On the latest episode of the Former Lawyer Podcast, I spoke with Ashley Chi. Ashley worked in Biglaw for seven years in patent litigation. Then, she went in-house and managed outside patent prosecution attorneys. Now, she works as a legal recruiter.
The episode was listener-requested, looking for a former lawyer who had experience in Biglaw patent work and has had experience in that field as a woman in Biglaw.
So without further ado, let’s get to my conversation with Ashley about working as a woman in Biglaw and patents.
How Ashley Got Into Law
Ashley got into the legal field with the thought that everything was black and white. Through the years, she found out that a lot of working in the legal field was actually creating grey space.
During the time between her third and sixth years in the legal field, Ashley started to feel what was going on underneath. She couldn’t figure out whether she was unhappy with her practice area, work environment, or if she was a good-enough lawyer that just needed to practice longer.
For the next two or three years, Ashley tried to be aware of her thoughts and how she felt about the law. She was focused on combatting her imposter syndrome, and trying to become an expert. She had a vision that if she worked hard enough, she would become an expert, and all uncertainties would disappear
She started to explore different areas and opportunities, in transactional and tech law. But, with the bonus structure and billable model of Biglaw, she wasn’t able to put much effort into this exploration.
Biglaw Culture And Mental Health
Biglaw culture seems to be a big part of the great resignation shift that we’re seeing right now. And a lot of this negative Biglaw culture comes from the personality types that end up in Biglaw, more specifically the ones who make it to the top.
Ashley told a story about drafting a document and having to go in on a Sunday to get it done. She felt that she was giving her all and sacrificing time with her family for the job. So, when she was called in to get negative feedback about missing a couple of comments, she was shocked at the lack of empathy and understanding.
This was not an isolated incident. And, it’s a common experience for a woman in Biglaw. It was these types of interactions that contributed to Ashley’s imposter syndrome. The Biglaw culture made her question her abilities, even though she felt confident in her work.
So many people blame themselves for their imposter syndrome and blame themselves for not knowing whether they want to leave the law because they aren’t sure if it’s real or just imposter syndrome.
But sometimes, imposter syndrome is the result of being dehumanized and mistreated by someone who’s in a position of power and authority. We call it imposter syndrome, but it’s a reasonable way to react to that kind of mistreatment.
Gender Disparities For Woman In Biglaw
As mentioned, I was asked to have a guest on the show to talk about some of the challenges of working as a woman in Biglaw. One of the things that this listener expressed is the challenges that are present for a woman in Biglaw and patents.
Ashley said most of the gender disparity within patent prosecution work comes from the types of people who end up in those roles. These gender disparities are more elevated in patent prosecution because a lot of those areas are disproportionately male-dominated.
Anytime an environment is 80-90% male, it’s challenging for a woman. You’re a minority voice and there’s less awareness of your needs.
Structural Misogony In Biglaw
There is structural misogyny in all parts of Biglaw. The reason I say structural misogyny is that you can have well-intentioned people in a system that supports some people more than others.
Ashley said that in her experience, it was well-intentioned. This isn’t about a group of people who don’t want to hire, promote or believe in women. But Biglaw is often structured in a way that women experience negative things disproportionately.
Everyone wants to elevate women into leadership positions. Yet the moment we have kids and return to work, we want to pretend that our lives have gone back to normal. But this isn’t a reality.
That’s the challenge. Many firms have held very firm on what their culture is and wanted to keep those expectations very steady even in the light of changing cultural norms in society.
Everyone Suffers From Biglaw Structure
Many of the issues for a woman in Biglaw are systemic. But it’s not just women who suffer. All humans have needs, families and social lives, and other things they want to do.
When you expect everyone to be a widget and to all work the same way, it’s not going to end well. That’s not how human beings work. Those people are going to either be forced out or choose to leave because you only create so many options in those environments.
This harms everybody because every human has different sets of strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. When you don’t value and see those differences and use them to the benefit of an organization, you’re not getting the best work and the best client relationships that you could.
However, many law firms still want a certain type of person who’s done a specific type of work to come in and do exactly this type of work because that’s easiest for the law firm.
