Faster, Harder, Stronger
Jeanne Gills honors her father in name, intellect and determination to uplift others
Published in 2022 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine
on January 28, 2022
Updated on January 13, 2023
When Jeanne M. Gills was 5 years old, she scored so high on her IQ test that she was encouraged to skip kindergarten and first grade. “But the school was battling because they didn’t want to put me in the second grade at 5,” she says. Wanting to avoid additional conflict on that first day of school in New Orleans, Gills decided to join the first-grade class. To her surprise, her father showed up that morning, determined to make sure she joined the class she had tested into. “I was moved to the right classroom and it was all fine,” Jeanne says. “My dad knew me better than I knew myself.”
Today, Gills holds many titles: partner at Foley & Lardner, vice chair of the firm’s national Intellectual Property Department, and co-founder of the Chicago Black Partners Alliance. But one of the titles she’s most proud of—second only to being Noah’s mom—is Johnny Gills Jr.’s daughter.
“I’ve been a daddy’s girl my whole life,” she says last September, tearing up. “I’m sorry. … He died last month. I was named for my dad,” she explains. “So ‘Jeanne’”—pronounced “John” with the French “J” sound—“was their attempt to name me after him.”
Jeanne mirrors her namesake in intellect, drive, and her commitment to uplifting others. Reflecting on her father’s virtual memorial service, she says, “Several of my friends, as well as colleagues who’ve known me for several decades, have said, ‘We know you better having attended the services for your father and reading his obituary.’” Foley & Lardner partner Phillip Goldberg, who attended the memorial, says, “Dr. Gills stood out as a true leader in so many ways. He led others to strive for—not just excellence—but never forgetting who you were and trying to lift up others.”
Gills’ father was one of the first Black students to obtain his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in mathematics at Louisiana State University, and became the first Black person to win public office in Allentown, Pennsylvania, by serving on the school board. Gills holds some firsts as well. She is one of the first Black female partners at Foley & Lardner and one of the first to be a member of its management committee (her trailblazing mentor, Sharon Barner, being the first). Gills sees these firsts not as personal achievement but as a sign of the change she must help implement.
“I’m tired of being the first or the second or the only,” she says. “We have to make the path easier for the people that come behind us or that are alongside us.”
This is what her father did as a math professor at Jackson State University and Howard University (both historically Black colleges and universities), among others, before he became a reliability engineer at AT&T and NASA Johnson Space Center. Inside and outside of the classroom, he mentored Black students, including his own children.
“I’ve been surrounded by math and science my whole life, and was good at it,” Gills says. But when, as a junior in high school, she received an invitation to attend the free, two-week Minority Introduction to Engineering program at Purdue University, she tossed the invitation in the trash. “I thought I was cooler than my father,” Gills recalls.
Her father sat her down and said, “You should do it. If, after doing it, you still don’t want to do engineering, then fine, but you should do it.”
Her perception of the field shifted when she arrived: “There was a cute guy who was listening to rap music on a boom box,” she recounts. “And I’m like, ‘This is what engineers look like?’ You know, ’cause I’m thinking they’re all going to be nerds with thick glasses. And I’m like, ‘OK, engineers look like this. I could do this!’”
Gills eventually majored in electrical engineering at Michigan State and found herself at a crossroads while working as an intern with 3M in Minneapolis. Should she get a master’s in engineering? A Ph.D.? Or should she pursue business school? The answer came when Gills worked alongside 3M’s in-house patent lawyers. “We had these lawyers come into our lab, working with my supervisors, and I’m like, ‘What do you do?’ And it was fascinating, this intersection of law and science,” she says.
After learning more, she thought, “I don’t want to just be the patent lawyer. I want to be more broadly an IP lawyer and want to focus on litigation as opposed to helping people acquire the patent.” Still only 18, she decided she wanted to “help clients sue people and help clients when they were sued,” she explains. “That seemed like more fun and in keeping with my personality—being more of a people person and more of a talker.”
Today Gills uses her people skills to guide more than 300 attorneys and staff as vice chair of her firm’s IP department; she also litigates a broad range of IP cases, including those with heavy STEM components.
“She is one of the smartest people I know,” says Tiffany Woodie, assistant general counsel for The Home Depot, who met Gills while a student at the University of Chicago Law School. “Not only does Jeanne know the ins and outs of the laws, she’s also extremely creative and strategic.”
