Joseph Barber Of Howard & Howard: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Attorney
An Interview With Eric Pines
Find a supportive mentor. You always need people to whom you can bounce ideas off in a non-judgmental way. I have found this useful for finding guidance within the construct of a litigation matter and general professional growth.
As a part of my series about “5 things I wish someone told me when I first became an attorney” I had the pleasure of interviewing Joseph Barber.
Joseph Barber has worked at Howard & Howard for 11 years. With nearly 15 years of experience, he represents his clients in all aspects of their intellectual property protection and enforcement. Mr. Barber litigates patent and trademark matters in federal courts throughout the country and before the United States Patent and Trademark Office as a registered patent attorney. His experience in patent matters primarily focuses on mechanical, electrical, and optical technologies. Mr. Barber received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Northwestern University and his law degree from the University of Illinois.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law?
I began my career as an electrical engineer, but quickly found the day-to-day work was not what I wanted. I was looking for more face-to-face interaction and started to realize I enjoyed words more than numbers. As a result, I decided to volunteer for a legal aid group in the Chicago suburbs. I have always been passionate about helping people. Before law school, I joined the Peace Corps and taught math and science in a Ghanaian rain forest village. Living in Ghana provided me with a much different perspective on life. You quickly realize you do not need everything you think you do (like consistent power or running water) to be happy and content. Good relationships and shared experiences are critical for a happy mental state. After my time with the Peace Corps, I attended the University of Illinois College of Law where I received an excellent legal education.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your law career?
One of my more enjoyable and different experiences as a lawyer was representing a small business owner that operated a tow boat company on Lake Michigan. The tow boat owner had recently towed a former America’s Cup racing yacht that became grounded. Unfortunately, the yacht owner was refusing to pay the towing fee. Admiralty law permits the seizure of assets for non-payment towing debts. After obtaining the appropriate court order, I worked with the U.S. Marshal’s Office and went down to the harbor, seized the racing yacht, and had it towed to a secure location until the matter was resolved. In addition to the experience of seizing a yacht, I enjoyed meeting and getting to know some of the U.S. Marshals.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Most of my work now is advising companies on their branding efforts and either defending or prosecuting litigation on brand infringement. I also have several clients navigating the metaverse with some exciting new products that should come out in the near future.
What are some of the most interesting cases you have been involved in? Without sharing anything confidential can you share any stories?
I would definitely say working on the racing yacht seizure was one of my more interesting cases. Unfortunately, I cant go into too many other cases right now due to client confidentiality.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
I am an avid reader of history. I recently finished The Anarchy by William Dalrymple, which is a fascinating book on the history of India from the 1500s to the 1800s describing the decline of the Mughal Empire and role of the East India Company in precipitating this decline. I am currently reading The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson, which discusses the cultural and sociological history of ancient Egypt. The recurring themes I take from these books and others like them are human society tends to view the current state of affairs as the culmination of history. This generally ignores the near constant cycle of stability and instability in cultures around the world throughout history. Regimes and societies rise and fall and are replaced by another. I think societies rise, become complacent, and decline through lack of work on keeping a good thing going. This is a long way of saying that I do not think there is a particular person in history that inspires me. Instead, it is the historical record of general progress, even considering the regular back-sliding, that gives me hope human civilization will find a way to address the current problems and adapt to the future.
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in law?
Major or minor in something mathematically or scientifically analytical. Math and science majors learn how to think in a manner different than social sciences that will help make law school and legal analysis more intuitive.
Also, your reputation is everything. Even as a litigator, a large part of your success is getting along with opposing counsel and the court. That is not to say you give in easily or do not advocate for your client, but having a reputation as a reasonable attorney who knows the case facts and law will get one farther than being known as a firebrand lacking substance. Litigation is a time consuming, expensive, and stressful process for your client. The last thing that helps your client is a reputation with the bench or bar that is not favorable.
If you had the ability to make three reforms in our judicial/legal system, which three would you start with? Why?
First, civil cases should have a broader right to counsel. Too many legal disputes that are matters of extreme importance to the litigants are too expensive for civil counsel. This leaves people distrustful or ambivalent of the legal system, which is a shame. The legal system is devised to settle disputes between people fairly, consistently, and dispassionately. Allowing more equitably access to the system would help society at large.
Second, more government money needs to be spent on funding criminal matters — on both sides. Prosecutors are underpaid and there is nowhere near the amount of money provided to fund required criminal defense attorneys for the non-wealthy.
Third, the system should provide faster and cheaper results for disputes worth less than a million dollars. The system is designed to permit discovery and investigation into a lot of areas that are borderline tangential to the underlying dispute. This is helpful for large cases but not so much for more modest disputes. The burden of civil discovery can quickly swallow up the benefit of winning a dispute. Streamlined discovery for small claims cases should be scaled up and implemented to more moderate disputes as well.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
One of my more memorable cases was representing a homeless man in an unemployment dispute with a large international company. The company contended my client was fired for cause. I successfully argued he was not, and unemployment benefits were awarded. My client was able to find a home with his benefits and secured other employment putting his homelessness behind him.
I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?
Helping others keeps me motivated. I find a good attorney is an advocate and counselor to his or her clients. The advice is not always what the client wants to hear, but I believe a good attorney looks at the client’s big picture and does his or her best to achieve the long terms goals. As a lawyer, we can’t lose sight of the big picture in satisfying the immediate moment. I find professional satisfaction is helping a client grow their businesses and reach their long-term goals.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Find a supportive mentor. You always need people to whom you can bounce ideas off in a non-judgmental way. I have found this useful for finding guidance within the construct of a litigation matter and general professional growth.
- Enjoy the lulls in workflow. As an attorney in private practice, your value is based on the work you produce and the work you bring to the firm. This is not going to be constant and there are peaks and valleys. If you are good at what you do, you have to trust the valleys will be short because they will be and enjoy the relative space provided by them to recharge.
- Attorneys are ultimately salespeople. You are always selling your services or those of your partners.
- Find something to enjoy outside of work. The legal profession can take all of your time and energy, which could lead to burnout. You need to have a passion or interest outside of work to maintain a sense of balance.
- You will not win them all. Yes, you need to win your cases and motions, but law is a zero-sum game. Litigators can get caught up in the battle with the other side and lose sight of the client’s goals and the ultimate merits of the dispute at hand. You will lose at times because the facts, law, or both are not on your side. It is important to keep in mind the client’s goals along with an honest assessment of the case merits to effectively advise the client and provide tangible value.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this!
Rory McIlroy. I’m a bit of a golf nut and interested in learning about how he has been able to maintain focus and excellence while constantly being in the public eye. I am also fascinated by his recent foray into the business side of life with his new venture with Tiger Woods.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health!