A Conversation with Professor Laura A. Heymann

  • Laura A. Heymann
    Laura A. Heymann  Professor Heymann has enjoyed successful careers in a variety of legal capacities. In 2011, she was named the Class of 2014 Professor of Law.  
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By Ami Dodson

Some law professors are shaped by their academic, in-depth study of a particular subject; others are influenced by practical, real-world experience.  William & Mary Law School Professor Laura A. Heymann draws on both. With successful careers in publishing and as a practicing attorney, Heymann is now in the midst of a thriving academic career focusing on intellectual property.

After graduating from Yale with a B.A. in English in 1991, Heymann began working at St. Martin’s Press, a publishing house in New York City. She was assigned to the company’s scholarly division, putting her in close contact with academics, including Adam Potkay, a professor in the William & Mary English Department, whose book she edited at St. Martin’s but whom she met in person only when she joined the law school.

“When I was applying for jobs out of college, I contacted book publishers, television stations and magazine publishers, and I probably would have been happy with a job at any of those companies,” says Heymann. Though she enjoyed working in the publishing field, Heymann realized she “liked being a student even more” and opted to continue her education by enrolling at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law in the fall of 1994. Heymann recalls that when she went to law school she hadn’t planned to enter academia. “I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do when I graduated, but I did plan on a career as a practicing lawyer in Washington, D.C.  But about six years after graduation, I was lucky enough to be hired as an adjunct at the George Washington University Law School, teaching Internet law.  I knew then that the classroom was where I wanted to be.”

Heymann’s journey back to the classroom took her through a variety of legal jobs. After a judicial clerkship with Judge Patricia M. Wald of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Heymann joined the law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in Washington, D.C. where one of her first assignments was to assist in a large trademark infringement case. “Intellectual property law was always in the back of my mind when I made the decision to go to law school,” remembers Heymann. “I’ve been interested in questions of authorship and interpretation since college – plus, I’m a huge pop culture fan. There are many areas of the law that I find fascinating, but teaching and writing about intellectual property allows me to spend time on what I would be reading, watching, or listening to in any event  but to think about it more critically.”

Heymann’s scholarship evolved from her experiences at Wilmer, as well as her time as in-house counsel with America Online from 2000 to 2003. “Part of my responsibility at America Online was to respond to civil and administrative subpoenas requesting subscriber information, which often raised First Amendment and privacy concerns relating to identities that subscribers adopted for their online activities,” says Heymann. “And so my first major article focused on the way in which creators adopt different identities for different creative pursuits, much like a company chooses different brands for different products.”

Heymann’s research interests also extend to “exploring why credit matters so much to the process of creation.” She adds, “I think that the basic human desire for credit and validation has a significant role to play in many of our debates about copyright law that has not yet been fully recognized, and I hope that my work can help shed some light on that fact.”

According to her colleagues at William & Mary, Heymann’s work is already having a significant impact in the academic community. “As a scholar, her achievements are so impressive, it is hard to imagine she has been with us for such a relatively short period,” says Paul Marcus, Haynes Professor of Law. “Indeed, as one of my friends in the intellectual property field said to me, Laura is a major player on the national scene in her field.”

Adds Professor Trotter Hardy, “She’s a superb teacher—in a law school with very high standards for teaching—and a superb scholar as well. When we asked scholars around the country to review her work, many commented on how substantial and mature her scholarly contribution to the field of intellectual property has been.”

As for her own influences, Heymann holds a special appreciation for the late Lloyd Cutler and the late John Pickering, two of the founding partners at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. “Both Mr. Cutler and Mr. Pickering were still very much a part of the firm when I was there and were always generous and gracious to those of us just starting our careers,” says Heymann. “They represented, to me, the ‘citizen lawyer’ ideal we often talk about at William & Mary, serving the country and the less fortunate as zealously as they did the firm’s wealthier clients, and always with dignity and professionalism."

Heymann has passed on to her own students the citizen lawyer ideal. “Professor Heymann taught me, by her own example, about the importance of professionalism, preparedness, and hard work,” says Jacqueline Chung ’08. “I believe that I am a better attorney today because of the important lessons that I have learned from her.”

“Professor Heymann is extremely engaging,” says Mark Pike ’09. “She is an expert entertainer, and a world class educator.” Now an employee working on intellectual property issues at Facebook, Pike notes, “Not a day goes by that I don’t use a lesson learned from one of Professor Heymann’s classes.”

Heymann believes her career path from book editor, to judicial clerk, to firm attorney, to in-house counsel, to law professor furthers her ability to instruct the students of William & Mary Law School. “Given that my students are interested in a wide range of career choices, it’s nice to be able to share my experiences in different legal environments and help them think about what career might be best for them.”

The best way to spread her passion for and knowledge of intellectual property law, Heymann believes, is by engaging her students in active classroom discussions. “I’m always thrilled when the conversation continues beyond the classroom: when I overhear students talking about a case in the hallway or when a student sends me a news article that reminded him or her of something we were discussing in class. Indeed, one of my favorite things is when students suddenly realize that they have the tools to analyze some torts, copyright, or trademark issue they’ve read about in the news. That’s a real ‘light bulb’ moment, and when it happens, I feel as if I’ve done my job.”

To read an excerpt from Professor Heymann’s article "The Law of Reputation and the Interest of the Audience," forthcoming in 2011 from the Boston College Law Review, please click here.

To read an excerpt from Professor Heymann’s article "Naming, Identity, and Trademark Law," published by the Indiana Law Journal in 2011, please click here.