When 3L Erin Herdeman was contemplating asking Laura Gisler '14 J.D. to be her mentor last year, she knew it would be a unique pairing considering the more than 4,000 miles separating them. But with a global pandemic forcing more people online to connect, distance became less of an issue than it might have been pre-COVID-19.
Herdeman, who is based in the Twin Cities, and Gisler, who lives in Gothenburg, Sweden, made such a strong connection they’ll continue meeting through Herdeman’s final year of law school.
“COVID-19 tested the boundaries of how easily we could make relationships and networking happen,” Herdeman said. “It taught us that many connections could happen virtually and still produce meaningful and valuable relationships. I really wanted to have this opportunity with Laura – she’s someone I thought would be a good mentor fit for me. It was also an opportunity to work with someone who could open up my network to people around the world.”
Since her 1L year, Herdeman has clerked for Patterson Thuente IP, a full-service, intellectual property boutique firm based in Minneapolis. Tom Dickson, the firm’s managing partner, was her 1L mentor. While Herdeman is pulled into a variety of projects at Patterson Thuente, she mostly focuses on patent prosecution work. Amy Salmela, a shareholder with the firm, helped connect Herdeman last summer with Gisler, who is the global head of intellectual property at Polestar, a premium electric car maker headquartered in Sweden, and a Patterson Thuente client.
Earlier this summer, a group from Patterson Thuente traveled to Sweden to collaborate on a project with Polestar. Herdeman, who has become a valued member of the firm, was asked to join a small group of attorneys and support staff on the business trip. It was an incredible opportunity for Herdeman, who was able to work side by side with Gisler for two weeks.
“Just seeing how large the scale of Laura’s job is and how many responsibilities fall under her umbrella was so interesting,” Herdeman said. “She’s someone who is unapologetically herself, which I admire. She’s always extremely professional but is always herself and leading with that first. I think we lose sight of that in the professional world.”
Herdeman and Gisler are part of the law school’s award-winning Mentor Externship Program. A hallmark of the law school’s education, the program is part of the reason St. Thomas consistently ranks as one of the top three law schools in the nation for practical training. More than 1,700 lawyers and judges have served as mentors in the program that connects each law student, each year of law school, with a legal professional working in their area of interest.
The program strives to fulfill the law school’s vision of providing excellence in professional preparation. It offers every student a unique opportunity to build powerful relationships with legal professionals and helps students develop the interpersonal and professional skills necessary for a successful legal career, said Uyen Campbell, Mentor Externship Program co-director.
Campbell said Gisler and Herdeman illustrate the power of the mentor/mentee relationship.
“Instead of seeing the Mentor Externship Program as a requirement, Erin treated the program as an opportunity, recruiting Laura to be her mentor and then seeking out career advice, asking questions and learning from her mentor,” Campbell said. “Erin was committed and excited to learn all she could from her mentor. Laura mirrored Erin’s enthusiasm by taking the time to structure experiences that would advance Erin’s skills in intellectual property law and being available to answer questions and provide candid advice. Laura, like Erin, saw their mentor-mentee relationship as an opportunity. As a mentor, she felt it was important to learn and share experiences with and from her mentee.”
Herdeman said she never imagined how many doors her time at the law school – including in the Mentor Externship Program – would open for her.
“St. Thomas does an incredible job of pulling in leaders from the law community to help foster growth in students,” she said. “There’s a lot of accommodating the needs of students and creating opportunities and experiences for them to learn new things. Sometimes it even works out that they’ll find a firm that will take them on an international business trip.”
Bonding over intellectual property
Both Gisler and Herdeman aspired to have careers in the medical field while earning their undergraduate degrees. While neither ended up in health care, they both have degrees in biology-related fields, which make for a solid foundation when pursuing IP law. To legally practice before the United States Patent and Trademark Office, a bachelor’s degree in one of the specified fields of science or engineering is required.
“When I came to law school with my science background, I was thinking I would head in a health law direction,” Herdeman said. “I was still really interested in medicine and hospital systems, but what I’ve really loved about intellectual property, and specifically the patent work I do, is that I’m still around a lot of healthcare professionals. I wanted to have a career where I was constantly learning new things and around smart people who challenged me. I definitely feel that way about this profession.”
Gisler said her career has been about trusting her instincts and working on projects that she truly connects with. She is drawn to opportunities to help businesses engaging in innovative technologies to solve problems.
“I consistently listen to my heart and follow my own curiosity,” Gisler said. “And that’s been exciting.”
During her time at the law school, Gisler felt like a part of the community. The relationships she had with both her fellow classmates and the staff and faculty helped her establish a strong network before she even graduated with her law degree.
“I loved the access to these world-class minds,” Gisler said about the school’s faculty and staff. “The people are so brilliant in what they do, and they’ll open up their doors or sit down and have coffee with you. Those relationships empowered me. I was encouraged to follow my own path even if it was a nontraditional one.”
Learning from each other
Herdeman had briefly met Gisler in person last fall, but in Sweden the two were able to connect on another level.
“Laura was with us nearly every day – there was a lot of collaboration with her,” Herdeman said. “I was excited to have the opportunity to see where she lives and works and what her day-to-day life was like. I was able to put a lot of things together that I have learned virtually over the year and throughout our relationship. It was so much fun. Not only was I able to work in person with Laura, but I also saw all the preparation that goes into a business trip of this scale.”
Gisler said the opportunity for Herdeman to make the trip to Sweden was a big step for the relationship.
“It was such a great experience – she was amazingly helpful,” Gisler said. “She was able to observe me working and to see all these issues I’m dealing with. It was a realistic look at what I do. Then we were able to set aside some time to connect outside of work – we did yoga and had dinner. That felt powerful for me because I’m still newish to being a mentor and I really wanted to support Erin. I hope going forward, we can dive into some of the issues that are more meaningful or more interesting to her.”
Trusting her skills and knowledge is something Herdeman will take away from her time with Gisler. It’s affirming and refreshing, Herdeman said, to watch Gisler be her authentic self.
“There’s a lot of self-doubt and questioning whether you’re the right person in the room to answer a question or whether you’re qualified,” Herdeman said about being a law student in high performance situations. “Laura is great at emphasizing that you should always believe in yourself.”
Herdeman needed that confidence when she was asked to plan a team social outing for the group that traveled to Sweden. Trying to find the perfect activity, she decided to organize a relaxing boat cruise. Once they arrived at the marina, however, it became clear that was not going to be the kind of experience they would be getting, taking everyone by surprise.
“We all showed up ready to relax,” she smiled as she recalled the experience. “But it ended up being a speedboat. We all had to wear life jackets and we went 40-50 miles per hour out in the open sea. Like everyone else, Laura showed up expecting a relaxing evening and we were in a boat doing donuts.
“People were definitely skeptical at first,” Herdeman added. “But it ended up being a great memory from the trip. Although I don’t think I’ll ever be able to live that one down.”
This story is featured in the fall 2021 issue of St. Thomas Lawyer.