'It can’t just be a slogan' - Allen & Overy's Elizabeth Holland on advancing women in IP

Clients and law firms have been successfully collaborating to boost the the number of senior women IP lawyers, A&O's US head of life sciences tells Maura O’Malley

Allen & Overy's Elizabeth Holland

Allen & Overy’s (A&O's) head of US life sciences practice and IP litigation practice, Elizabeth Holland, is in an upbeat mood about how far things have progressed for women in IP since she graduated from law school in 1988.

“I have definitely seen a huge growth in the number of women in IP over time. Right now at the firm we are seeing a great group of diverse associates: women, people of colour, this was not the case in years past."

She continues that many factors contribute to this, there are now a generation of women who have advanced within firms, have become more senior, moved into management and consequently there are more role models in this field.

“You can also see what is happening at the university level, with more women going into science, which is often a stepping stone for going into IP", she says.

Indeed, Holland started life as a chemical engineering graduate in the 1980s. She muses: “Towards the end of college I liked the chemistry a lot, but couldn’t imagine wearing a hard hat and going to a chemical plant everyday. It just wasn’t me.”

She considered either an MBA or JD, deciding on the JD and graduating from the Cardozo School of Law in 1988.

“I have not looked back since, I love my job! I am still so excited to get new cases especially in my field doing pharmaceutical litigation, in every one of my cases I learn something.”

She joined Allen & Overy in 2022 from Goodwin Procter where the magic circle law firm harnessed her decades of experience as a trial lawyer who focuses exclusively on patent infringement and related litigation in the life sciences space.

When she joined A&O, she was coming into a situation where “there was very strong female leadership of the practice”. The firm already had women practice leaders in Europe: Laëtitia Bénard in Paris who is co-head of the global life sciences group and Marjan Noor in London who is one of the preeminent life sciences IP litigators.

Sometimes it is the women in-house lawyers who are giving the opportunities to women outside counsel

During her career she has successfully represented companies such as Novartis, Takeda, Wyeth, Celltrion, Ceva Sante, Enzymotec, and Boston Scientific in patent litigation in US courts, at the International Trade Commission, in post-grant proceedings before the PTAB.  She has also coordinated worldwide patent litigation, and has particular experience with courts in the UK, Netherlands, France, Israel, India and Mexico. 

She says she loves collaborating with life sciences companies and protecting their groundbreaking interventions, she also notes that there are lot of women in-house attorneys in pharma companies and “I think that makes for a great partnership”.

She further explains: “Sometimes it is the women in-house lawyers who are giving the opportunities to women outside counsel to succeed and give them the opportunities that traditionally went to men.”

One of the first times that she did a first chair in a jury trial was because an in-house counsel at a pharma company really “trusted me and gave me that opportunity. You can’t really succeed until you have that opportunity to do so.”

Indeed, A&O recently successfully argued a case in front of the appellate court, led by associate Megan Ines. It is not common to have an associate argue at this level. A&O supported membership organisation Unified Patents proving that an intrusion detection system patent was invalid; therefore protecting innovators in the growing and complex technology IP sector.

Discussing this case, Holland points out that it has to be supported by the client too. “You have to give a shout out again to the clients who are willing to support that. Megan is a terrific associate, she had been clerk at the federal court where she argued, so was very familiar with it. And the team on the case thought she was ready and the client was supportive of her doing it. She secured a Rule 36 affirmance, only given when cases are straightforward and strong.

A 2022 study by the European Patent Office (EPO) found that fewer than one in seven inventors are women. In fact, women represent just 13.2% of European inventors named on patent applications. Although this is a trend seen worldwide, interestingly China and South Korea show much higher participation of women: China’s rate is 26.8% and South Korea tops the table at 28.3%, but these estimates are less robust than other countries, the EPO notes.

Discussing what needed to be done to foster more women inventors and entrepreneurs, Holland says that work needs to start at schools that “encourage STEM curricula for girls and in the US there is a movement to do that.”

She continues that when she was in college, of the 120 engineering students, only 10 were female.”I think there has been a huge leap forward since then, but we are still not where we want to be. But definitely progress has been made.”

Women are coming into the practice at a 50:50 level with men but the problem still lies in retaining women. “When it comes time to partnership those numbers change, retention of women in IP is going to be a big focus going forward.”

We need to strive for a situation where a law firm life does not feel incompatible with personal lives, she urges. She remembers when she had her first baby in 1994 “it was super unusual to have a child as an associate in a law firm…it almost cut you off from partnership, but that has completely changed”.

The pandemic helped, the silver lining was “Hey, it’s okay to sometimes work from home and be productive, you can get your billable hours in etc", she notes.

Retention of women in IP is going to be a big focus going forward

Discussing the importance of initiatives like last week's World IP Day, whose theme was Women and IP: Accelerating Innovation and Creativity, she says: “It helps bring awareness, I am not sure girls necessary know there could be a career for them in IP, it might not be on their radar… getting word out there about how important IP is and how women can really take on leading roles in the field is so important."

She adds: "What I found is that people have these amazing ideas and inventions and they don't realise the criticality of having IP protection. It is important to make people aware about how important IP is to their business and inventions, certainly World IP Day helps with that."

However, it can’t just be a slogan, she says. “You have to actually implement things at the workplace. What has been fantastic over the past couple of years is how much the clients and the law firms have been collaborating to make sure it’s not just a slogan, and to make sure women and other diverse attorneys get the opportunities they need.

“When we first started these initiatives, we had to convince our male partners that it was good for business and not only a ‘good’ thing to do. Now it is so easy…clients are insisting on diverse teams, insisting on women being included, getting opportunities in court like Meghan did in the federal circuit appeal.”

Also, if it is a jury trial, jurors want to see people they can relate to, that look like them.

She emphasises the importance of building up your network to up-and-coming attorneys, “particularly as you get more advanced in your career. I would tell people …think about where you want to be in ten years or five years and what you can be doing now to help yourself. … Keep in contact with the people from college and law school, you never know where they are going to be one day and how they can help you and you can help them.”

Another crucial piece of advice is to find a mentor. It doesn’t have to be a woman, “there are some great male allies out there so don’t discount that.

‘Sometimes it is hard navigating life whether it's a law firm or in-house, and having somebody who supports you and who you trust to get advice is very important.”

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