The IP experience according to Asia’s Women of IP

31 March 2020

The IP experience according to Asia’s Women of IP They’ve shaped intellectual property laws across the region, headed up important international organizations, shattered glass ceilings – and even nurtured their clients a bit. In honour of International Women’s Day on March 8, Espie Angelica A. de Leon speaks with some of Asia’s leading women of IP. 

“It felt very intimidating, walking into a conference room packed with men in dark colour suits. This was especially the case if the topics of conference were patent related,” says Crystal Chen, a partner and attorney at law at Tsai, Lee & Chen in Taipei. “How to interact with men professionally, confidently answer questions after a presentation and stay calm and strong even [after] being criticized to my face by male clients were the most challenging tasks to me.” 

Thankfully, trying moments like this took place years ago when Chen was younger. She relates the incident as a challenge she had to hurdle early on.  

And hurdle it she did. Her strategy was simple: come prepared for any conference, and gain more knowledge about evolving technologies and the law via different channels – including discussions with her colleagues and partners, who are mostly men.  

“I believe it gradually built confidence in me,” says Chen. 

When Binny Kalra, an attorney at Ira Law in New Delhi, joined the legal profession in 1990, most areas of expertise were dominated by men, she says.  

“I guess the challenge in the beginning was of being taken seriously as a professional,” says Kalra, who was a partner at Anand and Anand for many years before setting up Ira Law, which has more female members than men.  

According to McKinsey Global Institute’s April 2018 report titled “The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in Asia Pacific,” India is among those found to have weak performance in terms of gender equality in the workplace. Other countries ranking poorly in this regard include South Korea, Bangladesh, Japan, Nepal and Pakistan. 

Happily, the issue of not being taken seriously did not affect Kalra for too long.  

“True, I worked as much and for as long hours as my male colleagues did. But even in hindsight, I don’t think I was trying to prove myself,” she says.  

To start with, she did not give too much thought to any kind of specialization as she started her career. She simply wanted to have her start somewhere and get her feet wet in the legal profession. “As it turned out, joining an IP specialist firm like Anand and Anand was a great beginning for me since that point of time coincided with the start of liberalization of the economy in India and this field of law just kept expanding,” she says. “It became the most coveted field for a whole generation of lawyers at that time.” 


The same thing was happening in Taiwan when Chen stepped into her first job as trainee in a firm’s trademark division. 

“I guess it was the timing 20 years ago when the economy and high technology started to boom in Taiwan. Almost all big law firms invested a lot in their IP practice. That is why there were many IP job vacancies in the legal market,” she says.  

Fortunately for the IP world, Chen and Kalra soldiered on despite the challenges they faced brought about by gender. This resolve to continue was fueled by their love for their jobs. 

“I enjoyed my work as an IP lawyer, and it was thrilling to have something new to learn and unique cases to work on nearly every day – besides the opportunity to travel extensively and meet counterparts in many different countries around the world. Being directly in touch with individuals and companies who create, own, monetize and enforce IP made working in this field exciting and satisfying,” says Kalra.  

On the other hand, Chen says that her first legal job as a trainee involved international law and affairs, which interested her the most.  

Their persistence, hard work and willingness to learn paid off. Eventually, they won their colleagues, partners and clients over.  

“Women bring in a communicable and more comfortable atmosphere into the serious IP law profession,” says Chen. “Women professionals usually possess the qualities [of being] approachable, detail-oriented and well-organized. These qualities often please clients and make them feel [their lawyers are] reliable and responsive.” 

Chen admits she herself loves communicating and coordinating things with others. 

For Kalra, all professions, and not just IP law, should include more women in their ranks.  

“One hopes that growing sensitivity around the undesirability of gender imbalance and gender-based pay discrimination at workplaces and greater maturity in employers and managers eventually causes this to become a non-issue,” she says. “I don’t know if women are especially suited for the IP practice although, going by the various successful women-led IP practices and multitude of IP law firms with a good number of women professionals, women seem to be present in quite impressive numbers in the IP practice.” 

IP may even be a more attractive option for women working in the law, Kalra says, because it involves a variety of areas. These include prosecution, transactional and litigation, and engagement with creative and innovative people. 

The McKinsey report is indicative of this need for more women to foray into their chosen fields, including IP law. The report reads: “Advancing women’s equality in the countries of Asia Pacific could add US$4.5 trillion to their collective GDP annually in 2025, a 12 percent increase over a business-as-usual GDP trajectory. This additional GDP would be equivalent to adding an economy the combined size of Germany and Austria each year.” 


The report also discusses the small number of women leaders in various fields. It states, “In Asia Pacific, there is only one woman in leadership positions for every four men. In some countries in East Asia, there are only 12 to 20 women leaders for every 100 men. This is a waste of talent that the region can ill afford, especially when many economies are aging, labour pools are eroding and skills shortages are on the rise.” 