Making Structural Changes To Biglaw And Patent Law
Usually, Biglaw firms don’t make changes because there is rarely any incentive to do it, in their perspective. A big part of the problem is that there isn’t a lot of concern for overall employee well-being at the core of a large law firm.
Even if there are a lot of discussions or even genuine concerns, the system is essentially built on people getting unhappy and leaving. Systemic change is hard and usually impossible without cost.
For patent prosecution attorneys specifically, there are a couple of items. There are very few Biglaw firms that have a patent prosecution practice. Part of the reason is conflicts with patent litigation work, which is more profitable.
There’s also the rationale that it is not as lucrative. A lot of patent prosecution work is built on a flat fee. It’s very challenging in a Biglaw system where all the associates are billed at certain rates and paid the same amount by a lockstep model.
At the same time, patent prosecution is a skill that can be easily grown within the Biglaw firm and then taken to start your own company.
You can build relationships and create your own environment and law firms that have more flexibility to support work-life balance or compensation in the same way.
There is a lot of potential there. If the attorneys like the patent prosecution work but don’t like the Biglaw culture or the structure of the firms they’re in, that’s an area where you may be successful.
Ashley’s Path Out Of The Law
To find her way out, Ashley had to take stock of her strengths and passions versus dislikes. And once she allowed herself to own that she wanted to leave, she had a huge turning point. She went after the skillset she wanted. That’s when the career world blew wide open for her.
Ashley went into legal recruiting to work with different attorneys. Making this step also unlocked more curiosities and areas of interest. She’s even been thinking of working in career coaching.
By getting into recruiting and talking to other lawyers, Ashley has opened up her passion for law firm culture change. While it was a complete surprise that she ended up in this position, she fully intends to further explore this passion.
Ashley’s Advice For Leaving The Law
Many of us want to leave with a complete exit strategy mapped out. No one wants to take a step without a plan. But, that’s not always possible. You never know where life will take you. Own and recognize that this is a big hurdle. But it’s incredibly important to be comfortable with.
When you take a step in the right direction, two things can happen. You will love it and move forward with supporters. Or, you’ll hate it and use that knowledge to find something different. Just take the step to find out!
And if you’re ready to break away from the Biglaw structure and finally leave the law, check out my free masterclass, The Simple 5-Step Framework To Identify An Alternative Career (That You Actually Like!).
Until next time!
Connect With Ashley
Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.
Hello everyone. This week on the podcast, I'm sharing my conversation with Ashley Chi. Ashley worked in Biglaw for seven years in patent litigation and then she went in house and managed outside counsel who were patent prosecution attorneys. Now she works as a legal recruiter. We talk about all sorts of things in this episode. This episode was actually a listener-requested episode, specifically for someone to come on who was a former lawyer who had experience in Biglaw patent work and has had experience in that field as a woman with the dynamics that exist in Biglaw.
This is just your reminder that if there is something that you would specifically like to hear on the podcast, you can always feel free to reach out to me. You can just email [email protected] and share what you're interested in hearing. Obviously, I am not able to do every single thing that is requested but I try to include and incorporate as many requests as possible and I love to hear from people who are listening about what would be helpful for you. Without further ado, let's get to my conversation with Ashley.
Hey, Ashley. Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.
Ashley Chi: Hi, Sarah. Thanks for having me. I'm so thrilled to be here.
Sarah Cottrell: I am really excited to talk about your story today. One of the reasons that you're here as well is to talk specifically about some things related to doing patent work in Biglaw because it was a listener-requested episode. Why don't we start with you introducing yourself to the listeners?
Ashley Chi: Sure. My name is Ashley Chi. I currently am based in Chicago. It's not where my family's from but it's where my husband's family is from. I live in Chicago with my husband and three little kids. Backtracking a little bit, I went to Northwestern Law School, I graduated in 2011, and I spent about seven and a half years in Biglaw doing patent litigation at three different firms in New York. Then I subsequently relocated to Chicago. From there, I went in house and spent a pretty short stint, under a year, in-house. My role there was doing IP strategy development for the company as well as managing and working with outside counsel, and frankly, learning a ton from outside counsel on the nitty-gritty details of patent prosecution work.
