Sometimes, life doesn’t always go according to plan. Debra Zepeda can certainly attest to this, having grown up most of her early life imagining she would become an engineer. Today, she’s an attorney at Schwegman Lundberg & Woessner practicing patent law.
Throughout her life, Debra was always drawn to building and fixing things, figuring out how things work. She decided to put these interests to practice and fulfill her dream of becoming an engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned a B.S. in Civil Engineering and Sustainability. During her undergraduate career, her aspirations began to shift in a different direction. She came across patent law and immediately delved into the subject. In her research, she was surprised to learn that there were others like her who immersed themselves both in the engineering world and in the field of law. She reasoned that attending law school would allow her to work with “cutting edge technology” and “not be limited to one area of engineering.” It was during this time Debra realized that she wanted to become a patent law attorney. After gaining experience as an engineer in the field, curating a deeper on-the-ground knowledge of technology and software, Debra matriculated at Hastings College of the Law, in San Francisco. She became involved in several groups and programs there, including La Raza, a group made up of “students from underrepresented backgrounds” aimed at providing each other professional and academic support. As a first-generation college student, Debra held with a particular passion for La Raza. “We were each other’s family away from home,” Debra said. “We really built a close-knit community.” In addition, Debra was Co-Editor in Chief for Hasting’s Science and Technology Law Journal, as well as a member of a startup program where she helped “advise startups on their patents and intellectual property.”
From Law School to Lavender Law®
It was while clerking for a law firm during the summer law school that Debra learned about the National LGBT Bar Association and the Lavender Law® Conference and Career Fair. With some encouragement from a colleague and an all-expenses paid trip from Hastings, Debra attended the conference. She initially remembers being a bit nervous due to such a large group of people whom she didn’t know, but in no time, Debra began meeting and connecting with as many people as she could talk to, which was her primary goal. She says, “My plan was to network and build professional relationships that would help start my legal career. I’m a first-generation college student, so I don’t have any attorneys in my family, and I really wanted to build that support system and meet others with similar goals to mine.”
Debra highlighted her experience with the Intellectual Property Law Institute, where she was able to meet other individuals interested in IP law: “I made great networking connections that I hold to this day.” Beyond networking, she also attended many workshops she had researched in advance, finding them to be very interesting, engaging, and educational. She shared her key takeaway from those sessions: “I learned about inspiring LGBT stories and about people who really helped pave the way for individuals like me in the professional sector.”
From Lavender Law® to the Legal Field
Like many other law students, Debra was recruited by one of the many law firms represented at the Career Fair. She recalled approaching the Schwegman Lundberg & Woessner booth and how natural the conversation felt. “It was two patent attorneys who had engineering backgrounds, and then right away I felt it was the perfect fit.” After getting to know the two attorneys at the booth, she knew for certain that practicing patent law at the firm was where she wanted to take her career.
Having just started her job at Schwegman in the last few weeks, Debra spoke to her satisfaction thus far with how they have been affirming of her identity. “From day one, they have been very welcoming and extremely supportive. I work with a diverse group of people who encourage and promote diversity in the workplace, and that is extremely important to me. Everybody has a voice, and everybody listens, which makes it such a great place to work.”
Having been through law school, the recruiting process, and now, a practicing attorney, Debra is able to offer important advice to aspiring law students and lawyers. “The connections you make go a long way, and it’s crucial. You know the saying, ‘it’s not what you know but who you know,’ and it’s so true. Sometimes making that right connection at the right time really gets you a foot in the door.” Debra went further to emphasize the impact Lavender Law® had on her career path and how it shaped her life. “What [Lavender Law] stands for is just really beautiful. The one thing I do remember… it was so full of love. People come from different backgrounds, and identities, they express themselves differently and everybody was so welcoming. To me, I felt so at home being away from home…. If it wasn’t for Lavender Law®, I don’t think I would be here.”