Like Kalra, the same sorts of things about IP work also appealed to Patricia Bunye, a senior partner at Cruz, Marcelo and Tenefrancia in Manila: learning something new every day, meeting professionals from different jurisdictions around the world and networking. 

Bunye’s area of focus used to be corporate law. After two years in that practice, she decided to make the move to focus on IP, instead. “It is a highly specialized practice that is very challenging, cutting edge and constantly evolving,” she says. 

Yet, different from Kalra’s experience, there was no glass ceiling to break in Bunye’s case. While India and five other Asia Pacific nations fared poorly in gender equality at work according to the report, the Philippines performed well. 

“I don’t think that I have encountered particular difficulties because I am a female IP lawyer,” says Bunye, whose firm has more women than men in its IP department. “I am very fortunate that, in the Philippines, women lawyers have always been highly regarded. In my 26 years of law practice, never felt that there was a glass ceiling limiting what I could do or achieve.” 

Naming her role models – Ella Cheong from Hong Kong, Darani Vachanavuttivong from Thailand, Emma Carino Franciso and Josephine Rima Santiago from the Philippines – Bunye says she has always looked up to them.  

“They are highly competent and trailblazers in their own right. Just by being good examples to the new generation of women in IP sends the message that women can hold their own, that they are in every way, in every respect, as good and sometimes even better than their male counterparts,” she says.  

Her role models certainly did a good job in setting an example. Bunye did hold her own, proving she can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with professionals from other nations when in 2017, she rose to become only the third female to become president of LESI since its founding in 1972. She is also the first Southeast Asian to assume the position. The other two women to serve as president of LESI were Michigo Ariga of Japan and Yvonne Chua of Hong Kong.   

Aside from taking inspiration from her role models, Bunye names the other ingredients of her success: “An innate pride in my capabilities and never settling for the status quo. There is always a better way of doing things and something more to achieve.” 

So empowered are women IP lawyers in the Philippines that they’ve also found themselves in positions to help shape and rewrite Philippine laws. 

According to Aleli Angelia G. Quirino, of counsel at Angara Abello Concepcion Regala & Cruz in Manila (ACCRALAW), when lawmakers and regulators were reviewing the provisions for the Philippines’ IP Code before they became law, the lawyers heading the review committees were mostly women. 

“We’re more thorough, more detailed, and maybe we see something that the men do not see. Even in the amendments, the ones always tasked to draft the proposals or whatever were women. They’re so confident of themselves that they are the ones who would volunteer to represent IP practitioners in Congressional and Senate hearings. Even in hearings on the IP office regulations, you can trust the women practitioners to speak up. IP work is very detailed,” she says. “If you miss a deadline, or you miss a classification, it is your client who suffers.” 


Furthermore, she sees more women entering the IP practice in the Philippines. “Especially if they have a family, it’s not as demanding of their time. IP prosecution and litigation are not as rigorous as other practice areas,” explains Quirino, who held key positions in the Intellectual Property Association of the Philippines (IPAP), International Association for the Protection of Intellectual Property (AIPPI), ASEAN Intellectual Property Association (AIPA), Asian Patent Attorneys Association (APAA) and other local and international associations. 

The glass ceiling also did not exist for Say Sujintaya, a partner at Baker McKenzie in Bangkok and regional chair of its IP group in Asia Pacific. 

“Fortunately, I am working in a law firm that is committed to providing a diverse and inclusive workplace, with equal opportunities for all. Our firm has worked hard to encourage everyone to be more aware of such bias and disregard any stereotypes or assumptions that may be associated with hiring, working with or promoting women,” she says. 

Baker McKenzie is the first global law firm to set a target of 40:40:20 percent gender diversity in its offices by 2025. This means 40 percent will be women, another 40 percent will be men and the remaining 20 percent will be flexible – women, men or non-binary persons.  

In fact, the firm’s gender equality goals is an ace up their sleeves as far as its Asia Pacific IP group is concerned. Women make up 56 percent of the lawyers and 60 percent of their new hires. Meanwhile, 86 percent of their partner promotions in the past three years have been women.  

“This is an achievement we are particularly proud of,” says Sujintaya, who was also responsible for establishing the IP unit in Baker McKenzie’s Yangon office. 

It isn’t just the numbers, mind you. The output also speaks for the skills, values and work ethic inherent in the women working as lawyers at the firm. 

“Our female partners have worked on some of the most complex IP cases for some of the world’s largest organizations,” says Sujintaya, “proving that women have the skills and knowledge required to solve complex IP issues and become industry leaders in the IP space.” 


For her part, she says her ability to treat clients as people and not as institutions probably contributed to her success. This is what clients want, says Sujintaya; hence, she approaches working with clients on a personal level by being approachable, friendly and considerate.  

