Leadership profile: Ray Millien

After a string of high-profile in-house roles, the former Volvo Cars and GE executive is shifting gears to a very different challenge as a private practice CEO

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On 1 August 2020 the century-old US IP law firm Harness, Dickey & Pierce PLC caused ripples in the IP world when it announced the hiring of Raymond Millien as its new CEO. Over the course of a stellar career, the IP maven has alternated stints at law firms with some of the most prestigious in-house IP jobs around. However, after being IP supremo at GE Healthcare (2013-2015), GE Oil & Gas (2015-2017) and Volvo Cars (2018-2021), his return to private practice – which also involved a relocation from Gothenburg, Sweden back to the United States – came as a surprise, even to him.

“I never thought I would go back,” he admits. “Had they offered me solely a partner role, I would probably have said: ‘No, thank you.’ But the opportunity to become CEO of a firm with over 100 IP attorneys and to help implement changes in the way that legal IP services are delivered, that is the next great challenge for me.”

In Millien’s view, a rethink in the way that IP professionals go about their jobs is long overdue. According to him, corporate leaders, in-house IP professionals and law firm attorneys all need to reassess the way that they view and handle intellectual property. “At too many companies, the C-suite doesn’t take intellectual property seriously enough. They see the IP function basically as ‘folks that spend money’.”

Millien points out that intellectual property is often folded into the corporate legal function – yet despite it regularly taking up the largest chunk of the department’s budget, corporate management still does not pay enough attention to the IP group. “They don’t see intellectual property as a business asset that should be guarded, developed and made to work for the company’s businesses and bottom line,” he laments. “Sad, but true. Personally, at this point in my career, I would never take a job where I didn’t think the C-suite respected intellectual property. I fought those battles early in my career, and maybe I am getting too old and tired to undertake that fight now.”

This lack of interest from the C-suite is often mirrored by the traditional, easy-going attitudes of in-house IP professionals themselves. “Let’s face it: if you work in an organisation where intellectual property is not respected, not deemed important, where it doesn’t have a high profile, your job as IP counsel can be very simple and easy. At the beginning of the year you say: ‘This year, we are going to file X number of patents. In the meantime, we hope and pray that we are not going to get hit by ugly litigations where we have to pay a lot of money. If we do, we say that this litigation is not our fault and we simply engage in damage control.’ If at the end of the third quarter you’re ahead of schedule in filings, you slow down a bit. If you’re behind, you speed up. All very simple. I call it the hidden shame of the IP industry. You set a number and you meet it, whether it’s good for business or not, because your pay and your individual bonus are based on that number.”

In Millien’s opinion, IP law firms often play along with this, sticking to the old way of doing things and dispensing technical legal advice without bothering about the business angle. “That’s making life simple for them too. But this attitude of in-house and outside IP lawyers becomes more and more unsustainable. I have practised IP law for over two decades now and the world has changed a lot. It has become more digital, more agile, and technology is transforming everything. However, very few chief IP counsel and very few IP law firm partners have changed the way that they deliver IP services in order to meet how the world has changed.”

Millien is adamant that this is simply not good enough. “Intellectual property nowadays is the largest chunk of a company’s assets. For an entertainment company, it’s copyright; for a consumer product company, it’s probably trade secrets and brands; for other consumer goods companies, it’s some patents and a lot of brand; for the entire biopharma industry, it’s all about patents. If we know how valuable intellectual property is and how the world has changed and keeps changing, then we should know we have to change too. We can no longer deliver IP services the way that we did in 1952.”

To modernise the way that a company’s IP group goes about its business, there has to be a wider organisational will to do so. “The leader of the in-house IP function who wants to change things must have the support from the C-suite. They need to give you their backing, the right budget and the flexibility to bring in the right personnel. If that’s the case, you can move fast. You can turn the place around very quickly, as I have done myself in a couple of places. You can change the structure of your organisation, diversify the activities that you engage in, hire people with a business background and not just lawyers, and – last but certainly not least – change the mindset – make everybody think of intellectual property being the business.”

On this subject, as on others, Millien is quite outspoken. “I am a loud-mouthed New York lawyer, giving my opinion loud and clear comes natural to me,” he laughs. Joking aside, he would like other IP leaders to be more vocal in airing their views on hotly debated IP issues. “I am not afraid to speak out. I have never been afraid of being fired; that’s okay, but I don’t think a lot of my counterparts feel the same way. The leaders in the IP industry should do more to explain the benefits of intellectual property to society at large. For me, intellectual property is the new civil rights, an economics-focused civil rights. Inventors and other creators should not be ripped off when it comes to their inventions, songs, artworks and other creations. The IP industry as a whole should spread this message; each individual in society should know their IP rights.”

Motivating the team, being a leader

When asked how best to motivate team members, Ray Millien does not hesitate. “Teams function better when everybody understands what the overall goal is. I think a lot of leaders tend to just define individual tasks; person X does this, person Y does that and person Z does some other thing. But none of these team members understand how their contribution fits into the bigger picture. A good leader explains to the whole team what the common goal is. Team members should not hide from the rest of the team behind their own tasks; everyone should know what everyone else is doing and why. That motivates them to do a good job themselves, as part of the team effort.”

Diversity in a team is essential. “That’s a no-brainer. Whether at a company or a law firm, you can’t hire everyone from the same school, the same hometown, with the same degree from the same university. If you do, you will suffer from ‘group think’ and as a leader you will get stuck in an echo chamber. I love to hire people that are different from me, people who will bring ideas and solutions to the table that are different from what I would think of.”

He attributes this attitude to formative experiences that have helped him become a better IP leader himself. “On a personal level, growing up in the United States, you sometimes face discrimination in one form or another. This has helped me to better understand the challenges that people on my team may face. It has helped me to be more humble in understanding that not everyone has had an easy life. Some people have had to overcome personal setbacks to get where they are. Understanding that has made me a more humanistic leader. If you have been through struggle, you understand struggle.”

“What has helped me, too, is getting it wrong sometimes in my professional life, realising it and recognising it. You should not pretend to always have the right answer. Leadership, especially in intellectual property, is much more about knowing to ask the right questions.”

For Millien, preparing team members for leadership roles and fostering continuous learning is part and parcel of leading a team. “I don’t know if it is called the ‘Bill Gates Rule’ or the ‘Oprah Winfrey Rule’, I just call it the ‘spend five hours a week developing yourself rule’. Every day, your law or engineering degree gets older. Your job as a team leader is to promote continuous learning. And I love hiring people that want my job. I understand them, I love their motivation and I will mentor them to eventually one day do my job. It may be at another organisation or it may be taking over for me when I move on.”

What subjects did you study as part of your academic education?

Computer science and law.

If you could acquire in one day all the knowledge of any degree of your choice in order to become even better at your job and be a better leader, which degree would you choose?

Corporate finance. If you are an IP attorney, whether in-house or at a law firm, your clients are not hiring you to do intellectual property in some academic vacuum, they are trying to make money. A degree in corporate finance helps you to better understand the business angle. It makes you a better adviser, because you get the total picture and you understand the financial pressures your clients are facing. Corporate finance helps you to speak the language of business. Being able to speak that language is the difference between being a good IP lawyer and being a great IP lawyer.

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