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Making a mark in the high-tech world can be a difficult task, especially when it’s a small business up against heavyweights such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. But Conroe-based Invocon Inc. is making an impression with NASA and the Department of Defense. What started as a research and development company out of Karl Kiefer’s garage has turned into a small operation that develops wireless sensor networking systems – devices that monitor environmental changes from an astronaut’s temperature to the stability of a bridge. Invocon, a privately held company, has built a strong relationship with NASA, working together on improving wireless technology since 1992. As many as six Invocon wireless sensor networking systems are slated to be part of the next space shuttle mission, which NASA officials recently delayed until 2005. But the shuttle delay will not slow down research at Invocon. Kiefer, the company’s president and CEO, and executive vice president and general counsel Mary Pate recently talked with Texas Lawyer reporter Kelly Pedone about the fast-paced environment in which they work. Texas Lawyer: What did you look for when hiring a general counsel? What characteristics are most important? Karl Kiefer, president and CEO, Invocon Inc.: I want someone with a good work ethic and who is a self-starter. They must have a broad appreciation of the law and its various applications to business. A good appreciation of the realities and pressures of general management and a working knowledge of finance, accounting and formal auditing is important. Of course, in-house counsel must have a desire to practice law within the confines of business and must have the ability and education to perform business functions other than as a GC. TL: What is your weekly interaction with your general counsel, on average? Kiefer: At least eight hours per week. TL: What role does the general counsel play in key business decisions? Kiefer: She supplies legal perspective to all executive committee decisions and is legal liaison to outside council for a variety of special needs. In addition, the GC provides research into legal issues in question and serves as the inside approval “check and balance” for the controller. Finally, the GC is responsible for providing legal perspective to the human resources issues that could lead to legal involvement. TL: What did you do before joining Invocon Inc. and how has that experience been helpful with your current responsibilities? Mary Pate, executive vice president and general counsel, Invocon Inc.: I started with Invocon as a technical writer and controller right after college and before law school. My experience with other positions in the company prior to becoming in-house counsel has helped me to view every decision from a big-picture perspective as opposed to only an in-house counsel perspective. TL: What made going in-house an attractive choice for you? Pate: I continued to work at Invocon in a part-time role throughout law school and even after graduation while I interviewed with courts and firms in Texas. After passing the bar, Karl and I discussed the possibility of staying on at Invocon as vice president and general counsel. The opportunity to be in on the ground floor of a company with which I had a history and being able to affect change and policy early in my career in addition to the multifaceted aspects of the work appealed to me. TL: What kinds of issues have you had to handle? Pate: Being a small business in a high-tech industry, Invocon offers a myriad of legal challenges that require me to become a mini-expert in a number of areas including corporate governance, intellectual property, labor law, contract negotiation (government and commercial), export law, international law, immigration law and FCC licensing, just to name a few. Can vs. Can’t TL: What has been one of Invocon’s greatest legal challenges during the past two years? Pate: Since we deal in a high-tech industry, I suppose it was inevitable that we would encounter issues with regard to our intellectual property. In the last two years, we sued a former employee and a business entity that we had a strategic alliance with for breach of contract and theft of trade secrets. Protecting our most valuable asset, our ideas, has proved to be extremely challenging. TL: Wireless technology is always changing. What challenges does that pose to your legal role? Pate: Again the challenge relates to our intellectual property and knowing how to protect those assets. Decisions regarding whether we should keep something as a trade secret or pursue a patent are a constant issue with which I wrestle. I always have to factor that into contract negotiations, both commercial and government, and ensure that the proper confidentiality agreements are in place. TL: What is the size of your in-house staff? Pate: You are talking to it. TL: What is your favorite part of your job? Pate: Too many to count, but if I had to boil down, I believe that it is my No. 1 priority to use my legal background to support each and every employee here. Every time I close a contract, we get one step closer to becoming something more. Being a legal department that enables my company instead of standing in its way motivates me – as Karl always says: “Don’t tell me what I can’t do, tell me what I can do.”

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