Rich McGuire on His Unplanned Career in IP

Rich McGuire explains how taking his job seriously and deftly playing the hand he was dealt led him to become the head of patents at Bed Bath & Beyond

Rich McGuire launched his career as a patent attorney in a decidedly unorthodox way. In fact, he wasn’t even intending to become a patent attorney when he began practicing as one.

A New Jersey native who had always lived on the East Coast, McGuire followed his wife to Muscatine, Iowa, when she accepted a job there. While he was studying for the bar examination, a local manufacturing company, now known as HNI Corporation, recruited him to help fill a couple of recent vacancies in their legal department.

“They were just looking for a warm body to help get some things done while they were figuring out their staff,” he recalls. But there was slightly more on the agenda. During his second week with the company, the general counsel called him into his office and explained that there was a filing cabinet near McGuire’s desk filled with patents and trademarks. “‘You’re in charge of them now,’ he said. So that’s how I got into patent law,” McGuire says with a laugh.

Of course, there was a learning curve.

“They say that you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes,” McGuire says. “Let’s just say that I was blessed with ample learning opportunities while in that role.”

After about five years of working with patents, he decided it was time to make it official and become a patent attorney. Now the only hurdle that stood in his way was a background in philosophy rather than science. To bridge his knowledge gap, McGuire worked for HNI Corporation while studying physics part-time at a local college. It took more than two years, but by the time he sat for the patent bar exam, he knew he was ready.

“They say that you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes. Let’s just say that I was blessed with ample learning opportunities while in [my first patent law] role.”

Not long after he passed the patent bar exam, he and his wife felt the call of family and familiarity on the East Coast. They returned to New Jersey, where McGuire joined retailer Bed Bath & Beyond as its first patent attorney in 2007.

“Before me, IP disputes were handled by litigation counsel, the IP portfolio was handled by the regulatory counsel, and advertising review was handled by a corporate counsel to make sure that we were using our trademarks correctly,” he recalls. “Eventually they all got fed up, so my position was created to take on all of that and to be an expert.”

In McGuire’s early days at Bed Bath & Beyond, he prioritized increasing his visibility across the company’s New Jersey headquarters. That helped train employees to incorporate IP best practices into their decision-making.

“One of my bosses called it lawyering by walking around,” says the senior counsel, chuckling. “But it was a fairly effective method. People remember that they have issues they want to raise that they might otherwise have forgotten.”

McGuire’s expert counsel has paid off for Bed Bath & Beyond over the years, though he is quick to share the credit for his accomplishments. For instance, reflecting on how he led acquisitions such as a multimillion-dollar trademark deal with linen manufacturer Wamsutta, he demurs, saying, “I almost feel like ‘leading’ is too ostentatious a term.” Similarly, he recognizes others’ contributions when discussing how he facilitated Bed Bath & Beyond’s eventual transition to the cloud via a partnership with Google.

“I was very fortunate to have good outside counsel who were able to help us,” he says. “It’s really just a matter of making sure that everybody understands what it is that they want out of the deal. It’s knowing what their expectations are and making sure that the language accurately reflects that.”

“It’s really just a matter of making sure that everybody understands what it is that they want out of the deal. It’s knowing what their expectations are and making sure that the language accurately reflects that.”

This appreciation for what others want and expect came in especially handy when McGuire represented the company on the board of directors for merchant-led mobile payment system Merchant Customer Exchange (MCX).

Created in 2012, when payment apps such as PayPal and Apple Pay were only beginning to gain traction, the MCX was a merchant-owned mobile payment system. McGuire parsed the novel, complicated agreement and explained to his executive team exactly how it worked.

“Most of the other retailers involved had either finance folks or IT folks as their representatives, with the occasional marketing person,” he says. “I brought something of a unique perspective to that organization. Even though it ultimately did fail, there were some very interesting things learned, and I definitely made a lot of good contacts and good friends in the industry as a result.”

Currently, Bed Bath & Beyond is undergoing a massive transformation, with a restructured board and new leadership. McGuire is optimistic, especially about a company initiative to shift toward selling branded products rather than carrying other brands’ products. Having found his feet in so many new situations, he has every reason to believe that he will take this change in stride.

Throughout the different detours he’s taken in his career, McGuire says the underlying motivation for his actions has remained the same. She was the reason he came to Iowa and embarked on his patent law career in the first place.

“The woman I wound up marrying is just an absolute bulldog when it comes to getting work done,” he says. “Really, anything that I have accomplished, it’s because I’m trying to live up to her example.”

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Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP:

“Rich’s path to becoming a patent attorney shows why he’s valued — when faced with a challenge, he rolls up his sleeves, digs in, and prevails. Congratulations, Rich, on your much-deserved recognition.”

– Justin O. Kay, Partner