Spencer Montei, an IP colleague at Foley & Lardner, concurs: “Often it feels like she’s playing chess while we’re playing checkers. She seems to be at a deeper, more strategic level than most people. I think it just takes people longer to play out the different scenarios. It’s why she gets so many clients who come to her.”
In 1998, when Gills was an associate, she became part of a career-changing GMO case from Barner, her mentor. The case was DeKalb v. Pioneer, a jury trial on patents covering genetically engineered corn. Gills says it was part of a series of cases known as “the corn wars” because “every seed manufacturer at the time was involved either as a plaintiff or defendant.” Every side claimed they had developed the technology to engineer insect-resistant corn first. “So we were plaintiff in some cases, and we were defendant in others,” Gills says.
Gills was lead associate on the case and supervised a team of 25 other associates and paralegals who oversaw multiple cases and hundreds of depositions. At stake was her professional reputation and more than half a billion dollars. Although the first case ended in a mistrial and was eventually settled, by the time it was over, Gills had made partner.
“She will outwork you,” says Barner, who has known Gills since she was a summer associate at Keck, Mahin and Cate in 1993. “Jeanne has a work ethic that drives her to work harder, work longer, work smarter than most any other lawyer you will run into. As African Americans in a predominately white field of intellectual property, you have to go faster, harder, smarter than everyone else to be taken seriously.”
Gills has done just that. She works as lead trial counsel in high-profile, high-stakes cases. She counsels clients on global IP strategy, including the division of the patent/technology assets for Kraft Foods’ 2012 split and Fashion Nova when Versace accused the fast-fashion brand of copying its show-stopping sheer green gown that Jennifer Lopez wore at the 2000 Grammys.
“Some of my passion—being driven and having a lot on my plate—comes from my father,” she says. As a little girl, she watched him fight racism to get his Ph.D. “But he didn’t give up and thought, ‘If I can’t go this way, I can go left. If I can’t go up, I’m going to go down, around.’”
Gills, too, has found ways to create opportunities, and not just for herself. For example, there’s her involvement in the Chicago Black Partners Alliance, a professional networking group dedicated to improving the recruitment and advancement of diverse attorneys. In 2017, on the 50th anniversary of Justice Thurgood Marshall stepping onto the Supreme Court, the alliance hosted a red-carpet premiere of Marshall, and a panel discussion about how to promote diversity in the profession. “We invited law students, high school students, lawyers, state and federal court judges, law professors, and members of the press,” Gills says of the roughly 400-person turnout. Woodie, who attended the premiere, says she and the other attendees were “just wowed” at the grandness of the event. “All of this on a Tuesday night?”
Woodie notes that Gills always “utilizes her connections to help others.” It’s why Gills became a founding member of the Black Patent Network, which promotes job opportunities to their diverse email roster. Gills is always quick to pick up the phone and recommend a BPN member for a job, because “the Black folks in these law firms—we got credentials up the wazoo.”
Her commitment to advancing others has garnered her respect within her firm as well. “Jeanne is a true, trusted advisor, especially among young, Black, up-and-coming lawyers,” Goldberg says. Yet Gills is an equal-opportunity advisor and mentor to all who need her. Montei met Gills when she was a partner and he was a first-year associate.
“She can be intimidating and demanding but ultimately fair,” he says, noting that she also has a “softer side with mentees.” David Melton, a retired lawyer who met Gills as a new associate at Keck, Mahin and Cate, adds that Gills is appreciated by young lawyers because she’s “honest about their flaws, but not too negative.”
Gills knows it’s not all about work, Barner says. When they went to Belgium on a five-day work trip, they worked all day and planned to do the same at night, until they were told they couldn’t. Instead, they hopped on a train to Antwerp, bought some diamonds, and were back in time to work all day. “When I think about Jeanne, I think about all work, work, work and then fun and play. And that’s a hard thing to keep in one container. The ability to go from being the best lawyer, working hard to having the most fun, partying hard—that’s what makes the journey fun.”
Like her dad, Gills seamlessly integrates her professional and personal lives. She fondly recounts watching her parents host dinner parties for her father’s colleagues and fellow Black professors. Today, Gills hosts elaborate Thanksgiving, New Year’s and Oscar parties for her clients, colleagues, friends, and family. The menu varies, but Gills’ gumbo is a fan favorite because she spends 12-plus hours perfecting the stock. It’s a beloved New Orleans’ staple and a dish her father loved.
“Her commitment to the client and to her vocation are beyond reproach, and all the while finding enough time to be a wonderful mother to her son Noah,” Goldberg says. “She’s just the complete package.”