The Startling Second Act of Marina Volin
She arrived in Philadelphia without a job, a child in hand, and knowing very little English. Now she’s one of the area’s top IP lawyers
Published in 2005 Pennsylvania Rising Stars magazine
on November 25, 2005
Updated on March 3, 2016
Marina Volin is a different person in English than she is in Russian. “I was very, very shy when I spoke Russian,” says the Russian native. “I would not stick out. I would not approach people. But the only way for me to learn this language was to be proactive — otherwise, I would not have known how to say these new things. And it changed my personality.”
Volin learned English on the fly, as a displaced adult with a dependent child, thousands of miles from home. But you wouldn’t know it to visit her office on Market Street in Philadelphia. Volin, a rising young attorney who’s been tagged as a rainmaker in the making by her colleagues, fits so easily into her law office surroundings that it’s hard to believe just how hard she worked and how far she traveled to be sitting here right now.
Volin’s father, Evgeny Varshaver, was in the first class to graduate from the I.M. Gubkin Institute of Oil and Gas in Moscow. World War II started soon after, so Varshaver was sent to serve. He spent the war supplying the army with fuel for its tanks and trucks and then took a job building refineries. These were turnkey operations, so he would build them, turn them on, and then move onto the next refinery.
Eventually, Varshaver settled in Stalingrad with his second wife. In 1961, the year Volin was born, Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd (the name it had carried for centuries) as part of Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization efforts. Less than 20 years after the devastating Siege of Stalingrad, the city had been rebuilt as a thriving port town. Located east of the Volga-Don Canal, which links the two great rivers of southern Russia, it was home to shipbuilders, oil refineries and the two chemical plants where Volin’s parents worked — her mother as a chief accountant at one, her father as a chief chemical engineer at the other.
Her parents’ connections made Volgograd a small town. “The whole population knew my parents,” Volin recalls. “I’d walk with my father to the farmers market on Saturday, and people would stop him and call him by his first name and give him produce. He knew most of them by their first names, too — they worked in his plant. That’s why I wanted to be a chemical engineer, like him.”
As Volin grew up, she did what it took to follow her older brother (and two older step-siblings) into a career as a chemical engineer — even concealing her acceptance to medical school in Volgograd from her mother, who wanted her to be a doctor.
After graduating from the I.M. Gubkin Institute with a master’s degree in chemical engineering, Volin — who had married a fellow student and given birth to a daughter without taking a break from the rigorous five-year course of study — worked at the Academy of Science Institute of Chemical Physics in Moscow and completed the coursework for a doctorate. But she had begun to discover just how constraining life in the Soviet Union could be for someone who was Jewish. Both in school and out, Volin continued to bump up against quotas. She was cut from a class trip to Bulgaria because “there were already three Jews there.” She had to stop working in a laboratory she liked. “They said, ‘We already have one Jew, and we can’t have more than one,’” she says.
Even more important than opportunity, though, was the question of her identity. When Volin was 16, she obtained a Russian passport. On the application, she was asked to designate her nationality. The choices included “Russian,” which was her mother’s nationality, and “Jewish,” which was her father’s. As the product of a mixed marriage, Volin was required to pick one or the other. “My father told me, ‘You have to choose Russian,’” Volin says. “And I said to him, ‘I don’t understand. I want to be like you.’ But he insisted. And that’s why I immigrated to America. Because here I can call myself a Jew.”
She and her husband and daughter moved to Philadelphia with the help of Jewish Family Services (JFS). They were allowed to bring only two suitcases per person — “And we didn’t have suitcases, so we brought two boxes,” Volin recalls. They left behind books, a piano, photographs and all her daughter’s toys, moving first to Austria, where they spent several weeks, and then to Italy, where they spent months while waiting for paperwork to clear. At the time, Volin was pregnant. “That came as a surprise,” she says. “I found out only a week before we left the country. I didn’t know how I was going to take care of myself, and yet there was a baby on the way.”
Life in the United States was difficult. Neither Volin nor her husband spoke English well, and he had trouble finding an engineering job. Volin — who had studied English while in transit, memorizing 20 words each day — took a scientific approach to daily conversation, preparing as thoroughly as possible before every encounter. “If I had to order phone service, or call on people, or go to their offices, I would first write a speech for myself, and then practice answering any possible questions they might ask me,” she says. JFS had arranged for English classes, so after Volin saw her daughter off to school in the mornings, she would walk the two or three miles to class, because she couldn’t afford bus fare.
Several months after her son was born, with no income coming into the household, Volin saw a posting in the newspaper for a technician in a research lab. She submitted her résumé and borrowed a suit to attend the interview. “As I understand it,” says Dr. Eileen Jaffe, the woman who hired her, “she applied on a dare. You know how people say things like ‘If it’s so easy to find a job, you go find one?’ Well, she found one.”
After spending eight years at Jaffe’s laboratory — located first at the University of Pennsylvania dental school and then at Fox Chase Cancer Center — Volin entered law school at Temple University, borrowing as much as she could for tuition and living expenses. She had been introduced to the law when her marriage fell apart, as a party to a contentious divorce and custody battle. “During my divorce, I was dealing with divorce attorneys, and the people I hired to represent me were very inadequate,” Volin says. “You couldn’t get hold of them, and they wouldn’t return your phone calls unless they wanted money.”
So, in trademark fashion, she took matters into her own hands. She fired her divorce attorney and then her child custody attorney and handled the case herself, reading everything she could find in the library and at the courthouse. Says Volin: “I went to the custody hearings myself, and I represented myself. After that, I wanted to know more about the law. I thought a degree would help me protect myself. I said to myself, ‘All right. I will just be the best damn divorce attorney ever.’”
Jaffe, who had become a friend in their years together, encouraged Volin in her studies, though she remembers thinking, “You’re not going to be a divorce attorney. You’re going to be a patent attorney.” Which is exactly what happened.
Volin’s association with Caesar, Rivise, Bernstein, Cohen & Pokotilow was the result of a misunderstanding. It was her final year of law school, and she was looking to clerk somewhere while she finished her studies. Over time, she had gravitated toward intellectual property work, and the 80-year-old firm was known as a specialist in IP law and litigation. When she saw a posting there, she applied — and it was only after the interview was over that both parties realized they were talking about two different things. The firm wanted a summer intern. Volin wanted to start work now.
“We kind of looked at each other,” recalls Jim Kozuch, one of two partners who interviewed her. “But she so impressed us that we made a position for her.”
Volin finished out the school year and, on her graduation day in 2001, the firm called to offer her a job. Over the past four years, she has discovered a talent for patent work. Clients say her technical background and personal warmth help her draw scientists into other ways of thinking about their inventions, helping her elicit the information she needs to protect their new technologies.
“Marina really helped me form big-picture generalities instead of the specifics I was used to looking at,” says Jaffe, who, with Fox Chase Cancer Center, is now a client. “She knew the field well enough to ask the right questions and to know what part of my descriptions somebody wouldn’t understand because they were too technical.”
Her colleagues have watched her progress with enthusiasm. Manny Pokotilow, the firm’s managing partner, is effusive when it comes to Volin: “One reason that Marina so delights us is that she uses every talent she has — she’s vivacious, intelligent and highly motivated. And she is absolutely tenacious in learning.”
“What she has is the immigrant work ethic that built this country,” says Jaffe. “It hasn’t always been happily ever after for Marina, but she hasn’t let anything get in the way of her success. It’s been fun to watch her. This is her second career — who knows what she might do for her third.”