“For the most part, clients are busy business people who do not want to wade through long legal opinions when seeking advice on how to solve their legal issues. They want to know what can be done, how quickly and the costs involved. So I always try to keep this in mind and address their needs by providing commercially pragmatic advice,” she explains. “Clients also want lawyers who care about them as people, not just their legal problems.” 

Aside from these, Sujintaya says she continuously builds strong and lasting relationships with other individuals in the IP community. These include local and international government officials, investigators, industry leaders and members of the media. She believes this also contributes to her success as an IP attorney. 

Bunye and Sujintaya believe there should be more women practitioners of IP law.  

“Women are very detail oriented and thorough. We are great at multi-tasking,” says Bunye. “All these are important in IP practice.” 

Meanwhile, Sujintaya believes a more diverse and inclusive workplace is key to success. Such diversity, however, does not mean gender diversity alone, she explains. Instead, it also should also translate to hiring people of different backgrounds, experience and perspectives. Such environment will engender new ideas and promote innovation and thus allow an organization to deliver better service to its clients. 

“I see more and more of our clients looking to work with firms who can demonstrate a clear commitment to diversity and are able to offer them a more varied team with unique ideas and approaches to meeting their legal needs,” says Sujintaya.  

Another female IP attorney who does not have to deal with serious gender issues at work is Jin Nee Wong, partner and co-owner of Wong Jin Nee & Teo in Kuala Lumpur, which boasts a 50:50 ratio of male and female lawyers. 


In the first place, she does not label herself as a female IP lawyer. Instead, she regards herself as an IP lawyer, period.  

And this IP lawyer also served as president of LESI Malaysia in 2000, chair of the Bar Council IP Committee and head of the IPR Committee of the EU-Malaysia Chamber of Commerce. 

“In my almost 30-year legal career, I strongly believe I have received the same support and respect from clients, law enforcement authorities and colleagues, regardless of gender. Some may speculate that it would be more challenging and worrisome for a female IP lawyer to conduct or be present during raid action but I have never encountered these challenges personally,” she explains. “On the contrary, I somehow believe infringers tend to behave in a more civilized manner in the presence of a female lawyer.” 

Wong’s love for IP work stems from the fact that IP is relevant to everyday life. 

Quirino agrees. Like Wong, she was also drawn to IP because of its omnipresence.   

“We wake up to the sound of the branded and patented alarm clock,” says Quirino. “We wash our face, brush our teeth and take a shower with branded bathroom amenities. We put on branded clothes and footwear. We drive in a branded car. We sit down in front of our branded computers with patented hardware and copyrighted software. We dine out in branded restaurants. We watch copyrighted television shows and movies and read copyrighted books before we go to sleep.” 

According to Wong, it isn’t just her passion for IP that has gained her success. She believes it is also her caring attitude toward her team and her clients that drives her. 

Though she agrees that women have innate traits that make them perform better in certain areas of the IP practice, Wong believes that the field is equally suitable for men.  

“For example, women may be more suitable for prosecution work due to their meticulousness and men for enforcement-type work due to perception of more risk and danger associated with raid actions. In recruiting talents for the firm, I would place more focus on the individual’s aptitude, attributes, personality and characteristics than on gender,” she says.  


Nevertheless, Wong affirms there are indeed a lot of formidable and impressive women practicing IP lawy in Asia.  

“I am certain and confident they did help shape IP laws in Asia by providing different perspectives and viewpoints. I personally believe that women, with our inherent nurturing capabilities, our innate propensity for compassion and empathy have provided some paradigm shifts in shaping the IP landscape and practice in Asia in a positive manner,” she says. 

Some countries in the region may still be grappling with issues of gender equality in the workplace, including the legal profession. However, some other countries have battled this problem and certain groups are now taking strides to close the gender gap and maintain equality in the house.  

Among them is a group of IP leaders from the legal, corporate and academic arenas mostly composed of women. The group gathered before the start of IPBC Global 2019 in Boston for discussions on how to address the global gender gap in IP, specifically in leadership roles, and encourage more women into the fold.  

Their output: the Boston Manifesto. Among the salient points of the 2,000-word Manifesto are gender diversity in the workplace and why it is needed, attracting and retaining talent, the importance of effective mentorship and leave policies, educating women about IP-related jobs and offering flexible options for women at work.  

Hopefully, efforts like this will grow to finally put an end to the issue of gender inequality in the IP world. 

And when it finally does stop being an issue, one can imagine what goes on inside the law office and inside the mind of a woman in IP: Relaxed and confident, she steps into the conference room filled with men in dark suits, takes her place in the table – heels, lipstick and all – and keeps her chin up regardless of the agenda, as if to tell the dark-suited males,  “Bring it on, gentlemen.” 

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