Some lawyers spend their entire careers practicing in the abstract. That is not to say it’s not meaningful work, but not every lawyer has the opportunity to see their efforts become tangible. That’s why Clayton Zak loves working in footwear.
“Every day, I can see a consumer product that will live with people, that will be used and worn,” says Zak, who is assistant general counsel for intellectual property (IP) and brand protection at global footwear brand Caleres. “I can see shoes on the street and know I had a hand in bringing them to the marketplace. That’s pretty special.”
Caleres—who owns Famous Footwear, Sam Edelman, Allen Edmonds, Naturalizer, and Vionic, and a whole host of other brands—has been Zak’s home for the past year. This marks a return to an industry he cultivated a love for earlier in his career. The George Washington University Law School graduate spent nearly a decade in private practice, which included his first exposure to the footwear industry by doing trademark and patent work for clients. But Caleres is Zak’s first opportunity to serve a single client, though one with a considerable portfolio of brands at its disposal.
The idea of going in-house, frankly, wasn’t even on Zak’s radar.
“Honestly, I never intended to go in-house,” he explains. “I figured my career would be Big Law all the way, but the experience I gained in the meantime made me ready for this opportunity when it presented itself. I’m glad I stayed in private practice as long as I did, but this has been a refreshing change.”
The in-house transition has been both easier and still challenging for the assistant general counsel. On one hand, the chance to serve a single client has allowed Zak to get more easily into the weeds that he might have had the time to do in a firm. But he also has found himself focusing on educating partners in the business.
“In private practice, the decisions were ultimately made by the client,” Zak says. “It’s taken some time to get used to being the one calling the shots on legal strategy. It’s easier and more efficient, but as both the attorney and client, sometimes I’ve found myself realizing that the question I was asking was ultimately going to be decided by me. You have to make sure you have the confidence and understanding of the business to make those calls, while working with the business to understand and achieve its objectives.”
As head of brand protection, Zak and a broad team are responsible for cutting down bootlegs and counterfeit products. The attorney says it’s not just about going after individual bad actors but also maintaining a reputation that will make counterfeiters think twice.
He says it is important to have partners such as outside vendors and foreign counsel in countries that are known for a high output of counterfeit products. It takes a village to protect a brand, and Zak says he’s happy to have a well-educated team to help execute its brand protection needs.
Zak also helped craft Caleres’s artificial intelligence (AI) tool policies and procedures, educating the broader business on the best practices for using artificial intelligence. He says the broader industry has been more prone to outrightly banning any sort of AI integration, but the tools are too powerful to omit entirely.
“You’re giving up a competitive advantage,” Zak says. “I think that when they’re used in a controlled and effective manner, they can be another tool that can be helpful to a lot of different groups.”
He also proactively works with brand owners, managers, design teams, and marketing teams for continual training on the importance of protecting innovations and brands—through trademarks, patents, and copyrights—and how to achieve that protection. Caleres has a 145-year history of innovation, and continuous training and attention to IP are essential to driving and protecting that innovation.
“Everyone at Caleres is on board with the idea that we should own our inventions and innovations,” Zak says. “That culture of innovation that began nearly a century and a half ago helps in protecting our IP.”
And the best part? Zak gets to see that innovation every day, whether it’s the research and development teams engaged in the next generation of footwear, or a pedestrian walking by. He is helping to ensure that the next great idea has legs and even better footwear.
“We’ve worked with Clayton on many projects since he joined Caleres. He hit the ground running given his extensive knowledge in all matters IP; he’s able to find practical business solutions to complex legal issues.”
–Alan Nemes, Partner