I took a short career break over the pandemic with my three little kids, all home from school or daycare, and [inaudible] and for my mental health. I think it was the scariest thing but also the best thing I could have done. I shudder to think about how I would have been able to be that type of parent I want to be or the type of parent I wanted to be, so kudos to all the moms and dads out there who really work through the pandemic. But I had a fantastic opportunity to try something a little different and new. As of last June, I became a legal recruiter. Currently, I work with mostly attorneys and law firms and in-house companies, placing attorneys into new roles.
Sarah Cottrell: Awesome. All of the props for people who were parenting young kids through the pandemic. Our kids were 4 and 18 months when the pandemic started. All the props. We always start at a very similar place here on this podcast and that is what made you decide to go to law school?
Ashley Chi: That's actually an interesting story. Backtracking a little bit more, I have a bioengineering degree from Cornell University, and that's what I did for college. As you probably hear, a lot of my story, at least in the beginning part of my career journey, there’s a lot of “Try this,” doesn't work out, try something else. I ended up working in a lab in college, didn't love the individual and solo aspect of bench lab work, and then ended up going into management consulting. I did that in New York City, a fantastic experience over three years working with C-suite companies across financial services and related industries.
Here's the funny part of the story, what struck me as frustrating was how many companies and executives made decisions by the seat of their pants. It was like, “We want to do X,” or “What about this? What about that? What do you think?” There's some conversations that happen, mostly among the white men in the boardroom, and it's “Let's try it out and see.” I was looking at it like, “That's crazy. These billion dollar companies are making decisions on the fly. There's got to be more structure and there's got to be more rules that you can follow.”
I ended up going to law school thinking that, “Oh, of course, becoming a lawyer, whether it's common law or civil law, there are rules in the books, rules you have to follow, there's a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things.” I thought that was a lot of what being a lawyer would be like. Fast forward three years of law school, and probably about three to four years of practice, at least in patent litigation practice, and especially on the defense side—and I think this frankly applies to all areas of law—a lot of what we're trying to do is getting around the law or creating the gray space between what I imagined to be a very black and white landscape of doing things the right way or wrong way. That's the bigger picture story of how I ended up becoming a lawyer, obviously starting my career in the middle of a lawyer recession in 2011.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I was going to say 2011, when you said you graduated from law school in 2011, that has come up on the podcast multiple times where people who graduated that same year or in 2009 or 2011 was just a really hard time to be coming out of law school. Obviously, just a hard time in general but in particular, in the legal industry. It's so interesting that those are your reasons for choosing to go to law school because on the litigation side, I also think that there's a degree to which some of what you're doing is cleanup for decisions that are made in the way that you described, in a way that you found frustrating.
This is just my own observation, you don't even necessarily have that much more of an effect on the front end, you just have to deal with the fallout on the back end. Do you feel like when you were in law school, you had a sense of “Maybe this perception that I had is not going to be fully borne out”? Or did you go through law school thinking, “Yes, this is on target,” and then you started practicing and that's the point at which you were like, “Hmm?”
Ashley Chi: Yeah, no. I did not really have a good sense in law school. Some of it, I think, when you're in law school, you're being fed through a fire hose. I just remember my 1L year, I'm desperately trying to figure out how to read a case book and summarize and prepare for being cold called on in class. The 3Ls at my school at the time were getting their offers rescinded in 2008. It was so scary. I'm sure this is a repeated comment through your podcast and across the social media landscape, is that law school teaches you some basics of how to read and how to write, how to reason, but not really a good sense of what it is like to practice—the conversations you have with clients, the goals that you're trying to make with a client, the goals of litigation as litigations progress. I didn't really have a good sense.
I think it was really until I was about a third year when I put my head above water beyond the really grunt work, the document review and the summaries, and really, again, learning and writing memos back 10 years ago when we still sometimes wrote memos, like internal memos. I started to look up and say, “Oh, my gosh. The landscape, there's so much gray. You could do it this way or this way, or that way or this way.” I started hearing the senior associates and the partners I was having more regular discussions with about the horror stories, or really frankly, the war stories that were always like, “Oh, we thought we had all this buttoned down and we thought we had a solid 80% chance of winning this motion before a judge and it came out completely the opposite way.” Or unexpected things happening at the trial court level and what things get fixed at the appellate court level.
