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Teena Sankoorikal of Covington & Burling: “Don’t lose the forest for the trees”

Don’t lose the forest for the trees. As a junior associate, I was given small parts of cases. I remember one case in which I had suggested we take a particular position to obtain a certain outcome. The problem, which I did not realize at the time, was that that position could be used against […]

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Don’t lose the forest for the trees. As a junior associate, I was given small parts of cases. I remember one case in which I had suggested we take a particular position to obtain a certain outcome. The problem, which I did not realize at the time, was that that position could be used against us in other parts of the case. One should never lose sight of the big picture.


As a part of my series about “5 things I wish someone told me when I first became an attorney” I had the pleasure of interviewing Teena Sankoorikal.

Teena Sankoorikal is a commercial litigator and partner at Covington & Burling LLC. Throughout her two-decade career, she handled numerous high-profile, complex civil litigation and intellectual property disputes. Teena is a member of Covington’s Evaluation Committee, and she serves as the Ombudsman for the New York office. She has advised multinational companies on a variety of matters relating to misappropriation of trade secrets, breach of contract, business torts, fraudulent misrepresentation and more. Teena is a fellow of the Yale Science and Engineering Association, Inc., a member of the Asian American Bar Association of New York, a member of the South Asian Bar Association of New York and a member of the selection committee for the Don H. Liu’s Scholars’ Program. She does extensive pro bono work, some of which includes representing tenants to remedy housing problems that render homes uninhabitable. She has a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she was on the Editorial Board for the Law Review and holds a Bachelor of Science from Yale University, where she double majored in Chemistry and Sociology.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law?

For as far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a lawyer, and I knew from a young age, that I wanted to attend law school. I also had an intense interest in math and science and chose to major in college in Chemistry, as well as Sociology. Given my parallel interests, I was drawn to legal issues and disputes relating to cutting-edge technologies and other intellectual property, on which I have worked over the course of the last two decades.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your law career?

For better or worse, I have a few. On one particularly ill-fated day, I chose to wear a pair of patent leather shoes. Rather than eat in the onsite cafeteria, I planned to return to my desk so that I could work through lunch. I was carrying my lunch tray up the stairs when my shoes, somehow, became “stuck” together. I truly do not know how to describe what transpired. I will say this — the disaster was inevitable and unmitigated: I had fallen face first onto the stairs, my tray had flown out of my hands, and food had flung, far and wide, in every direction, including onto the walls. It was a scene out of a high school drama. As bad as that was, the number of people who (quite kindly) asked me about my well-being only made the embarrassment worse. I mustered what little of my dignity remained and slunk back to my office. To this day, I have not worn another pair of patent leather shoes!

In addition, I recall a trip that I took to London in the early 2000s with a colleague when I was a very junior associate. We were due to arrive at the client’s offices at 10 a.m. Due to a series of mishaps, we were extremely late and had no way to contact the client because neither of us had cell phones. By the time we arrived, I had missed a few meetings, and the internal lawyer was understandably upset. I was told that she had called the senior partner with whom I was working — the then head of the firm — to complain and to request that another lawyer be sent to conduct the meetings. I apologized and told her she had every right to be upset. I suggested, however, that since I was in the office that I might as well conduct the remaining interviews that day, so that some progress could be made. She relented. At the end of the day, she told me that she had been listening to my meetings and had already called the senior partner at my firm and told him that she would be pleased to have me stay. What started out as a horrible morning thankfully ended well! I often look back on the events that transpired that day and think about how we can change unfortunate situations with a little persistence, good will and good work.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Currently, I do a fair bit of work relating to trade secrets. Without revealing any confidences, I provide advice in instances where former employees may have walked away with company confidential information or are trying to 
compete in seemingly improper ways with a former employer. In that regard, I do a fair bit of counseling and drafting of agreements relating to the protection of intellectual property, non-compete provisions and non-solicitation clauses. I also advise on business torts, contractual disputes and patent litigation issues.

What are some of the most interesting cases you have been involved in? Without sharing anything confidential can you share any stories?

I have worked on some very interesting cases involving what was, at the time, novel apps or technologies, including representing a founder relating to his ownership interest in a vanishing photo app, music companies relating to the distribution of copyrighted music over P2P technology, IOT companies involving smart home and assisted GPS technologies, and an aviation company regarding its engine-related trade secrets, to name a few.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

My parents, both of whom are from India, inspire me. My father immigrated to this country in 1966 with less than 10 dollars in his pocket. He later graduated with a Ph.D. in Physics from Yale University and went on to became a professor and associate dean. My mother was impressive in her own right. She immigrated to America, also from India, in 1971. In those days, it was practically unheard of to have been an accomplished track runner and student. Before she emigrated, she received her Master’s degree in zoology. They each gave up a lot — their families, for starters, to find a better path for themselves and later, their children. Vacations were few and far between, and they worked very hard, in order to raise four children and send us to college. Even to this day, we remain their first priority. Their dedication to family is what inspires me each day as a parent myself.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in law?

