Women in IP Leadership: Liz Cohen interviewed by the Patent Lawyer Magazine

Part of a new segment celebrating the achievements of women working in the IP industry, discussing their experiences, putting forward ideas for advancing equality and diversity.

22.12.2020

Joint Managing Partner Liz Cohen was interviewed by the Patent Lawyer Magazine, in their Women in IP Leadership segment, launched in their December 2020 issue.

Liz obtained her MA in Natural Sciences (Neurosciences) from the University of Cambridge before joining Bristows where she trained and qualified in IP Law. Liz has built her career at Bristows where she is now Joint Managing Partner, with a focus on counselling clients in the life sciences sector on national and international patent strategy and litigation.

What inspired your career?
I studied science at university. I thought about law before then but I had a disastrous experience in a high street practice – they shut me in an office for a week with a pile of dusty old files to review and it put me right off. So, rather than pursue law, I went and got my science degree, and, whilst at University, Bristows organized a graduate recruitment event and I went along as thought that it sounded interesting.

It went from there. I applied to Bristows for a place on one of their work experience schemes afterwards I got  invited to interview for and subsequently offered a training contract. On qualification I qualified as a patent litigator which is what attracted me to Bristows in the first place. Over time, my role has changed within the firm and that variety, together with the quality of the work, clients, and colleagues is what has kept me interested. Whilst I started as a scientist I became a lawyer, and over time I have become manager. I am currently a Joint Managing Partner, which means that I have a fascinating insight into the firm as a whole.

How have you found the pathway to your current position?
I’ve always tried to make the most of opportunities when they have presented themselves, and I have tried to stay open minded as to where my career would take me. I have not worked anywhere apart from Bristows and whilst there are many reasons for that, in a large part it is because there have always been new and exciting opportunities for me to develop my skillset and develop my career. At Bristows we hire people who are curious, ambitious, and brave, but also friendly, and I have been incredibly supported in developing myself and my practice. So, in terms of pathway, I have never really had a particular goal in mind, but I have taken the opportunities as they have arisen even if it wasn’t something I was sure I wanted to pursue ultimately, and even if it took me out of my comfort zone (which it often did!).

What challenges have you faced? And how have you overcome them?
I’ve encountered all the usual challenges that most working parents face in managing a busy full-time career with bringing up a family. I’m not sure there have been any particular challenges in my career in itself but finding the balance between work and home life has not always been easy, particularly where travel has been involved.

And the circumstances and challenges associated with those circumstances have changed over time: when I started at Bristows we didn’t have mobile devices or even a dedicated email account of our own and working from home wasn’t an option. So when you think about where we have come from to now, where I am sitting at home with two screens, a phone, an iPad, and a laptop, you can  say we are lucky. We have all had to be flexible to adapt to all of these changes, and in some ways the development of technology  has enabled us to achieve the balance between work life and home life more easily.

However, this flexibility is not without its challenges: while it is now possible to work anywhere, at any time, the challenge is in  ensuring that you maintain some divisions between worktime and play time and to try and develop good habits in this regard, whilst remaining available to your clients and colleagues and competitive in the market. I think this balance is a struggle for everyone, not just working parents.

I’ve learnt that you have to be kind to yourself in this regard. If you expect to have the balance right at all times then I think you will be disappointed. There is a bit of give and take, and you have to keep an eye on it. There will always be times when I think I should be at home more, and there will also be times where I think I should be at work more. My approach has been that, if I feel I have the balance right about 75% of the then that is pretty good – there will always be times when I feel I haven’t got it right and you can’t expect it to be perfect.

What would you consider to be your greatest achievement in your career so far?
There have been many different achievements on different levels. I think you can say that every milestone, no matter how small is a bit of an achievement. During my time at Bristows I have progressed through the firm from trainee to Joint Managing Partner which in itself for me is a huge accomplishment. When I joined the firm as a trainee 21 years ago I never had that in my sights so that has been a unexpected achievement over a long period of time.

However, everyday small achievements are just as important. Successfully arbitrating a commercial dispute between two parties, or taking a difficult decision that turns out well are all to be celebrated. Even though my management role takes up much of my time, I still have a busy client practice, so taking a case through to trial, or advising a client on how to reach their commercial objectives are all small victories which shouldn’t get overlooked.

What are your future career aspirations? And how will you work to achieve them?
I’ve just started my second term as Joint Managing Partner, each term lasts for three years, and so for the next three years much of my time will be spent on management issues which are varied and interesting. But, once I step down from management, I look forward to focusing purely on my client facing practice and all that that entails.

All of our partners play an active part in running the Bristows’ business and so I will continue to be involved with helping to develop the firm’s practices and people. One lovely thing about working in a law firm is that it is constantly evolving. There are always new trainees joining and qualifying every year as well as the natural flow of people joining and retiring, so your position in the firm and role you play is constantly changing over time. I find it fascinating because with every generation that comes through you have a new role to play and a new set of skills to learn. The trainees that are coming in now have different expectations and needs to those
when I came in as a trainee, so learning about that and understanding how it drives particular behaviors is really quite interesting.

