could still go back to school to get an MBA. Luckily, I managed to do well on the LSAT and enrolled for a JD and an MBA. I would go to school at night and work at the mill by day.

While I acknowledge the importance of grades, my advice to each girl is focus on your unique qualities and market those to law firms.

Why did you choose intellectual property?
In my last year of law school, I quit working at the steel mill and got a job at General Electric. I wanted experience with sales and manufacturing and this job provided me with the opportunity to do just that. When I graduated from law school, I realized that I could mix my engineering background with law if I focused on intellectual property and so ended up in this field. It has been a wonderful experience because working with IP has allowed me to see the most important asset of a company.

What is your secret for succeeding in a male-dominated field?
Find mentors. I cannot emphasize the importance of mentors, whether they are men or women. Whatever field you choose, it is important to seek companions who have been through similar situations, so that you can discuss and exchange ideas with them. For example, at my current position, I make it a point to network and meet female attorneys. Talking with them allows me to discuss many issues, be it maintaining a work-life balance or succeeding in a competitive work environment.

You can also learn from mentors from different backgrounds. I was lucky to have a wonderful mentor at my first job at the steel mill, who taught me about leadership and different management styles.

How do you balance the many hats you wear?
I am very fortunate to have a strong support network that includes my husband and parents. Law firm hours are very demanding and it is a little unnerving to balance the deadlines and travel schedules. The reason I can maintain a successful career is because of my support system. My parents live close by and help out with my daughter when necessary. Similarly, my husband maintains a flexible work schedule, which enables him to pitch in when I am busy.

I have found it tough to break through the “old boys” network and realized that my connections with females yielded better results.

What is your advice for young women interested in intellectual property law?
First, do not get discouraged because it is a male-dominated field. With the rise in diversity initiatives, many firms are appreciating the fresh perspective diverse employees bring. I also noticed that many girls get discouraged when they try to find a job right out of law school. While I acknowledge the importance of grades, my advice to each girl is focus on your unique qualities and market those to law firms.

Second, start networking, because those personal connections might lead to professional opportunities you never thought of. I have found it tough to break through the “old boys” network and realized that my connections with females yielded better results. My involvement with female-focused organizations allows me to network with many senior women who were silent role models and I planned my career path by observing them.

Third, I am a firm believer in community involvement. While South Asians are very talented, they do not always promote themselves professionally. I advise law students to attend bar association meetings. While such interactions may lead to networking opportunities they increase your knowledge and awareness of the profession and your visibility in that community.n

Aarati Rajwade is currently navigating the corporate consulting world. She lives in Washington D.C.
Published on December 20, 2006.
Photography: Courtesy of Alka Patel.
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