Found in Translation - A combination of engineering and law speaks volumes

John Held
John Held was halfway through his BS in mechanical engineering at Purdue when he decided that he was not cut out for a career as an engineer.

“I went into engineering at my father’s urging,” Held said. “I liked the science part of it, but not the detail part. Designing a shaft was not my cup of tea.”

Held earned his degree anyway in 1960 and then took off for Georgetown University to work toward a law degree. He was a law student by night and a patent examiner (later a clerk for a law firm and then for a federal judge) during the day.

“At the time, patent law was the natural and generally the only recognized way to combine an engineering degree with law,” he said. “Today there are other ways, such as environmental law and product-liability law.”

On the surface, Held’s two degrees could not seem more different, but he says that his engineering degree served him well in his law career. Speaking the language of scientists and engineers, he said, is a critical part of success for a patent attorney. Clients want to feel certain that their attorney understands what they are telling him, and the attorney needs to put those technical details into everyday language.

“In a way, we serve as translators,” Held said. “We have to be able to speak the language of scientists and engineers. We have to turn that language into English when we go to court and into what the Patent Office will understand when we practice there. Most of the federal judges probably had their last science course in high school, and a lot of the jurors did not have a science course past junior high school. If I cannot discuss technical issues so that laypeople understand, the outcome is like flipping a coin.”

“We have to be able to speak the language of scientists and engineers.”

– John Held

Held put his translation skills to work as a patent attorney for the Chicago technology and intellectual property firm of McAndrews, Held & Malloy. With five other attorneys, Held co-founded the firm in 1988 and saw it grow to include more than 100 lawyers.

For Purdue, Held and his wife, Yvonne, created two endowments: the John and Yvonne Held Mechanical Engineering Scholarship and the Held Alumni Lecture Series, which will bring alumni — especially those with nontraditional career paths — to campus to discuss their experiences with students.

“The lecture series is intended for students who find themselves in my position — questioning whether they want to be a practicing engineer,” Held said.

Held met Yvonne while he was at Purdue; they married while he was still an undergrad and she had just finished her nursing degree. The couple — whose daughter and son-in-law also graduated from Purdue — took steps to establish their gift in 2010.

“I had been thinking about doing it for a while,” Held said. “There are two schools of thought: One is that you don’t give a grocery store anything extra just because they sell you life-giving groceries; the other is that college and law school created the basis for whatever success that I have enjoyed in my life, and I should give something back so future generations can have the same opportunities that I had.

“I belong to the latter school.”