Three top tips for lawyers keen on specialising in IP

by Sol Dolor05 Dec 2018

Kate McHaffie may have decided to study law as a pragmatic decision, but she has come to love her work and has risen to the senior ranks at leading IP-specialist firm AJ Park.

In this interview, she shares her top tips for lawyers just getting their start in the legal profession, as well as those who are keen to specialise in IP.

The AJ Park principal also shares what’s going on at the firm and what she thinks is the biggest issue facing New Zealand’s intellectual property industry in the next year, given that New Zealand and Australia now have joint regulation of the patent attorney profession.

What motivated you to pursue a career in law?

Deciding to study law was a pragmatic decision rather than one driven by a particular passion. My mother studied law as a mature student, and suggested it to me as a useful degree with many possible applications – which it is. Fortunately, I was also advised to do a BSc in chemistry and geology, rather than the BA I’d been contemplating. The law/science combination led me into a career in IP law, which has been fascinating, challenging, and rewarding.

What has been your proudest accomplishment to date?

Career-wise, joining the partnership of AJ Park, which is a firm I have grown up in and is full of people I love and admire. Life-wise, it’s been keeping my life, relationships, and career on track after the death of my eldest son in early 2014.

What do you love the most about your job?

My colleagues and my clients. I work with a lot of very bright people who have had interesting and varied careers and I’m learning from them all the time. AJ Park is blessed with incredible, innovative clients across all industries, and the science nerd in me is gratified and honoured by my dealings with them.

If you could change anything about the work you do right now, what would it be?

I would get out from behind my desk, and talk to people more about the work we do at AJ Park. I really enjoy talking to students, industry groups, and other lawyers about IP and about nurturing and protecting innovation. Unfortunately, work often seems to get in the way.

What do you love doing outside of work and why?

Like many lawyers, I’m a frustrated creative. I love to cook, sew, knit, make ceramics, garden –– anything right-brain. I also fairly obsessively follow anything to do with space travel, including live-streaming NASA mission launches. Like I say, a science nerd.

Kate McHaffie

What is going on at the firm? Are there any new programs or initiatives you’re involved in? How are they going?

It’s a time of huge change for AJ Park. We were acquired by an IP holding company at the end of 2017, and what has essentially been like a family business for 125 years is now something a bit different. We’ve had some challenges in the past year, but our focus has remained where it should be – on our staff and on providing great client service. And as with any change, how you come through it is largely about attitude. I’m taking advantage of the flux by getting my teeth into several initiatives that I’m passionate about – corporate social responsibility, gender equality, and promotion of diversity. I feel strongly that AJ Park can and should lead on these issues, and now is the time to do it.

What are you doing to grow the business?

Doing good work, and hiring and training good people to succeed me. I have a great team – we work hard, respect each other, and have each other’s backs.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

It wasn’t really advice, but I did receive an inspiring pep talk from a US lawyer I met on an international flight. When I told him I was a lawyer too, he congratulated me. He reminded me of the honourable things about being a lawyer, and about how we can be agents for change if we want to be.

What is your advice to lawyers just getting their start in the industry, and those among them who are interested in specialising in IP?

Keep your eyes and ears open, and learn as much as you can from those who have been around longer than you or who have had a different life and career experience. Remember that just because someone talks or thinks or works in a different way to you, doesn’t mean they’ve got nothing to teach you. The reverse is almost always the case. Never be afraid to call out something you think is wrong, and protect others who are vulnerable in your workplace. And for those who are interested in IP – cultivate curiosity, commercial nous, and an open mind.

What do you think is the biggest issue facing New Zealand’s intellectual property space in the next year?

We now have joint regulation of the patent attorney profession with Australia, which is going to lead to huge increases in the costs of training and registering patent attorneys, impacting significantly on smaller firms. Also, competition from the Australian IP firms is persistent and aggressive. New Zealand firms need to keep doing great work, and develop a compelling value proposition to stand out in an increasingly cluttered market.

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