Don’t be a spectator with front row seats to your own life.

I was working on a case, and there were discussions about who would take certain depositions. Different associates were being assigned different depositions. Finally, I asked to take one. There was some discussion about my relatively junior status, so I proposed a deposition that I thought I could handle and provided enough information to demonstrate that I understood the issues that were relevant to that deposition. In the end, I took that deposition and at least a dozen more in that case.It’s not enough to be prepared and good at what you do; sometimes you have to raise your hand and advocate for yourself. Speak up and take ownership!

If you had the ability to make three reforms in our judicial/legal system, which three would you start with? Why?

Awareness of and access to legal aid. Public awareness of the availability of and need for legal aid should increase. Greater awareness may lead to a better understanding of the judicial system and the benefits that legal aid services may provide to qualifying persons.

Commitment to undertake pro bono activities. It would be nice to see more lawyers undertake pro bono activities; there are a variety of different opportunities to help those who need legal assistance, and those who need assistance should have the opportunity to receive it.

Civility. The tone in the legal profession has become increasingly acerbic. I would like to see exchanges that are more respectful of one another.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

It is important to me to do pro bono work, and I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in a wide range of pro bono matters, from representing tenants in unacceptable housing conditions, to a veterans organization regarding access to benefits, to domestic abuse survivors, to copyright issues associated with choreographies on behalf of the estate of a well-known dance choreographer, to a not-for-profit that provides books and reading resources to underserved communities. Being able to provide real, tangible assistance in each of the cases that I have undertaken has been its own reward, and it is an experience in which every lawyer should engage. In addition, it is important to me that I mentor younger lawyers, and in particular female and diverse lawyers.

I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?

I find the work interesting and challenging. On top of that, I was raised with a strong work ethic. These days, my daughter drives me as well — it’s important to me that she sees the value of responsibility, hard work, doing her best, and earning her successes. Regardless of what path she takes, those combined traits are necessary for success.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.

  • Don’t lose the forest for the trees. As a junior associate, I was given small parts of cases. I remember one case in which I had suggested we take a particular position to obtain a certain outcome. The problem, which I did not realize at the time, was that that position could be used against us in other parts of the case. One should never lose sight of the big picture.
  • Credibility matters. When I started my career, I remember being assigned projects where I was tasked with researching cases to determine whether certain arguments could be made. I could often find a case that supported our position. I recall once being asked whether I would be comfortable making that argument to a judge. And I realized, in that moment, that I would not. Sometimes you must step outside of yourself and think about whether the position you are taking makes sense and is credible. If you take positions that are nonsensical, you may lose the trust of the jury or judge, and without that trust, she will have a hard time believing you.
  • Become invaluable. I remember working on a difficult antitrust and intellectual property case as a junior associate. I was given responsibility for a portion of the case and learned every aspect of that case — so much so that I could answer any factual question about the case. Before long, I was running the most critical pieces of the case, with the senior partners reaching out to me directly.
  • There’s no prescribed recipe for finding a mentor/ally. I recall as a very young associate working for a partner with whom I had nothing in common. Not only was he an extraordinary lawyer, but he ultimately became my strongest ally, a true mentor and sounding board. Twenty years later, I still remain in touch with him.
  • Talk with, not at, your audience. I recall researching a statute for a particular argument, and the partner with whom I was working called me. He said to me, “Convince me.” I began reciting the research I had done, and he stopped me and repeated what he said. It took a couple of rounds, but I was finally able to articulate my thinking. Afterwards, he reminded me that our job is to persuade. Dry recitation of the law or facts is unlikely convince someone that your position is the right one. To persuade someone, you have to convince them that they should believe you or at least be willing to listen with an open mind to what you have to say.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

I would have loved to meet Mother Teresa, but that is obviously not possible. It would be really nice to meet Roger Federer; I know he could not play much in 2020, but to meet someone who is as accomplished of a tennis player as he is would be amazing. I would also love the chance to meet the greatest closer all time, the incomparable “Sandman,” Mariano Rivera. As a native of Alabama and a die-hard Crimson Tide fan, it would be nice to meet Nick Saban. Roll Tide Roll to Saban’s 8th title!

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