Apple's Head of Litigation Paves Way for Women in Technology and Law

Engineering alumna-turned-lawyer Noreen Krall ’87 oversees Apple's intellectual property around the globe.

Noreen Krall at Apple Inc. headquartersThe media struck literary gold when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs deemed his patent litigation on the Android operating system a “thermonuclear war.” Running with the metaphor, reporters named Noreen (Weber) Krall ’87, vice president and chief litigation counsel for Apple, his major general, overseeing the global battlefield.

When asked, Krall takes a softer approach.

“I equate my role to being an air traffic controller,” she says. “I make sure that all the planes take off and land on time, that there’s good communication between everyone, and I help avoid any collisions.”

If that’s the case, then she’s working for the world’s busiest airport.

Working Her Way Around the World

The Jasper engineer-turned-lawyer from Piermont, N.Y., has made a big name for herself these past three years in Silicon Valley. Previously the chief intellectual property counsel (IP) for Sun Microsystems, Krall was hired by Apple in 2010, the same month the company entered legal battles with HTC over its touch-screen user interface, which Jobs argued was copied from the iPhone.

Since then, a handful of other IP lawsuits have made their way to Krall’s desk — Kodak, Motorola Mobility, Samsung.

Krall manages an in-house team of 45 and an outside counsel that extends around the globe, and makes sure they learn from past decisions and are prepared for what’s around the corner — which doesn’t leave much time for sleep.

“I’m usually up between 4 and 4:30 checking emails, keeping an eye on hot issues and checking developments from Europe,” the mother of three says.

When unexpected challenges come up, it’s important to surround yourself with people you can learn from, people who are smarter than you, so you can tap into that network.

After a morning workout, Krall drives her youngest daughter to school and heads to the office, where she spends her day reviewing claims and court filings, developing strategies in response and talking to everyone from the Apple engineers who design products to the witnesses preparing for court.

And those are just the days she’s in Cupertino. The other two to three weeks out of the month, she’s traveling.

There have been victories along the way — in August 2012, Krall was recognized for her leadership after a landmark ruling in California declared that Samsung pay Apple more than $1 billion for patent infringement. But there have been obstacles, too — a new trial was ordered in March 2013 on account of juror miscalculations, reducing Samsung’s damages by $450 million.

“When unexpected challenges come up, it’s important to surround yourself with people you can learn from, people who are smarter than you, so you can tap into that network,” Krall says.

“Noreen’s intellect, energy and business acumen set her apart from many in this role,” says Michael Dillon, a former colleague at Sun Microsystems. “As does her commitment to mentoring others, both within Sun (and now Apple), as well as the broader legal community.”

Fusing Technology and Law

Twenty-five years ago, she was the one being mentored as she struggled through chemistry class at Manhattan College and eventually found her forte as an electrical engineer, programming on new computer systems in Leo.

“As clunky as they were, I was hooked!” Krall laughs. “Manhattan was a really special time in my life.”

For four years after, she worked her way through law school at night while developing for IBM during the day, after a position on its patent review committee prompted her to combine her interests.

“It was an eye-opening moment for me, finding the intersection between technology and law,” Krall remembers. “We were recognizing the good work of engineers beyond the products themselves.”

Climbing through the legal departments of IBM and Sun Microsystems, Krall noticed a dearth of women with strong technical backgrounds, and even less who knew the patents behind the products.

So a few years later, she and two friends in the field founded ChIPs, a professional support network of women looking to grow their careers in the technology and IP industries. With domestic participation through the roof, the ambitious project will soon go global.

As if there aren’t enough projects on her plate, Krall and her family recently moved to a new house in Silicon Valley. While packing, she came across a sheet of paper from her grammar school years asking what she wanted to do with her life. Scribbled on the line was an occupation wise beyond her eighth-grade years — not an engineer, not a lawyer, not even an air traffic controller.

“‘To do the best I can,’” she says. “That’s still true today. I’m open to any opportunities that come my way, and I strive to do the best I can.”

Photo by Mitch Tobias