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"Someone should prove them wrong!" Lawyers weigh in on women and the practice of patent law

31 March 2022

"Someone should prove them wrong!" Lawyers weigh in on women and the practice of patent law

The perception persists that women make lousy patent lawyers, particularly in parts of Asia. Patent lawyers – who happen to also be women – dispel that notion to celebrate International Women’s Day.


Even in this age, anecdotal evidence suggests that women are still generally not perceived as being ‘technical types,’ said Lin Li Lee, a partner and head of intellectual property at Tay & Partners in Kuala Lumpur.

“Someone should prove them wrong!”

Well, that someone could be Lee herself and several other patent lawyers, attorneys and agents in the region, whose careers are thriving.

This perception persists in certain technology clusters where some clients prefer to work with male lawyers or attorneys instead of their female counterparts when discussing their technology. Education may have played a part in this scenario. There were fewer women, at least in the past, who were likely to receive an education in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) sphere. Consequently, fewer women were likely to launch their careers in STEM-related fields, including patent law.

Clients may also assume that women lawyers are not as ‘tough’ in negotiations or in litigation.

As it is, learning the ropes of patent practice, which merges legal and technical knowledge, is daunting for any lawyer in general, male or female. First, it takes more time than it does to learn about copyright, trademark and other areas of IP. Add to these the complex technicalities involved, patents being a highly specialized field. Top these off with the intimidating nature of patent claims which can also be frustrating. In the end, what you’ve got is a disgruntled IP lawyer who is discouraged from specializing in patents.

Being a woman presents additional challenges in the legal arena.

“Many women are creative and artistic in their own right,” said Lee. “Without meaning to stereotype, women gravitate towards beauty, aesthetics, art, music and so on. So, it is natural and inherent in so many to prefer IP practice which complements these things.”

Winnie Tham, a director at Amica Law in Singapore, is more optimistic. She said: “I don’t believe that, in this day and age, women IP lawyers or attorneys are averse to patents. If they have the technical background and interest, there is no barrier to joining the patent profession.”


Why choose patents?


Considering the factors cited above, what made women lawyers and attorneys who are actually engaged in patents enter the field in the first place?

“After having graduated with a science degree and having pursued law thereafter, the only way I can utilize both my degrees without changing my area of practice was to join a profession that would provide me the benefit and advantage of both science and law. I could not have thought of anything more proper than practicing as a patent lawyer and agent, particularly at a point in time when the patent scene in India was at a very nascent stage,” explained Archana Shanker, senior partner and head of patents and designs at Anand and Anand in Noida.

“I wanted to set myself apart,” said Chrissie Ann Barredo, a junior partner at Hechanova Bugay Vilchez & Andaya- Racadio in Manila, “by practicing in a field that is not as ‘crowded’ or common as other fields of law.”

Patents, Barredo added, was also a suitable arena for her to get into because it marries her law degree with her background in information technology, having earned a Bachelor of Science degree in management information systems.

“Inventions, designs and utility models are sometimes thought of as products of wild imagination and pushing the limits of scientific theories. No matter how crazy the initial experiments and prototypes were, the created and/or developed product definitely contributed to the advancement of the society. These factors, and in particular, the idea of having a hand in the development and registration of such a useful patent attracted me to the patent practice,” revealed Narcisa Medina, senior associate at Platon Martinez Flores San Pedro Leano in Manila.

In the case of Editha R. Hechanova, president and CEO of Hechanova and Co. and managing partner of Hechanova, Bugay, Vilchez & Andaya-Racadio in Manila, her exposure to equipment and engineering at a glass manufacturing firm years before she began her career in law could have been her first training ground. “I have a finance and legal background. But years ago, before I became a lawyer, I worked with a glass manufacturing company handling budgets and internal audit, so I was exposed also to the technical side ofthe business. I had to deal with equipment, materials specification and was in constant discussion with the engineers of different fields,” Hechanova recalled. “I found the work interesting.”

The years and events that followed fully set Hechanova on a path that led to a career in IP law specializing in patents.

She joined a law firm, got assigned to the IP department and was mentored by a paralegal. In 1997, she signed up for the first FICPI South East Asian Patent Drafting Course sponsored by the IP Office of Singapore, took the patent examination conducted by the Australian Patent Attorney Association, and passed.

“This made me more interested in patents,” Hechanova said, “and more confident in myself to handle patent prosecution and litigation.”


Good news from the patent front

Maybe this negative perception of women not being the technical kind or not tough enough to handle litigation still exists in the legal arena. But, there is still some good news coming out of the patent front.

“While I would not say there are enough women patent lawyers, lately there has been a rise in the number of women patent professionals. Almost 40 percent of the registered patent agents actively practicing in India today are women,” said Ranjna Mehta-Dutt, a partner at Remfry & Sagar in Gurugram, who like Shanker, was also a student of science and law.

This growth in numbers is observed not only in India’s big cities, but also in its smaller cities.

According to Mehta-Dutt, several government sponsored projects have helped make this a reality. One of these is the Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC), an autonomous organization established under India’s Department of Science & Technology. TIFAC was created to assist women with degrees in S&T who either failed to pursue a career in S&T or had to put their careers on hold, due to domestic matters. Through TIFAC, these women may avail of on-job training opportunities in the area of IPR and get back on track with a career suitable to their educational backgrounds, knowledge and interests.

The prospects are also bright in Singapore.

“It is observed that this situation has improved over the years, with more female technologists engaging in wider ranges of industries. I believe that there is a good number of women patent lawyers and attorneys in Singapore, but of course, the more the merrier. Further, with more women IP lawyers and attorneys showing good competency in patenting, it appears that clients nowadays are focused on the technical knowledge, ability and understanding of the IP lawyers and attorneys, rather than their gender,” said Liza Lam, associate director and a registered patent attorney at Amica Law in Singapore.

