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James Pooley headshot

James Pooley

Intellectual Property Attorney and Former Deputy Director General, World Intellectual Property Organization

Having never met a French person before landing in France, Jim Pooley took advantage of his year in Paris to learn lessons in intercultural exchange and humility. He would soon come to understand deep-seated cultural nuances, like the linguistic debate raging over the use fin de semaine versus weekend, and experience French politics first-hand. After spending years as an attorney in Silicon Valley, little did he know, his study abroad would come full circle 40 years later when he was appointed by President Obama to serve as a Deputy Director General to the World Intellectual Property Organization, an agency of the United Nations in Geneva. Now an intellectual property attorney back in Silicon Valley, Jim shares how his experience in Paris taught him to take risks and laid the foundation for his future success as an international diplomat.

IES Abroad: Why did you choose to study abroad in Paris with IES Abroad?

James Pooley: My mother had told me when I was in high school that it was her dream that I spend my junior year abroad. She actually died during my sophomore year. It wasn’t as though it was in her memory that I felt that I had to go; rather, she had planted the idea very strongly, and it sounded like it would be something good to do and a lot of fun. I was an International Affairs major and French was the language I had taken throughout school, so it made sense to go to Paris. I chose IES Abroad because, one, my college did not have a study abroad program, and, two, my fraternity brother who had gone the year before and had researched the available programs had chosen IES Abroad. I was following in his footsteps.

IES Abroad: What are some of your greatest memories from your time in Paris?

JP: Two big recollections were the nights that the Champs-Élysées filled with 100,000-200,000 people: first, with the resignation of Charles de Gaulle. That year he had demanded that the rules on elections to the Senate be changed, and to make the point of how much he wanted this to happen, he threatened to resign if the legislature refused to do it. They refused to do it, so he resigned. The night he resigned, the whole city celebrated. It was a big party! Of course, he had been the guy in charge during the students uprising the previous May. So, for all I know, everyone who was out there was a student. Then, after the election when Georges Pompidou won the presidency, it was the same thing – everyone was out there. 

IES Abroad: You were a student in Paris at the height of the Vietnam War for the U.S. How did this impact you?

JP: I remember a letter in the mail forwarded to me by my father. It was my draft notice from my draft board who had contacted my college to confirm that I was there. And, of course, they said, “No, he is not here this year.” That was the arrangement that I had with them—I’d go off and study abroad and then I’d come back and petition to have the credits accepted. So, the draft reclassified me as eligible cannon fodder and sent me the notice that I was now 1A. My father decided to put that into a new envelope, address it to me, and put a six cent stamp on it. It took over six weeks for it to get to me as a result. I remember that moment! It took a little while to get that cleared up. 

IES Abroad: Did the French ask your opinion as an American about the Vietnam War?

JP: No, the French more often would come up to me and give their opinions on Americans. I can just hear my French friends saying, “Well, of course, that is what the French do.” Many of them were worried about the suffocating advance of Western culture into their society, less so the younger ones than the older ones, perhaps. There were all these issues about protecting French culture and French language. There was a big fight over whether or not “weekend” would be accepted in the place of fin de semaine. I was amused when I got to Geneva five and a half years ago to discover that “weekend” had clearly won out. Nobody used fin de semaine!  

IES Abroad: In what ways did study abroad impact your career path?

JP: I was on one path to get back to Paris when I went to law school. I choose to go to a law school with a strong international law program, Columbia. My thought and assumption was that I would be heading back to Paris as an international lawyer, but I ended up going in a different direction – I began to work for a legal aid society, and I found out that I love litigation. I had visited California and discovered that this place is fabulous, and I blanketed the state with over 200 resumes. I got one offer from a little ten-person lawyer firm in Palo Alto. It was the summer of 1972. It would take until 2009 for me to come full circle and get back to this point, when my study abroad experience in Paris and my international perspective really paid off, though – when I was as offered an appointment to be in charge of several international treaties and run the international patent system as Deputy Director of the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.

Having had that original experience in Paris was a foundation for being able to come back 40 years later and run a department of 400 people from 60 different countries. I had had the experience early in life of appreciating what it meant to come from a different culture and speak a different language, and the kinds of things that you need to do and need to think about in order to have a relationship with someone from another country. I was expected to be an international diplomat and I did that.

IES Abroad: How important has an international perspective been for you in your role at the World Intellectual Property Organization and now as you help your clients with international patent issues? 

JP: Sometimes it was specifically helpful. I retained enough French to carry on a short, polite conversation, and that would help break the ice. It allowed me to have a certain amount of credibility when it came to handling a case or two that had international connections. But it wasn’t until I started handling major patent litigation that had to be coordinated with litigation happening in other countries that my experience in Paris really paid off. In 1988, when I took my little law firm and merged it with a big international firm, I was prepared and recognized the value in doing so. Studying abroad contributed to my ability to think more broadly, not just about international affairs and international business, but about new adventures in general. Taking risks has a different perspective to it in general when you have taken a big risk as a young person to go live in another place for a long period of time. 

IES Abroad: What is one thing you learned while studying abroad that remains a constant in your life today?

JP: The thing that comes to mind immediately is a sense of humility about one’s own position and perspective, and that humility drives a curiosity that has served me well. I don’t assume things, and I’m open. I took that and have carried that with me. Going to France was entirely new. I had never known a French person. I had never stepped foot in a country that spoke French. It was totally new! Of course, we were all from that generation in the 60s who were proud of ourselves and feeling very plucky and able to handle anything. So, getting a lesson in the significance of other cultures and the humility that comes with that is probably one of the most important lessons to carry forward.

IES Abroad: What advice do you have for students who are considering studying abroad?

JP: Apart from just do it? Absolutely do it! If you can, go for an entire year because there is a certain rhythm to spending the entire academic year that you miss out on if you are there for only a semester. Try to go to someplace that doesn’t speak your language. The main thing is, don’t overthink it. It is a great idea. Go for it! You will never be able to understand the depth of the adventure that is ahead of you and all the wonderful things you will get from it. Just pick the most interesting place to go and go!

James is also an author. His latest book, Secrets: Managing Information Assets in the Age of Cyberespionage, was published in June 2015. View his study abroad photos here: http://bit.ly/1MNB4oB