Ellisen Turner is a partner at Kirkland & Ellis in the Intellectual Property Practice Group. He is also the Firm’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee Co-Chair. His practice includes patent and trade secret litigation. As an IP strategist, he helps clients to maximize IP value and quantify and mitigate IP risk.
In this Q&A, we ask Ellisen about how his personal and professional experiences have shaped his commitment to DEI in the legal industry.
Throughout your career, you have led numerous programs geared towards advancing DEI in the law. What led to this passion?
My commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion follows the trails blazed by my late father, James Atlas Turner, a champion of the civil rights era. He integrated the Norfolk, Virginia public schools as a member of the “Norfolk 17.” Despite the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision to desegregate public schools, Virginia implemented a resistance campaign of new laws and policies to block integration. After the Virginia Supreme Court and the Eastern District of Virginia (where I later clerked) declared those policies unconstitutional, granddad sent James Atlas and his older sister to school. Dad overcame the daily hostility they experienced to finish in the top of his class. He went on to Howard University and later became a diversity leader at colleges around the country, dedicating his life to creating learning environments where all students are valued and encouraged. When he was gone, my single mother worked all day and went to school at night to provide the best possible opportunities for her family. Their determination and courage have been influential in everything I do.
There were many reports that in 2021 you were considered for nomination to both the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and to be Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. You would have been the first African-American to hold either of these very prominent IP positions. What is the significance of DEI in the IP field?
Innovation and inventorship are addressed in Article I of the Constitution and hence are foundational to the formation and success of our country, yet there has always been a wide gap between the goal of a color-, gender-, and wealth-blind innovation system and certain types of inventors. The resulting innovation gap hinders U.S. economic growth and undermines our global leadership in IP. While IP-intensive industries account for over 30% of all U.S. employment and more than a third of our gross domestic product, studies have confirmed that people of color, women, and those with lower incomes participate in the innovation economy at significantly lower rates than their wealthier white male counterparts. For these reasons, I created the National Bar Association’s Diversity in Tech Awards five years ago to recognize and encourage companies like Intel and Meta (Facebook), who are working to broaden access to the innovation ecosystem and expand exposure to STEM fields in diverse communities.
As for the Federal Circuit and the USPTO, one cannot overstate the impact of having women and people of color in prominent positions. Real progress occurs when people who look, speak, and identify themselves differently are fully empowered to share and fight for their ideas. Multiple studies have demonstrated that inclusive leadership promotes more robust discussions, better decision-making and improved outcomes.
I have been honored to be considered for IP leadership roles that would have furthered these goals in the public sector, but I am currently focused on driving DEI forward in the private sector, and I still enjoy helping clients protect and maximize the value of their technologies.
How does Kirkland approach DEI and what sets it apart from your peers?
At Kirkland, the stakeholders know that DEI is a genuine strategic business imperative. Our top leaders are deeply engaged, ensuring our time, talent, and resources are heavily invested in all aspects of DEI, including recruitment, retention, development, and promotion. Contributions to the Firm’s DEI mission, and broader sharing of key client relationships and credit, are explicit factors in equity partner promotion and review. Kirkland hosts over 150 events each year that include programs to further DEI education and training, build community, and create a culture of belonging. Our investment extends well beyond affinity groups to address pipeline growth, professional development, and promotion. We continue to learn and grow, and I am excited to play a part in this time of meaningful change.
Are you optimistic for the future?
I am. The many wonderful programs and initiatives I see at Kirkland, in the legal industry, and in the wider business community show me that we are headed in the right direction.