Profiles: Steven Roberts

Golden Gate University

Steven J. Roberts

JD 94

Senior Counsel, Intellectual Property at Nissan North America

Of the more than one million American attorneys, just 2% are patent attorneys. With arguably one of the most challenging credentials to achieve in the legal profession, patent attorneys are required not only understand the law, but also to be versant in technology. Long recognized as integral to the high-tech sector, patent attorneys for the 21st century are increasingly important in the myriad of other industries that contribute to modern life -- such as the auto industry which claims 5% of all US patents annually.

Steve Roberts loves language. He first fell in love with Russian back in high school and continued his studies at the University of Utah. After taking classes for a fifth year, he also earned a bachelor's degree in Political Science, specializing in Soviet Studies. Figuring that he was destined for government work, he took the Foreign Service exam even before he graduated from college. He gained attention from National Security and the CIA for positions related to Soviet skills. During his sophomore year of college, he had been part of a group who took a short trip to the former Soviet Union. The trip left a profound impact, and Steve was determined to find a way to somehow go back. When the government jobs he'd been considering didn't pan out, he decided to enroll in the graduate language program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. It was 1984 and he moved back to his childhood home in Tiburon, California, to wait for the term to begin.

One Sunday morning, he was looking at the Sunday morning classified section. Pan American World Airways, the premiere international airline at the time, was looking for Russian-speaking airline attendants. For the next five years, Steve flew with Pan Am and saw the world in the process.

However, constant international flying is particularly physically taxing. Graduate school was looking appealing. He decided on Golden Gate Law School because of its international law program. "Given all my travel and experience, I was fascinated with the idea of international law, and Golden Gate had a program in that area. I knew that I wasn't going to law school to be a generalist attorney. I wanted a specialization, and at the time I thought it would be international law."

In the fall of 1991, Steve Roberts took a seat in his first class at Golden Gate Law. Once again, while perusing the local newspaper, he ran across an ad that would change his life. This one offered a special discount on Japanese lessons. He signed up, started taking lessons, and fell in love with the language. He decided it was time to find a private tutor, when he ran across that fate-filled bulletin board outside his classroom. The ad proposed lessons in Japanese for an exchange of lessons in English. "So I called the number and my future wife answered the phone."

The next three years passed quickly as Steve continued working diligently on mastering Japanese, completing law school, passing the bar, and launching his career. Although he'd come to Golden Gate for its international law focus, he'd begun looking in other directions during law school. He found the area of patents particularly appealing. While still a full-time law student, he started enrolling in undergraduate technical courses as a part-time evening student. Those semesters he describes as eat, sleep and study. Shortly after sitting for the California Bar exam, which he passed, he settled in to prepare for the looming patent attorney exam. Defying the odds, Steve passed on his first attempt.

While in Osaka, his wive's family home, Steve decided to put send out letters and resumes to every major patent law firm in the Osaka area. The response was immediate. "It turned out that I was the only US patent attorney in the entire western region of Japan. There were probably only five others in Japan at the time, and they were all in Tokyo." As other young lawyers were launching their careers in California firms, he was becoming known as the only US patent attorney in all of western Japan. For the next two years, he worked in Osaka. Then one day in 1997, he took a call from a friend who was working at an LA law firm. They were looking for someone to do patent litigation. Then, in late 1999, he got a call from his former employer in Japan with a generous offer. He was expecting a son and needed a family support structure. For the next seven years, he made Osaka home. Then, in early 2007, the same attorney who had originally asked Steve to come to Los Angeles called. He'd left the firm where the two had worked and joined Nissan as a house counsel, based in Los Angeles.

Today, as senior counsel for Nissan North America, he's the company's lead patent attorney. As strong as sales are today, Nissan is investing much of its corporate capital on future technologies, among them on a collaboration with GE to integrate electric cars with homes. It's the kind of project that ensures Steve Roberts will be busy for years to come.

As a dad, Steve Roberts says the larger life lesson that he's trying to instill in his son is the importance of goals. "My guiding principle and what I'm trying to teach my son is that we're all capable of some amazing things when you put your mind to it, have a clear goal in mind, and are determined to achieve that goal no matter what.