Gowling WLG's co-head of IP Kate Swaine talks about her career in IP law, the impact of COVID-19, client service delivery, and corporate social responsibility.
When did you decide to pursue a career in law?
When I was studying for my history degree, I read through every career description I could find and law was the one that appealed the most.
Why did you choose IP law?
While I was at university I wrote a column for a local paper. That developed into an interest in media law which gradually led me to the world of IP.
How did you get into the IP profession? Did you experience significant challenges?
I was very lucky. I only applied to one firm, Wragge & Co, and was offered a training contract. I had my interview with Gordon Harris and I have never looked back.
Why and/or how did you join your current firm?
I joined Wragge & Co because it had a specialist IP team. At the time, many firms simply dabbled in IP or combined it with other areas like general commercial work or IT. I wanted to be able to really focus on IP and that is just what our firm offered.
What do you enjoy most about working for your firm?
The people. I am extremely lucky to work with such an amazing team across the globe. Not only are they fantastic lawyers and attorneys, who are truly experts in their field, but they are great people to be around. I have learned so much from my colleagues across the world and have so much more to learn!
What makes your role/work fulfilling? Why do you enjoy IP work?
The range of clients and issues means that there is always a new challenge, a new solution that needs to be devised, a new strategy to create. Life as co-head of a global team is never dull!
What career advice would you give to women interested in joining the IP profession and getting to your position?
Say yes to opportunities and don't be afraid to go outside your comfort zone. It's usually when you learn the most.
What is your most memorable piece of work as an IP practitioner?
My first 'Anton Piller Order' stands out simply because of the urgency of the work, the speed with which we had to pull everything together and the coordination involved. It was the first time I had made an injunction application!
After a great deal of urgent activity, we secured the order and went into the premises of the copyright infringers ready to search through offices, computers and filing cabinets to locate the evidence on infringement. However, the infringers made it easy – they had framed the infringements and hung them on the wall!
Could you briefly share two interesting client matters your firm handled within the past 18 months?
I'm very proud of the vital role that our life sciences team has played in the development of the COVID-19 vaccines. We supported AstraZeneca in its landmark agreement with the University of Oxford to create and distribute the COVID-19 vaccine (AZD1222).
We advised Precision NanoSystems on its agreement with Can Sino Biologics to co-develop an mRNA lipid nanoparticle vaccine against COVID-19. The team also advised BioNTech on its vaccine developed in collaboration with Pfizer - the first COVID-19 vaccine to be approved. The team has done a remarkable job.
What qualities and skills are required to do your job?
Ask questions and listen. You need to understand what the client is facing and the outcome they need to get to. Laying out the legal options is not enough. You have to understand the constraints, if any, that the client is working with and the commercial context that will determine what result looks "good" for the client.
What key principles do you follow or use to deliver the best possible outcome(s) for a client?
Communication is key. Clients need to know that you are on top of and dealing with their concerns so it's vital to be responsive, to update them before they have to ask for an update, and to keep them fully informed as to how and when their money is being spent.
How did your firm deal with the COVID-19 pandemic to minimise its impact on your clients and business?
On any day, it is vital that we work with and engage our clients. The pandemic focused this work and engagement in a different way and proved that we can adapt to meet the same pressures in innovative ways to support our clients.
We recognised the issues that COVID-19 presented to our clients legally, economically, and logistically and worked with them to find solutions whether by brainstorming scenarios over video conference, creating practical guides or putting them in touch with other clients so that they could share their experiences.
Though COVID-19 presented obstacles for our clients, the increased reliance on digital broke down geographical borders and enhanced our ability to deliver a seamless international service. Our global webinars drew on the expertise of colleagues across our offices in order to provide answers on issues across jurisdictions and it was great to see the diversity of our audiences in response to that.
What were the key challenges and lessons during the pandemic?
Balancing the need to maintain communication and engagement without overload! For our clients and people alike, the line between home and work disappeared. In order to ensure we worked together effectively, we had to really think about how engagement could support but also respect boundaries that were being lost. That meant asking the question "what do you need" and really listening to the answer.
In your experience, what key factors do big corporate clients consider when choosing a firm for IP work and to what extent do they differ from what SMEs would look for?
The consistent message I receive from big corporate clients (although I think it applies equally to SMEs), is the need to be their eyes and ears to the legal and commercial risks on the horizon.
We can add true value where we can identify and mitigate those risks before they can have an impact. Those risks can manifest in any jurisdiction so clients want a team that can provide them with seamless, global insight to inform their strategy. It's also one of the most rewarding aspects of the work that our international team undertakes.
Looking ahead, to what extent do you think the pandemic will affect how law firms or IP firms operate?
Most businesses have, quite rightly, looked at how they can embrace flexibility in order to better accommodate the needs of their people and their clients. In my experience, that has been pretty positive. It has advanced our use of digital solutions and communication and created more options for engagement. I would not have believed when I started my career that I would be conducting business via video calls from my desk.
Who knows what is next? The pandemic taught us that the legal industry isn’t and shouldn’t be immune to leaps in technology.
Have you noticed interesting trends in the IP market in your jurisdiction and/or region?
One of the biggest changes facing our region is the introduction of the Unified Patent Court. Our patent litigation team in Europe is already advising on the potential impact, particularly in light of Brexit.
How do you ensure your firm delivers high-quality services to clients?
It may be a cliché but it really is about standing in the clients' shoes. What are their priorities? What are they, or should they be, worrying about? What can we do that will make the business work better and deliver the results they need?
Could our tech capabilities make their lives simpler? Could we devise online solutions that will give them easier access to information?
There are a thousand touchpoints that are needed to deliver on that, from ensuring a timely response to an email to developing a global IP strategy that will match their commercial ambitions. Every point has a part to play in delivering a high-quality service.
How would you describe the culture in your firm?
We really do work together as an international team across jurisdictions. The pandemic has only enhanced that. With the increased use of Zoom, I am as likely to be on a call with Singapore as Birmingham!
If you have corporate social responsibility initiatives in your firm, please briefly tell us about one or two of them, why you have them, and the impact or achievement(s)
We have launched the Black Talent in Law bursary scheme with the University of Birmingham. This offers a bursary to three black law students per year. The students get a financial contribution towards their studies, a mentor from Gowling WLG, and work experience at the firm.
The students are supported through years 2 and 3 of their degrees. Black talent is severely underrepresented in law so we are undertaking a number of initiatives to address this.
We have a growing pro bono programme supporting individuals, non-profits and social entrepreneurs. One key project is our work with Kids in Need of Defense UK, where we provide pro bono support to children and their families who have no immigration status in the UK. We support them to apply for citizenship or a right to remain here in the UK.
We also have a number of employability initiatives, focusing on those unable to access the workplace. A key element of our programmes is supporting those who are homeless and students from social mobility backgrounds. We provide workshops on drafting CVs and interview preparation, work placements, and one-to-one job coaching.
Since 2001 we have provided more than 100 work placements for those who are homeless and, in some instances, we have gone on to permanently employ individuals who successfully completed their programme. For school students, we work in conjunction with local and national organisations to provide work experience and mentoring support to raise aspirations and allow these students to gain real insights into working in an international law firm.
As the firm’s head of IP, what is your top priority for next year?
Building on our expertise in tech innovations – whether we are talking about AI, greentech or medtech. Also developing more client solutions to deliver frictionless and immediate service across jurisdictions and practice areas.
Swaine is an IP lawyer who advises on all aspects of brands and designs. She was appointed co-head of IP (global) in May 2020.