All of those that really made me realize that the law, as it stands, is really like a living breathing thing. It's constantly changing and growing. I think especially in the patent landscape, especially over the last 20 years or so, there have been big, big changes in the law of patents. Actually, that's been really dramatic in changing how cases get litigated and how decisions result. To wrap up, it was really until I was about a third year associate that I realized what I had gotten myself into and that, “Ooh, this career may not be so much of a check-the-box, black and white career that I had imagined.”
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. Tell me, it's your third year, you are having this realization, how did you feel? Did you envision that this was going to be what you were going to do forever and now you were like, “Oh my goodness. I have no idea what's going on”? What was your reaction to having this realization?
Ashley Chi: I think like most lawyers, and many of your listeners I'm sure, I wasn't sure. I had some inklings of, “Ooh, this doesn't feel great. I don't know how I feel about this.” “Oh, this is really interesting, could I do more of that?” There was this mixed bag. I think this was really around that time between my third year to about sixth year that I feel like what was going on underneath, a lot of my immediate reactions, was this heavy dose of imposter syndrome.
I couldn't quite separate out whether this practice area wasn't quite right, this work environment wasn't quite right, the particular individuals I was working with didn't feel the right culture for me, or I just wasn't a good enough lawyer yet and I needed to just have more practice, put more years in, put my head down, and become excellent before I could really assess what really was going on.
I think for the next two or three years, I kept my ears open to try to be aware of what I was thinking about and what things were going well, what things did not feel great. But really I think I was focused on combating my imposter syndrome, trying to become this expert. I had this vision in my head, which I think that's clearly now borne out to not be true, that as long as I worked hard enough, I'm going to become an expert and all these other uncertainties is going to fall away.
I was starting to explore different areas, seeing if there are opportunities for me to do a little bit of a transactional work on the heavy tech side as that practice was growing, whether there are some opportunities for me to work on other types of litigation work and doing a little bit of pro bono work here and there. But as you know in Biglaw, the minimum billables and bonus structures, I don't think I was able to really put as much stock in trying to figure out what I was looking for as I would have liked.
Sarah Cottrell: It's so interesting, I've had this exact conversation that you're talking about, in terms of imposter syndrome, with several clients in the Collab and one-on-one over the last couple of weeks, specifically this idea of multiple people experiencing this question of, “Do I actually not like what I'm doing or is it just my imposter syndrome? Would I feel differently about it if I wasn't experiencing the imposter syndrome? Or would this feeling go away if I felt I had more experience?”
The reason I say that it's interesting is that I've had conversations about this with people who are at all sorts of stages of their practice and it's been my observation that when you're experiencing something like that, it tends to be the case that it's often more so the environment you're working in that is structured in such a way that keeps you focused on the things that you don't do perfectly as opposed to all of the things that you're doing correctly. It basically creates a situation where people find it very hard to trust themselves even though they really do have a sense of whether what they're doing is right for them. They just struggle to trust themselves. Do you relate to that at all?
Ashley Chi: 100%. Looking back at where I am now, which is a little bit more removed from law firm practice and law firm culture, I think there is a big challenge, a lot of the mental health and the impetus to some of the great resignation issues that we're seeing in the last couple of years and continue to see, I think, is the culture of law firms. They're surprisingly similar in a lot of ways and a lot of it comes from the type of personalities who end up in Biglaw and who make it to the top. Because in law firms, at least in my experience, the culture of a firm is subservient and underneath the culture of an individual group, which is really led by a couple of rainmakers and couple of leaders and they really set the tone.
I'll give you some examples that really shake this out. It really helped me in recognizing what part of my dissatisfaction with my practice is the culture and what part of it was more about me and whether my strengths and the skill sets I loved to use and want to use more of was the right fit for the practice area that I was in. I 100% relate to this idea of a fear-driven leadership method. I have very vivid memories of drafting either appendixes or things for not really even main briefs, because in patent, we have a lot of these supplemental, very detail-oriented analyses of infringement and on infringement issues on a patent by patent, line item by line item even within a patent claim basis. It's a lot of detail-oriented nitty-gritty work that sometimes can be 200, 300, 400 pages for a single patent that we're analyzing.
