Earning His Stripes
A scene needs conflict, says improv champ (and Adidas defender) Charlie Henn
Published in 2020 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on March 1, 2020
Updated on March 4, 2020
The opposing counsel for Payless was having a field day with a witness, remembers Charlie Henn. Henn was repping Adidas, and the case hinged on a couple of well-placed stripes on a sneaker. Payless’ argument was, in effect, “Sure, it’s got stripes. But look how many places it has our logo on it. It can’t possibly be confused with your guy’s shoe.”
“So the lawyer is up there with his witness, saying, ‘And what about here?’ And the guy says, ‘Yep, our logo is here. And here. And here,’” Henn says. “They’re turning the shoe upside down, showing the bottom, pulling out the tongue.”
That’s when Henn, an IP lawyer at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton in Atlanta, and a former improv troupe member, figured out his next move.
“One thing improv, and theater training in general, helps litigators do is be interesting in a courtroom,” Henn says. “A lot of super-smart people go into litigation, but they don’t think about how they’re walking, standing or moving.”
Or how they might surreptitiously grab a piece of evidence off their own exhibit table.
“We had all these shoes on our table, so I snuck off a pair of the other brand’s, slid out of my shoes, and put the new ones on underneath the table,” Henn says. “I got up, and after finishing my questioning I took a little stroll in front of the jury box. My suit pants covered everything but the stripes. Then I said, ‘Oh—how many times can you see your logo now?’”
Adidas won $304.6 million, the country’s largest trademark case verdict to date.
“I pretty much fly around the country repping Adidas in their IP litigation,” says Henn, who has been looking out for the brand’s stripes for 20 years. He also reps MLB teams, like the Chicago Cubs. Right now, he’s in the middle of a clash of titans: Polaroid has threatened Fuji with trademark litigation over the borders around Fuji’s Instax Square images. Litigation, he says, “is far better than the alternative, which would be walking around a cocktail party saying, ‘Well, I made a Section 9 filing today’ and watching people die of boredom.”
And before the law, there was improv.
The theater bug hit in high school, where he shared the stage with Ed Helms and Brian Baumgartner, who would go on to star in the NBC sitcom The Office. (Baumgartner is Henn’s 17-year-old daughter’s godfather. “She’s like a celebrity at school because she texts with Kevin from The Office,” he says with a laugh.)
While Henn loved performing, particularly roles like Jack Palmer in Tom Griffin’s The Boys Next Door, watching Helms and Baumgartner was enlightening. “I realized I’d never have the chops to do it professionally,” he says. That’s why, as an Emory undergrad, he gravitated toward improv.
“I had never done it before, but I fancied myself funny and witty, so I thought, ‘Hey, I can figure this out,’” he says. He was one of two freshmen selected to join the student troupe. He carried his passion to law school at UNC, where he auditioned for a local group in Chapel Hill, which was, he says, “kind enough to let a law student in.”
Though he no longer performs, he stays in touch with the arts via positions on the boards of groups like Out of Hand, ArtsNow, Friends of Theater at Emory and The Flying Carpet Theatre Company. “And my family and I just love the theater,” he says. “We even host a show in our home each year.”
Plus the lessons endure.
There’s a famous improv game called “Yes, and …” The point, he says, “is not necessarily to just fire off and be entertaining, but more so, to create conflict. If I make a gun with my fingers, and my improv partner says, ‘That’s not a gun, that’s just your fingers!’ then it’s over. You have to know how to tell a story.”
You also have to be able to listen.
“There actually are improv classes for lawyers, and the ‘Yes and …’ game is played, but it’s more about having people listen to what the other person is saying before responding,” Henn says. “For a litigator … if you’re just working off an outline of questions, and looking to the next, you’re not listening. You have to be able to adapt and go off script. Be flexible. Be able to go where the case is going.”