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In-house: US government agency adds to its senior lawyer ranks with AOL and Google hires

The former deputy general counsel at both AOL and Google are set to become colleagues, having separately joined the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) as the government agency turns to lawyers with hi-tech backgrounds to fill its top ranks.

The USPTO has just appointed AOL’s former deputy GC for intellectual property, Sarah Harris, as its GC. She will join Google’s former deputy GC, Michelle Lee, who became deputy director at the end of last year.

Harris will take over from USPTO GC Bernard Knight who has returned to private practice as an IP partner at McDermott, Will & Emery in Washington where he specialises in complex patent litigation.

In her new role at the USPTO, which forms part of the US Department of Commerce, Harris will oversee 100 lawyers and paralegals and three deputy GCs.

She will report to Lee, who was appointed as deputy director at the USPTO and deputy undersecretary of commerce for industry and property in December, filling a role which had been vacant since February 2013 when former incumbent David Kappos returned to private practice to become an IP partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore.

The acting USPTO director during the interim period, Teresa Stanek Rea, also returned to private practice in November, going back to her former firm Crowell & Moring as a partner in the firm’s litigation group where she specialises in international IP disputes and policy issues among other things.

Harris said of her appointment: ‘I am honoured and thrilled about the opportunity to work with Michelle Lee and the other incredibly impressive people at the USPTO.’

Knight said the selection of Harris, as someone with a background in the software and hi-tech industry, was likely to be seen as a boost to White House efforts to thwart companies accused of abusive patent litigation, often called ‘patent trolls’.

US secretary of commerce, Penny Pritzker, said of Lee’s appointment: ‘Michelle Lee has proven herself to be a tremendous asset to the USPTO and the Department of Commerce. She has a great mix of skills and experiences to assume this leadership position during a time when the administration is deeply focused on strengthening the nation’s intellectual property system. And her years of working in the IP community, both in the private and public sectors, will support the key focus on innovation and the digital economy in the Commerce Department’s new ‘Open for Business’ policy agenda. I look forward to working with her in her new capacity.’