Sharon Barner serves as vice president and general counsel of a Fortune 500 giant and an Indiana institution, Cummins Inc. She was naturally suited for such a role given her extensive background in intellectual property law in private practice and as deputy director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office during the Obama administration. She’s grown the in-house counsel department at Cummins and helped establish the company as a leader in diversity and inclusion.
What’s it like serving as general counsel for a company celebrating its 100th anniversary?
It is an incredible honor being the GC at Cummins as it celebrates 100 years. It’s awe-inspiring to know that the values of caring, community and diversity that Cummins has today have been a part of the company for 100 years. It’s a part of our DNA. Nothing is better evidence of this than the company name, which comes from Clessie Cummins, who was the innovator of the diesel engine and driver for the Miller family. As important, I feel a significant obligation to ensure that I help manage the company and risk in a way that helps ensure the company is around for the next 100 years.
How did you transition from private practice to an in-house role?
As a member of the management committee and department chair of over 200 intellectual property lawyers, many of the skills are directly transferable. I had significant revenue generation and management responsibilities. These were enhanced by my stint as the deputy director with the USPTO during the Obama administration. In this role, I essentially served as the chief operations officer, and all of the business and administrative functions reported to me. I got a chance to experience having responsibility for the balance sheet and essentially running a business. The nearly $2 billion in USPTO revenues are completely user-fee-funded. The role also included policy formulation, government engagement and significant management responsibilities, so my transition to GC included many of the same issues.
How important is your background in IP law to your work at Cummins?
It is an important part of ensuring that we protect our intellectual property and that it adds value to the company. A significant amount of value that we bring to our customers is the research and development and technology in our engine and powertrain. We have been working on global IP strategies that support our business strategies. This work has been going on for several years. To date, I am pleased with the continued evolution and growth of our IP portfolio.
What was your most memorable job before becoming an attorney?
I think most about the summers I spent in an automotive factory. It was very hard and rewarding work. It gave me a great understanding of how and why manufacturing was a way into the middle class for many Americans. I had an entire rooting section who wanted me to succeed in college.
When did you first decide you would become a lawyer, and what motivated you?
I decided to become a lawyer early in my senior year of college. I thought I was heading to medical school. I was looking for a profession which would continue to stimulate me intellectually and satisfy my burgeoning love for politics and the law. It started with a course I took on the political machine in Chicago, and I was hooked.
What’s been the most rewarding aspect of your practice?
The most rewarding part of my practice has been the intellectual challenge and global scope. I have enjoyed being on the forefront of innovation as an intellectual property lawyer. I had the opportunity to experience and understand technology and its contribution to economic growth. Even then, my practice was global, and I had the opportunity to work in Europe, China, Japan and India. It was fascinating to understand the similarities and differences in legal framework and culture. As a lawyer at a global company, our products and technology are sold and operated in 194 countries. I continue to have the opportunity to have challenging work and learn from lawyers around the world.
Who is someone who inspired or mentored you, and what did you learn from them?
My mother was a smart, strong and caring person. She was a community development director who worked to find jobs and college scholarships for diverse teenagers. She loved her work and her clients while at the same time raising six children. I am inspired by her life every day.
What do you most enjoy doing when you’re not in the office?
I enjoy traveling to different parts of the world. I have three children who are now in their 20s. They have had passports since they were 6 months old. We have traveled to China, Vietnam, Europe, Colombia, Argentina and across the U.S. I continue to travel for work and for fun. I like to understand people and culture.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Have more fun.
If you could change one law, what would that be?
I would make Title IX a part of the U.S. Constitution.
What’s something about you not many people know?
I have arachnophobia — an irrational fear of spiders.
What’s your advice to a younger person who’s thinking about a legal career?
Go for it. I love practicing law and being a lawyer. I did not always feel this way about law. Several years into my career, I found an area of practice that I loved — intellectual property — and the years flew by. I think it is critical to find an area that really stimulates you, will sustain you intellectually and will allow you to continue to grow and develop.•