Don't Fence Him In

John Nethery went from computer engineering to law—and almost into outer space

Published in 2008 Illinois Super Lawyers — February 2008

Patent attorney John Nethery would never trade a little freedom for a little security. He left two law firms and one career path because they felt too confining. He constantly pulls the rug out from under himself. Just look at how he commutes. He bikes to work every morning, he says, because, although “it’s very dangerous, it’s really an issue of freedom. It just gets me out of that rat race.”

Or look at his career. After collecting undergraduate degrees in computer engineering and computer science at Iowa State University in 1990, Nethery got his computer engineering master’s in 1993 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Along the way, he accumulated an impressive list of accomplishments. He helped develop one of the earliest electronic medical records systems and later assisted in developing a version of the TV-style “JumboTron” stadium scoreboard system for use at Iowa State and other sports stadiums.

At a time when computer engineers were making beaucoup bucks, he could have done anything he wanted. So naturally he became a lawyer.

“Oftentimes I wake up and ask myself, ‘Why did I switch?’” the soft-spoken attorney says. “I really enjoyed what I did in my past life. I still remain a very technical guy. I like to be the guy who dives into the signal processing algorithm and [figures out] why it’s working.”

One day, though, his Urbana-Champaign academic adviser asked him to assist in a job in Milwaukee, where the adviser was working as a technical expert for a team of patent attorneys. It was an epiphany.

“I realized there was this whole profession out there where you can be the guy who learns about the cutting-edge technology, writes about it, understands it and works to obtain patents for it,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘That doesn’t sound half bad.’”

So Nethery earned his J.D. from Urbana-Champaign in 1997, then began work as a patent attorney for McAndrews, Held & Malloy in Chicago, where he performed patent prosecutions in cellular telephony and satellite communications. He was so inspired by the work that, several years ago, he tried to become a NASA astronaut. “As I expected, NASA just thumbed their nose at me,” he says with a laugh, “even though they could have ushered in a whole new era of lawyer jokes.”

Instead, he joined one of Chicago’s biggest general-practice law firms, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, with an office near the top of the Sears Tower. That setting ultimately didn’t work—too confining, he says. So he set out with three other Sonnenschein attorneys to form a new practice, Rubio, Hammond, Nethery & Gulliver. He didn’t last there, either. To save money, Nethery telecommuted from his two-room condo, but within a year he felt like a hermit. So he left in July 2003 to join Brinks Hofer Gilson & Lione, his present firm. He became a partner this year.

So far, the old wanderlust hasn’t returned, although Nethery does regret that, as he advances professionally, there are fewer opportunities to work with inventors. Today, he does more interoffice supervisory work. Occasionally, he admits, his curiosity nudges him.

“There is always in the back of my mind the thought, ‘What else could you be learning? Should you be doing something else?’” he says. “Sometimes I joke to my colleagues that maybe I should go to medical school. But I don’t know. For the time being I just mean to stay here.”

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