Chris Ferguson’s extensive IP experience at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) the past ten years runs from initially being hired as a patent application drafting specialist to his latest role as senior counsel of IP transactions. Through multiple promotions along with five formative years working for esteemed firms Morrison & Foerster and Fitzpatrick, Cella, Harper & Scinto, Ferguson has established trusting relationships with inventors as much as he has with executives, salespeople, and others across HPE’s business lines.
The words “resiliency” and “flexibility” are two the legal leader brings up a lot in his interview, and the IP attorney hopes others may find some wisdom in this deep dive into his career journey.
As he’s progressed in his career, the lawyer has ascended to leadership roles that have provided their own challenges, demanding a perspective shift away from his individual contributions to acting as a mentor and manager—all the while keeping HPE’s patent department running like a well-oiled machine.
When to Not Know
Ferguson says learning to accept one’s limitations is an essential requirement of an in-house lawyer. “As in-house counsel, we’re required to be more than a master of legal questions. You’re looked to as a trusted advisor to the business,” the lawyer explains. “People are often coming to you with a quasilegal question or one that may have no legal context whatsoever. You need to be flexible in your thinking and willing to provide advice and take things on that may be outside your wheelhouse.”
But, the lawyer stresses, this comes with an additional responsibility. “You have to be resilient and understand that you are often not going to know the answers to these questions,” Ferguson says. “In school, there was generally an answer and an objective truth you were working toward. But in reality, there are multiple sides of an issue, and it’s so important to understand that some questions don’t always have a definitive answer.”
Ferguson says lawyers need to learn one very important phrase that may hurt to utter but will save them a great deal of pain in the long run: “I don’t know, but I will try to find out.”
“Don’t try to provide an answer on the spot if it’s not an answer you’re confident in providing,” the lawyer explains. “If it’s a legal question, do some research and get back to them. If it’s a question where the answer isn’t objectively clear, recognize and illustrate the multiple paths forward.”
Ferguson says that as business-minded attorneys, in-house counsel need to learn to recognize and live with the inherent risk that those multiple avenues present. The most conservative route may not always be the wise path, and it’s an in-house counsel’s job to walk others through that risk assessment and chart multiple courses for where decisions might lead.
Learning in Leadership
Especially in his latest move, Ferguson has had to learn to be comfortable in learning something new. “In switching to this IP Transactions role, doing these big, complex transactions is totally different from what I’ve spent 90 percent of my career doing,” the lawyer says. “It’s required a lot of humility and flexibility.”
The same qualities were required for Ferguson’s last role, in which he managed a team for the first time. The skill set needed for people management was new territory for the lawyer, who until then had been measured on his own contributions throughout his career.
“You have to have the core skills in the subject matter for sure, but being a manager is so different,” says Ferguson. “It’s really all about the people. It’s about putting others first and ahead of yourself in many ways. You’re helping them achieve their aspirations and achieve their goals. You could be the best attorney but a horrible manager who derails the careers of others. You have to commit to people personally and as a leader.”
And while large transactions may be taking up more of Ferguson’s day-to-day now than leading a team, the perspective he’s gained from his journey continues to influence his own practice, both inside the office and out.
“Whether it’s a project or problem, it’s so important not to stay at that limited, myopic level of getting in too deep,” the lawyer explains. “Remind yourself to step back and see the whole picture. And that includes paying attention to your personal life and not working 24/7.”
Ferguson says stepping back often results in being able to approach a problem from an entirely different perspective. Whether it’s spending time with his wife and four children or learning a new song on the guitar, the attorney says he’s better at his job when his whole life, not just his nine-to-five, has balance.
Lessons on the Road
Chris Ferguson continues to accumulate new skills, both at Hewlett Packard Enterprise and in his own personal life. Around 2015, the lawyer decided to really commit to learning the guitar.
“I took my acoustic guitar and put it in my car,” Ferguson says. “Before I walked into the office each morning, I would grab it and practice for at least fifteen minutes. It was so rewarding to see it pay off that first year, and it’s continued to be something that fills me up.”
It’s a reminder that with a little dedication and a few minutes to spare, passion pays off.
Han Kun Law Offices:
“We enjoyed working with Chris very much, who always incent us to think more with his deep understanding of the company strategy and insights of legal frameworks”
–Lili Wu, Partner