Tham believes otherwise, though.

“I don’t think there are enough patent lawyers and attorneys generally, regardless of gender, in Singapore. We are still trying to grow the profession and have more qualified attorneys,” said Tham, whose double degree in science and law also led her to focus on patents.

Hechanova and Barredo believe there are just about as many female lawyers engaged in the patent practice in the Philippines as there are male lawyers.

According to Barredo, the law firm she works at has even more female lawyers and paralegals knowledgeable in patents and possessing the technical knowledge – whether in chemistry, engineering, IT and others – required for patent prosecution and litigation.

On the contrary, Medina believes there is only a small number of women IP lawyers in the Philippines who specialize in patents. “Patent practice involves not just the application of legal skills but also require technical knowledge in the field. There are only a few who have developed both the legal and technical skills,” she reasoned.

Patent practice highly recommended for women

The lawyers Asia IP interviewed for this article definitely recommend that female law students planning to practice in the IP space to choose patents as their specialty.

Why? Apparently, women bring a lot to the table.

“I would certainly recommend female law students to specialize in IP so that we can have more women lawyers who can take the lead in changing the IP landscape in India,” said Shanker. “As of now, particularly in India, there are very few women IP lawyers at a position where they can bring out the said change.”

“As a female practitioner, I believe that innovation and creativity is gender-neutral as long as you are equipped with the necessary legal expertise and technical understanding,” said Xia Zheng, founder and patent attorney at AFD China in Beijing.

“The job of a patent attorney is to study inventions and then further develop such innovation from the legal perspective. This kind of ‘secondary innovation’ requires a high-level of skills in terms of language expression, where women have strong advantage. By combining the role of our patent attorneys with the ideas of inventors, these inventions can take shape and integrate to solve existing problems, and perhaps propel the world towards a better future – which brings more sense of happiness, satisfaction, and social achievement,” Zheng added.

According to Zheng, the passion for pursuing justice and fairness are also important in the patent legal practice. Such pursuit requires brain power and perseverance as one continually seeks better solutions. These make the patent specialty more suitable for women.

“The field offers promising career options, excellent professional opportunities for growth and increased visibility within the IP field as even today there are a limited number of practicing patent professionals in India,” said Mehta-Dutt, whose interest in patent law was piqued during the mid-

1990s when India signed the TRIPS agreement and the impact of patents on the pharmaceutical industry was in the news.

She mentioned the many general qualities of women which make them suitable for the patent field: adaptive, detail-oriented, dedicated, hardworking, having the necessary soft skills for maintaining a positive workplace culture and a knack for multitasking. “From my experience in dealing with many female colleagues, I can say with some confidence, we women bring excellent practical workable solutions to thetable and can be an asset for any organization looking to build a strong foundation,” said Mehta-Dutt.

“Patent practice is intellectually challenging. It requires an articulate and yet orderly presentation of the ideas and specification of claims. Women are known to be meticulous and do things with great attention to details. With sufficient technical skills, I believe women IP lawyers can better convey the inventor’s ideas and protect the rights over the patentable claims,” Medina added.

There are many ways by which governments and legal circles can encourage more women to join the patent specialty area whether as lawyers, attorneys or agents.

These include conducting workshops, crash courses, short trainings, conferences, forums and the like. They can enter into partnerships with S&T institutions for the provision of more technical workshops. Establishing organizations which can assist in this objective such as TIFAC will also go a long way.

But, Barredo added, there has to be more visible female representation.

“For example, many conferences and forums are held every year in the Philippines wherein experts in the field give lectures and hold workshops on patents.

Since there are as many female experts on patents as there are male experts, there should also be as many women as there are men making up a panel of speakers or resource persons in the conference or forum,” Barredo said.

“The Philippines does not have a patent attorneysystem, and the programmes of the Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines are more directed towards qualifying and accrediting patent agents,” said Hechanova.

She shared that the association she helped to form, the Association of PAQE Professionals, Inc. (APP), conducts an IP masterclass program sponsored by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development of the Department of Science and Technology. The program covers patent drafting and commercialization of inventions. So far, APP has trained about 300 faculty researchers from state universities and R&D institutes.

What’s interesting is that women participants outnumber the men. “It becomes then desirable for the Philippines to generate more inventions or innovations in the future for the patent practice to become more attractive to both men and women,” claimed Hechanova.

Women lawyers should also be given as much opportunity to advance their career in patent practice. “I think women continue to be underrepresented in leadership, executive and entrepreneurial positions,” said Barredo.

However, for Barredo, something else needs to be addressed as well: the perception about women

lawyers in the workplace. “Having more women patent lawyers is definitelya good start, but it cannot stop there. Sexism and misogyny in the way women lawyers are perceived and treated must also be addressed for there to be true progress in terms of gender equality,” Barredo said.

Indeed, these women are proving the detractors wrong in their belief that members of the fairer sex are neither technical nor tough enough to handle patents and litigation.

“Even after spending over 27 years in the profession, patent practice still fascinates me as it gives me the opportunity to go through path-breaking inventions and connects me with the world of inventors and scientists,” said Mehta-Dutt.

“Invention is not a bore once you’ve wrapped your head around it. The intricacies of the law and its application to the technical operation of the product or process also gets the creative juice flowing,” said Lee.

“So it is not just art that makes you dance.” And yes, these women are not just doing their job in brilliant fashion. They’re also having a ball while doing it.


Espie Angelica A. de Leon

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