A veteran intellectual property (IP) law practitioner in Venable’s New York office, Ha Kung Wong handles complex IP litigation and transactions involving pharmaceuticals, medical devices, artificial intelligence, and more. In this recent conversation, Ha Kung talked about areas of his practice he finds most rewarding, the lack of diversity in his profession, and how he’s trying to address that through his work with the Foundation for the Advancement of Diversity in IP Law (FADIPL).
Q. Your IP practice is quite wide-ranging. Is there an aspect of your work that you particularly enjoy?
A. Some of the most meaningful work we do is done on behalf of nonprofits for transactional matters. For instance, we do work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where we help them assess or acquire IP assets—such as meningitis vaccines, polio vaccines, HIV testing, and so on—and then help prepare licensing and other agreements to facilitate development collaborations and global access. Nonprofits, such as the Gates Foundation, will often identify an organization that may have these types of IP assets in development but need funding in order to conduct further research and development. In this instance, a nonprofit may award them a grant to complete the research in exchange for global access. This usually means the grant partner has the potential to monetize the vaccine or whatever the asset is in developed countries, while agreeing to provide it at cost to low- and middle-income countries. The nonprofit organization will then collaborate with local organizations in those countries to facilitate the distribution and help ensure the product gets to the people who need it.
Q. It sounds like a win-win situation for all concerned.
A. It’s exactly that—a small company with a unique asset that can help people gets to develop and ultimately commercialize their product. And the nonprofit organization gets access to a vaccine that will help stamp out diseases that are rampant in poorer parts of the world. We handle all types of contracts and agreements, from asset acquisition to collaboration, access, and distribution. There can be a lot of hurdles along the way with these nonprofit transactions, however, largely because there’s not a lot of money to go around. So, all of the stakeholders have to want to do good in order to make these deals work, and that’s not always where everyone is coming from.
Q. As a practitioner of IP law with a diverse background, you’re something of an outlier in your field. What do you think are the underlying reasons that diverse talent is underrepresented in this particular area of law?
A. I’m involved with recruiting at Venable and was also involved at my previous firm. And one of the things that quickly became apparent was that you have a much smaller pool of candidates that meet the requirements. The question is, why? While it’s true that individuals who want to practice this type of law need a science/technology degree as well as a law degree, that doesn’t explain the lack of diversity. It really goes back to grade school and high school, and how people with diverse backgrounds are motivated to think about potential career paths. That often comes down to a lack of resources in the education system and a lack of access or awareness about the options that are available.
Q. As recruiters, how can you address that?
A. Unfortunately, we can’t do much about what happens in grade school, but we can make an impact at the undergraduate level—by motivating people who are on a STEM track to consider IP law as a career. A lot of people with STEM backgrounds think the only careers available to them are in research, or medicine, or engineering. Very few say, I’m going to become a lawyer. There can be a sense that they’re “wasting” their degree if they do that. What we try to do is make such people aware that IP law is a viable and worthy career path, not least because IP was considered important enough that the founding fathers wrote a provision for patents into the Constitution. They understood the need to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts,” because new developments push people forward, they push the economy forward, and they push science forward. And the people who are best situated to make a positive impact in this area are those with technical backgrounds. So, we give talks at campuses and before diverse organizations to try to encourage people with those backgrounds to consider law.
Q. You’re involved with the Foundation for the Advancement of Diversity in IP Law (FADIPL). How does the foundation work to achieve its goal?
A. At FADIPL, we focus on helping individuals from racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in the patent law profession to explore careers in patent law, by assisting them with the law school admissions process and then providing continuing support throughout law school. The focus of FADIPL assistance is on patent law career preparation and career readiness, which includes extensive mentoring support from patent professionals, assistance in finding summer internships and clerkships in patent law, support for taking and passing the USPTO patent bar exam, and active participation in the organized patent bar. Historically, the Foundation has provided direct financial support during law school through its Sidney B. Williams, Jr. Scholar Program. Since 2002, FADIPL has provided more than $2.5 million in scholarships to over 140 scholars. Today, the Foundation offers selected scholars $30,000 in law school tuition assistance, while it has dramatically expanded the size of the Scholar Program to now include over 70 scholars who will be attending law school this year.
Q. Have you seen any progress over the years in terms of recruiting diverse talent?
A. Obviously the most important thing in recruiting is hiring the best people. There are really good candidates with diverse backgrounds out there today who can do this work; you just have to put yourself in the right place to find them. It’s not sufficient to go to the schools that are traditionally thought of as elite and hire the top five people; you have to deepen your search—because you can often find that brilliant student who didn’t necessarily attend an “elite” university simply because they didn’t have the resources they needed to get there. So, by doing the work and broadening the search, we found we were able to hire a significant number of impressive diverse IP lawyers. But then you can run into the next problem—they might not stay.
Q. The issue of retention comes up a lot when talking about diversity. Why do you think it’s such a problem?
A. It’s something you see throughout the industry, and I think there are a few reasons. One is that diverse talent can sometimes be overlooked when it comes to promotions. Another reason could be that people in management positions don’t always reflect enough diversity. So, the new hire may ask, “What are my prospects of becoming that person in management and who has the ability to help shape the future of the firm or company?” and they just don’t see a route to that. Then there are cultural issues. In some cultures, you’re encouraged to keep your head down, work hard, and not make waves. Or some people just may not be comfortable with self-promotion. Either way, management needs to be cognizant of cultural and personality differences and recognize when assessing promotions that the best person for the position may be someone who is not very good at selling themselves, partly because of these cultural barriers.