Inevitably my management role has changed my perspective too; as part of the management team you are involved in all of the important decisions that the firm makes and you get to see all of the different perspectives and positions on those decisions.  Bristows is still self-managed so every partner gets a vote on important issues, but quite often by the time initiatives or opportunities are put to the partnership a position is recommended. If you aren’t part of the management team you don’t always get to see the thinking behind that recommendation or how it has been reached, whereas at the moment I get to see all the raw data, all the opinions and the background and get a much more intimate view into how people are feeling and what’s driving various initiatives.

Having this wider overview of the firm as a whole gives me a useful context and perspective for my own practice and stops me getting stuck in a rut. It’s always good to lift your head up every once in a while and have a look around to make sure everyone else is okay. This is a real privilege of the role.

What changes would you like to see in the IP industry regarding equality and diversity in the next five years?
I think that the IP industry and law firms in general are doing a lot more now to make people much more aware of inclusivity and diversity. It would be hard now to find a firm that does not have a really thorough and comprehensive diversity and inclusivity  program and this is really encouraging. We do a lot of this at Bristows and put a lot of time and energy into it because we think it is very important. We have got to be doing the right things, all of us.

One real challenge for the legal industry is ensuring that we create opportunities in these programs for people as young as possible. We need to plan for more than four or five years ahead. We’re good at educating our own staff and going to universities and  launching or using programs there to help with a wider diversity of application, but sometimes that’s too late. What we actually also need to be doing is targeting schools, to get children to look ahead and think that this might be something they want to do even though they might not have an immediate role model that would encourage that. I think that it would be enormously helpful to get children interested in IP at a school age.

Such an approach would take a certain amount of investment and it is difficult to monitor whether you are targeting the right people in the right way because you are inevitably waiting a long time for your investment to bear fruits and it is difficult to track and  quantify. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it and once there is that long-term commitment to that kind of diversity and inclusion program, then over time it could make a huge difference; probably not during my career but 10, 20, 30 years in the future.

How do you think the empowerment of women can be continued and expanded in the IP sector?
I think we need to show that it is possible to achieve a satisfying, fulfilling, and challenging career whilst bringing up a family. You always wonder whether you are going to decide, when your children are older, that you made a big mistake and you shouldn’t have been trying to do it all. My children are a little bit older now, they are 12 and 10, so I can start to see how they and my practice are growing delightfully!

Often we try and show that it is possible to balance a career and family commitments by showing that it is all working well, and that  there are no problems, but actually we are not doing anyone any favors. I think it is important to share weakness and vulnerability and the challenges we face, to give a realistic picture of what achieving that balance is like. Of course we should also share the positives of a fulfilling career and recognize that if you have got it right the majority of the time then that is good enough, and understand that nobody is perfect.

It’s also important to be realistic about what a fulfilling career requires. Flexibility is incredibly important but when you work in a  service industry, like law, we have to accept that sometimes you will have to work very hard and may go home late, but other times it will be balanced by a less busy time where you can afford to recuperate or catch up on other tasks. Taking the peaks with the troughs is really important. It’s important to lead by example and to be generous in giving flexibility to those that are fantastic but are trying to figure it all out for themselves.

I remember when I first became a partner and my children were really young and I was trying to find that work-life balance. I was determined to get home to put the children to bed, or give them a bath, but inevitably conference calls would be organized about the same time and I’d end up in a massive juggle. There were numerous times where I would be on a call and bathing a child at the same time. If you speak to our IT team, they would tell you that there were frequent requests for replacement Blackberrys because they had somehow ended up wet or in the bath! From an outsider’s perspective you probably wouldn’t know any of that because I was very careful that if I was, for example, bathing a child while on a conference call, you couldn’t hear the splashing in the background and that I would still contribute – but actually that was the reality of it at the time. Those kinds of examples are really important to share. Looking back on it I either should have missed the bath or asked to make the call an hour later, but that was the
way it was. Today we can do better, collectively.

Like everyone else, when I became a partner I put pressure on myself. Although at Bristows about a third of partners are female, there weren’t many female role models in my practice and I felt that I had to be performing in exactly the same way as everybody else – and everybody else was, pretty much, male. That pressure didn’t come from anybody else, I put it on myself, and actually looking back now I should have given myself more of a break and backed myself a little bit more. None of my male partners worked in exactly the same way as each other so it was crazy to assume that they did. Luckily today I see some of my female colleagues coming through who are doing it their way and nobody bats an eyelid and it is healthy. This is a reflection of the way things have moved on which is very positive for the future.

Ultimately, I think we all need to keep sharing these real experiences to prove it is possible but in a realistic and relatable way.

Liz Cohen

Author

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