Women of Color Collective honors Leslie Spencer ’98 with 2015 Woman of Distinction Award

Leslie Spencer ’98, litigation partner at Ropes & Gray, was the recipient of this year’s Woman of Distinction Award from the Women of Color Collective (WoCC). Spencer accepted the award at the annual WoCC Alumnae Reception, where she spoke to the gathered students and alumnae about making a career and engaging in social change.

Leslie Spencer '98

Spencer urged her audience to consider social change through the lens of what she termed “social justice feminism.

“Feminism doesn’t focus only on women’s issues,” she said, but rather, “all the issues of social justice that are important to us.”

Spencer specializes in intellectual property litigation matters, with a focus on patent litigation involving information technology and electronics. “In a nutshell, I’m a geek,” she joked. Asking the audience if they could name any female inventors, few raised their hands. Spencer took the opportunity to speak about Hedy Lamarr, best known as a film actress from the days of early Hollywood, but who also holds patents for the frequency-stopping spread spectrum, technology used in World War II to jam torpedo signals, which would become the basis of modern wireless technology.

Even as a self-professed tech geek and a practicing patent attorney, Spencer only learned Hedy Lamar’s name when her mother recently called her up to tell her about this little-known female inventor. “I think my mother was the first social activist I knew,” Spencer said. “I don’t know if she’d call herself that, but she is.”

Recalling that both her parents were supportive of the Civil Rights Movement, Spencer noted that when her father joined the March on Washington, her mother stayed at home to take care of her children. Later on, however, Spencer’s mother joined the workforce, and went into computer programming at a time when few women, and fewer women of color, worked in the technology arena.  

Leslie Spencer, center, with, from left, Lara Sofia Romero '16, Dean Trevor Morrison, Salmah Rizvi '16, and Nonny Onyekweli '16.

Spencer credits her mother with nurturing her own love of math and science. “In that alone I was destined to be a change agent, in my love of technology,” Spencer said. For college, Spencer attended MIT, at a time when only 10 percent of students were female. “I was just doing what makes sense for me, and that’s part of being an effective change-maker.”

Following MIT, Spencer received her MBA from the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University Michigan, and attended NYU Law with the goal of working in intellectual property. Spencer recalled that NYU Law Professors Paulette Caldwell, Rochelle Dreyfuss, and Helen Scott were particularly influential mentors from her law school experience, and noted that women mentors and role models were incredibly important all along the way as she developed her career.

Now, as a successful patent attorney who has been involved in litigation in federal district court, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and before the International Trade Commission, Spencer takes care to pay it forward, playing the role of mentors to others, both informally and formally. She is active as an NYU Law alumna, and participates in her firm’s diversity programs. Ropes & Gray was ranked as number one in a 2015 Vault survey for its diversity, but, Spencer said, “I think we all know that there’s a lot more work to be done. Scoring high among peers that aren’t doing so well is a limited recognition.”

Spencer encouraged the students to think not only about organizations that are “female friendly, for lack of a better word,” but also about institutions that are less obviously accepting of women. “There are opportunities for everyone to be agents of social change,” Spencer said. “I practice patent litigation, and most of the time I show up in a case, that’s change.”

Posted March 9, 2015