Roundtable Discussion: Leading Women In-House Counsel on Leadership, Visibility and Client Engagement


By Megan Redmond

The gender gap in intellectual property is profound and far-reaching: Nationwide, women make up 37 percent of licensed attorneys, but they represent just 17 percent of patent attorneys.

According to the American Intellectual Property Law Association, more than half of women in IP have never served as first chair in litigation, compared with one-third of men. One out of five women in IP have no book of business, compared with one in 10 men. And more than half of women in IP law say they have seen or experienced barriers to career advancement, compared with one-third of men.

This is a problem that needs purposeful study and strategy to overcome. One powerful first step: acknowledgement of the issue and discussion of solutions.

Shareholder Megan Redmond recently interviewed two leading in-house counsel, Irene Liu, chief legal officer of Hopin, and Robin Preble, senior assistant director, assistant general counsel – litigation at Target Corp. Their insights follow.

Megan Redmond, Erise: Why do you believe women leaders are important in the law?

Robin Preble, Target: Law and society have been shaped mainly by one point of view for most of our history. We need other perspectives and lived experiences to ensure that our laws, institutions, and social fabric truly work for everyone and don’t overlook issues simply because they haven’t been experienced or understood by the dominant perspective. Having women in leadership roles increases the likelihood that we will collectively expand our perspectives and improve equity in the law. We will ask the right questions and look for answers in the right places.

Irene Liu, Hopin: It’s incredibly important to have diversity in every room. If women are absent from the room where all the decisions are made, there will be a lot of lopsided results. Whether it’s legal or business, it is important to have women and people with diverse backgrounds at the table because they offer a valuable, varied perspective to the business or legal position based on their different experiences.

Redmond: What is your most memorable experience as a woman lawyer?

Preble: I’m sure this isn’t unusual, but decades ago, in my early years as a litigation associate in private practice, I was sent out to take or defend many depositions that were necessary but not likely to be pivotal. On many occasions, I was frequently the only woman in the room as everyone arrived. Invariably, I was asked if I was the court reporter – simply because I was a woman. There is no shame in being a court reporter; I have huge respect for the magic they perform. But it did underscore that many of my male colleagues were used to all the other lawyers also being male. It also made me realize that none of them likely had ever had the experience of being in the minority. It happens less now, thankfully.

Liu: When I worked with the U.S. Department of Justice in the Antitrust Division, many of the government trial attorneys on our team were women and of diverse backgrounds. Antitrust practices in law firms, on the other hand, tended to be very Caucasian, and male-dominated. So in meetings, the government side of the table was very diverse and the other side, less so. And I worked in the government right after law school. So not only did I get the distinctly female treatment at times but law firm attorneys also mistook me for a paralegal.

It made me realize that you must shake it off, maintain your confidence and move forward because otherwise, you’ll never be able to progress in your career or progress upward to be in that leadership role to make the change that you want to see. My DOJ experience also made me appreciate the importance of diversity after being surrounded by a team of supportive, diverse government attorneys.

Redmond: Although men and women typically enter law school at the same rate, law firm leadership is typically dominated by male attorneys. How would you encourage and advise women to pursue leadership roles?

Liu: It is unfortunate because I graduated from law school 16 years ago, and it was 60 percent women. And yet when I look around, I still see mostly male lawyers as my GC counterparts. I’m currently planning to do a video series on general counsels of hypergrowth companies; it is a select group of general counsel, and yet the names are mostly male. It indicates that we need to encourage women to pursue leadership roles and persevere.

To accelerate your path to leadership, my tip would be to ask or volunteer for higher visibility projects to get the exposure, get higher pay, and ultimately get more senior positions. It’s really important to ask.

I don’t think women think about proactively marketing themselves. I believe women – and especially Asian-American women – we put our head down, and we work and work. We think that our work will speak for itself and we will get noticed through our work product. But you need to market yourself and your work more because there are many men who work and work, but they also speak up, network and ask too. If you don’t market yourself  and have others that are advocating for you, it’s tough to get that visibility and it will be harder to climb the ladder.

Preble: I would advise women to do it their way. Don’t think you have to follow someone else’s model or past practice for leadership. You don’t have to golf. You don’t have to smoke cigars at the club and miss dinner with the family or other aspects of your personal life to network. We can unwind the idea that you have to “choose.” Now more than ever, we have both the technology and the social acceptability to lead in new ways that allow women – and men! – to lead and pursue personal life goals.

It sends a strong message when someone defines boundaries of when they are available and when they are not—no need to provide any explanation. And dinner can be ordered (or prepared) by nearly any member of the family these days. Be someone good at what she does, respectful of others, and open to change, and you will be someone people will want to follow, which makes you a leader.

Redmond: What advice would you give women-driven teams trying to engage in-house counsel?

Preble: It starts with the fundamentals: legal experience and expertise, but raising your hand also helps. When you see a matter or issue that you are a good fit for based on your expertise or knowledge, reach out and let in-house counsel know that. I love it when I get emails from attorneys who have seen a new case or issue surfacing and let me know that they are skilled in that area – even if I don’t know them already.  It makes my job easier to start with a subset of qualified, engaged outside counsel options. And highlight your team. Let in-house counsel know who else you will bring to the table and show how your team of experts is also diverse.

Liu: I would say a lot more unsolicited emails come from male partners than women partners. I have one partner who’s constantly pinging me with helpful newsletters and recent legal updates. It keeps him in my mind as an expert if I ever need that kind of knowledge. So like Robin, I would also encourage women partners and associates to reach out with information that might be useful to us and start building your relationship and network.

Redmond: What has been your experience as a woman in the world of intellectual property or high-tech?

Preble: My in-house responsibilities include IP litigation but span nearly all areas of litigation. I do not hold myself out as an IP expert – I’m not a patent lawyer – but I’ve been involved with many different IP cases. As a result, I don’t feel the need to play the expertise game or that I have to demonstrate my technical patent assessment chops, for example. I focus on asking practical questions regarding strategy and on being able to distill the case to its simplest ideas. I hire outside counsel who can distill down complex and technical issues into understandable concepts, and in that regard, my experience has been collaborative and positive.

Liu: I’ve worked at four tech companies now. At each of these companies, there have been few women leaders at the top. And as a woman exec, you’re often the only female sitting in the room, particularly in the boardroom. So you have to adapt and get comfortable in your own skin in order to climb the ladder within that environment.

Redmond: What are some actions the profession should take to improve the visibility of women in the IP and tech law and increase the number of women in leadership roles?

Liu: In-house counsels must use our purse strings wisely to show our support for lawyers of diverse backgrounds and make our voices heard about the importance of diversity in the legal profession, particularly at law firms.  At Hopin, we are really intentional about attracting diverse talent from around the world. I am proud to say we have a woman-led team for trademarks and a woman-led team for our patents. These external IP attorneys are incredibly smart and talented and it’s so important to  support and lift up women IP lawyers.

At a prior company, I’ve also proactively asked a law firm to move the origination credit from a male partner to a female partner after finding her work to be more competent and practical. This was also  after seeing the male partner mansplaining to a perfectly competent female associate. These were win-win decisions that clearly sent a message to law firms that we care not only about quality of work but diversity as well.

Preble: I have been fortunate to work with women IP attorneys from many firms and then stick with them. Firms should understand that failing to develop women and diverse attorneys in IP – or any area – is a competitive disadvantage that won’t be sustainable for much longer.