I have a vivid memory of putting those together. I remember going back to the office on a Sunday afternoon when my twins were toddlers at the time and just realizing I just need to go into the office, put my head down, get this done, push this out so it can be reviewed and it can be filed with the court before the deadline. I really felt I was giving my all and sacrificing my family time as part and parcel for the job and perfectly acceptable and totally okay with that and to get feedback a couple days later, not about any empathy, appreciation, or understanding about the work I have put in, the effort I had put in, but pointing out on page 157, I saw a couple of inconsistent commas, periods, or typos, I can't believe you didn't catch all of those.
That was the kind of communication. It's a pretty specific example but I had a lot of these types of interactions. I don't think it's so much the individual attorneys I was working with were bad people—and there were men and women—it was so much of a lack of understanding and maybe a lack of management training and just how they grew up to be partners at firms. That's how they were motivated, that they believe they passed on that kind of management skill. I think for me, those kinds of interactions on a repeated basis really contributed to my imposter syndrome.
It really made me question my abilities even though I felt pretty confident that I was doing things correctly and looking at it now from a very objective eye, I understand the need to be perfect, but humans are not perfect because we're not machines, and 99% of the work was accurate and correct and did the job it was supposed to do within the case and supported the outcome we were hoping for.
I said that story and to reflect with what you've heard, I 100% experienced that in multiple environments in multiple firms. Frankly, I had some of that experience in house as well because where do in-house attorneys primarily come from? They come from Biglaw. That kind of leadership style and culture doesn't just disappear. In order for it to be different, I think there needs to be real concerted effort from an organizational standpoint, but also from an individual leader standpoint to want to make a change and to recognize how they would like to lead differently. I don't think it's a change that's likely to be made unless individuals actually want to make it.
To circle back to the story, I had a lot of those experiences juxtaposed with at the same firm. I had another couple of partners who I did a lot of work with who I worked with really great. He was someone who I collaborated really well just stylistically. We would come up with a plan, sketch an outline, work together. I would draft it up 80%, 90% of the way and that there would be feedback. There was a lot of this back and forth. Unsurprisingly, this is the same person where as a human, he and I had a relationship. I knew about his family, he knew about my family, it didn't take a lot of time but it was 10, 15 minutes week to week of having building that relationship outside of the immediate work product that really built that relationship and improved our ability to work together.
I think that was the point, after spending six or nine months on cases with him, I realized, “Oh, some of my feelings, whether it's fear, dissatisfaction, or questioning whether this is the right career for me, is actually part culture but also part what skills I'm hoping to develop more of and where my strengths are.” Because even in working with a fantastic team with a great and empathetic leader who I worked with very well, there was still something missing for me. That was a a big turning point for me.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I have a similar story in terms of the last legal job that I did was, in many ways, my dream job. I worked for lots of great people. Even so, I realized I don't want to do this forever, which isn't to say that you have to find a legal job that is wonderful in order to know for sure that the law is not for you, but I think one of the things I want people to hear is so many people blame themselves for their imposter syndrome and blame themselves for not knowing whether they want to leave the law because they aren't sure if it's real or if it's just their imposter syndrome.
But sometimes the thing that we call imposter syndrome is actually that you've been dehumanized and mistreated by someone who's in a position of power and authority over you and they are not treating you the way that they should. We call it imposter syndrome but it's often a reasonable way to be reacting to that kind of dehumanizing mistreatment which happens in the law all the time.
Ashley Chi: Yeah. I think that to me has a lot of parallels that when we look at, whether it's diversity issues, mental health issues, or this impostor syndrome, culturally as a society, we've tended to give these names and made them into individual problems. “Oh, you're burned out. Individual A is burned out, go do some yoga. Individual A is having anxiety, go see a therapist or take some medication. Individual B is having imposter syndrome, go take a confidence workshop.” Part of it does have to change from the individual mindset and an individual perspective, but I think a much bigger part of the story is the environment in which each of those people are working in and what does the culture of that work environment support or exacerbates these issues.
