Lucy Songi speaks to leading female practitioners from De Clercq & Partners, Properta Attorneys, Spoor & Fisher and Gowling WLG about their experiences in IP and advice for women considering a career in this field

It is hard to know if you have the requisite traits to be an IP lawyer or whether the career path is right for you. Managing IP spoke to four leading female IP practitioners about their professional trajectories and the advice they would give to those who are considering a career in IP.

Don’t be afraid to try again

Hanna-Maija Elo is partner and co-founder of the Finnish firm Properta Attorneys, but speaking to Elo it is clear that the road to success is not always straightforward.

"I didn’t get into law school the first time round," she says. "I didn’t pass the entrance exam, but I had also done an exam for technical university that year and accepted a place to study chemistry. The whole time I was there I knew I wanted to be at law school, so the next year I tried again, studied harder and was finally accepted."

After graduating from the Law Faculty of Helsinki University, Elo worked as a trainee judge in the Tuusula District Court. She then found a position at a trade mark agency and continued her work in the field from there. Now Elo is one of the founders of Properta Attorneys and has protected brands for companies such as adidas.

Speaking about barriers for women in law in Finland, she says that there were no hurdles that were particular to women: "In Finland the majority of students in law schools for many years have been women. Of course as partners in law firms women are still in a small minority."

She explains this disparity is probably due to the responsibility of childcare, which can be difficult to balance with the workload of a partner. However, she also explains that in Finland, in order to be a partner, a practitioner must be a member of the Finnish Bar Association. Only about 30% of the members in this association are women, and she therefore suggests that women are choosing to avoid this type of work altogether. Instead, many are working as counsel for companies or following other paths in law. 

When asked about advice for students thinking of a career in IP, Elo says: "Legal studies and graduating from law school provide an excellent grounding for many different kinds of work, and it is therefore something I would strongly recommended." She continued: "I would recommend practising in the IPRs field as the significance of IPRs is always growing, and it is a very interesting area of law."

Challenges make you a stronger lawyer

Few know from a young age that their destiny will be in IP. But Julianna Tabastajewa, partner at Gowling WLG in Russia, was one of them: "My father was a Minister of Arts and Science in the Republic of Khakassia (Siberia) and supported theatres, museums, painters, publishing houses in their activities. For this support, he needed a good IP lawyer. He found it difficult to find anyone, but I was more than willing to help him. I always had a strong sense of wanting to protect people’s work."

She went on to study law and completed a PhD focused on intellectual property aspects in unfair competition. During her career, Tabastajewa has worked on high-profile cases for car manufacturers in Germany and has been involved in ground-breaking cases in the Russian courts.

Tabastajewa speaks positively about gender in the workplace in Russia: "I don’t think there are any real obstacles in the legal profession for women in Russia. In fact, most of the judges in Russian courts are women. If you are professional you can achieve anything." She adds that during an internship in Germany, she noticed a slight difference. She enjoyed her time just as much and was never discriminated against, but there were noticeably fewer women than men.

"To succeed in IP, you definitely need a certain mindset," she says. "You should be open to new knowledge and not be afraid of challenges as they make you stronger. To be successful, qualifications are what matter, not your gender." She also suggests that "having a mentor is a great tool in your career".

Acquire experience

Ann De Clercq is the owner and founder of De Clercq & Partners. She has a PhD in plant molecular biology and spent time working in Munich before building her firm in Belgium.

De Clercq explains how she decided IP was the right choice for her: "I didn’t know what IP was when I started university. I was doing a PhD in collaboration with a company that had a patent department and found the combination of legal and technical matters interesting." She realised this could be an interesting avenue to pursue and so after finishing her PhD, De Clercq became an examiner at the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich. She recommends this to others thinking of a career in IP: "It helped me a lot to be in the EPO first. Knowing how the office works makes an understanding of IP very natural."

When asked about being a woman in IP and any advice she had for students thinking about a career in this area, she says: "In general I would not say that women face particular barriers. It is a business with a lot of female professionals." She advises students to "take some extra courses in IP during their degree" and adds: "To be successful in IP you need to be sociable, outgoing and able to express yourself both orally and in writing."

To those uncertain about IP she says: "Talk to a patent attorney and get a hands-on sense of what they do." She also suggests that studying law is not the only path, reminding students that "we need a lot of students from multiple disciplines in IP".

Have a good support structure

Louise Myburgh is a partner at Spoor & Fisher in Cape Town, South Africa. She did not consider IP law before university. She did a business degree and a degree in industrial psychology. It was while studying that she had her first taste of law working as a judge’s registrar. "From the outset I found the work really interesting," she says. "When I began doing law I found it enjoyably challenging and IP gave me a tremendous amount of satisfaction as you can see what you’ve been working on in the marketing on the shelves."

Talking about inclusivity in the legal profession and IP, Myburgh says: "I do not think the legal profession, broadly speaking, is inclusive. There is an imbalance and though there are certain areas that are more open to women, generally it does remain a man’s world." She added: "Men are traditionally seen as more successful, but that is changing."

Myburgh comments on the challenges of the job: "One of the things is the pace at which you have to perform. You are expected to be available 24/7 and it is very difficult to switch off. This makes it hard to find a balance and make time for other things you may be interested in." However, she continues to emphasise that despite this, she loves her work because you can "see how things develop and work with very interesting people."

She leaves some parting advice to future lawyers: "It is very important to have a strong support structure but you must also believe in yourself. Be sure it is what you want to do. If you are uncertain, it is very difficult to be successful."

Hanna-Maija Elo, Julianna Tabastajewa, Louise Myburgh and Ann De Clercq were featured in Managing IP’s Top 250 Women in IP (2018). This article was first published in Managing Intellectual Property.