That ultimately is what I've been noticing over the last nine months that what I'm really passionate about. I have hope and optimism that in this time of challenge, in terms of talent acquisition and talent retention in the legal profession, that their law firms, and companies frankly, are taking a hard look at their internal cultures and trying to decide how and whether they're going to make some changes to the type of workplaces that they are encouraging from a systemic, cultural, and organizational standpoint because a lot of those changes will lead to a bottom line improvement just from better retention and happier lawyers, as much as that may be to some people a little bit of an oxymoron.
Sarah Cottrell: This is a great segue into a topic that I wanted to talk with you about and we've talked about this before, one of the reasons why you're here on the podcast. I had a podcast listener contact me to ask if I could have someone on who specifically had experience in Biglaw working with patents and to talk about especially some of the challenges that particularly women face in the patent prosecution side of Biglaw.
I know that you were on the litigation side when you were in Biglaw, that you worked with people who are on the prosecution side when you worked in-house. One of the things that this listener expressed is that it can be a very challenging environment to be a woman working in patent prosecution in Biglaw, so I would just love to hear your thoughts about that and have a conversation about what might be going on in those sorts of environments.
Ashley Chi: Yeah. As you already mentioned, I spent seven years in patent litigation and my area of practice was primarily biochemistry, biotech, pharma related, although I probably spent about 30% or 40% of my time doing the high tech EE, CS type cases. Frankly, that was the space in which I found tremendous support and mentorship in the actual individual lawyers I worked with. Towards the end of my time in Biglaw, I did a lot more of that work.
I think the gender disparity within patents, patent litigation or patent prosecution work, a lot of it comes from the types of people, especially in patent prosecution, the type of people who end up in those roles. You have to think about even junior patent prosecution attorneys to this day are folks who went to college with EE or CS or some other kind of hard computer science type background well over 10 years ago, just building out the timeline in terms of college and maybe working a little bit and then law school and then a couple years of practice. I think even to this day, even in the college landscape, it is still very much male dominated.
In the pharma-bio, biotech spaces, it's gotten a little bit more of a 50/50 representation in college and very frankly, in law firm environments and in-house that I've seen, there's actually more women than there are men who are in patents in some of the biochemistry areas. I want to, I guess, reflect that I've similarly seen that challenge of the gender differences. But I think the challenges whether it's getting work or getting promoted or getting the right opportunities, getting on the right cases, getting opportunities to be found of clients, in my experience at least, I don't think it's been that different from a pure gender perspective compared to other areas of practice.
I think that there's a lot of systemic challenges to women getting the right opportunities, being put up for promotions at the same rates, being mentored at the same rates, especially informally, whether that person is a litigator or a deal attorney or a patent attorney. I think it's just a little bit more elevated because there tends to be fewer women in high-tech spaces.
In terms of patent prosecution in particular, and I was not a patent prosecution attorney as a practicing attorney at a law firm though I worked with a lot of patent prosecution attorneys when I was in house as at who are my outside counsel, I think that is even more elevated in terms of the gender disparities because a lot of the patent prosecution attorneys or patent agents had master’s or PhD degrees. In those EE, CS or machine learning type areas, those are just disproportionately male dominated.
I think challenging environments just like in finance, which is what I worked in in management consulting, anytime you have an environment that is 80% to 90% male and 10% to 20% female, it's a challenging environment because you're a minority voice and the needs aren't spoken as loudly and there's less awareness of what those needs are.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. Just to put a little bit finer point on something that you were saying earlier, my understanding of what you're saying is essentially, there is structural misogyny in all parts of Biglaw. You may experience that in a particular way in certain fields where there is a disproportionate number of men as compared to women, but it's more of an issue of degree and not so much that it's different in kind.
Ashley Chi: I would agree with that. I think it's more the flavor might come out a little bit differently and I think it could be a little bit more challenging immediately from a very junior level because patent prosecution attorneys, with this high-tech background even at a very junior level, is probably heavily male dominated. Whereas compared to deal attorneys or general litigators, it's more comparable to a 50/50 split in many firms at that first to third year level. The disparities start to show up when you become mid-level and senior associates, and then of course, more particularly pronounced in the partnership ranks.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. The reason I say structural misogyny is that, to the point that you were making earlier, there are really important things that we need to understand about the reality that you can have individual people who are very-well intentioned and still exist in a system that, for various reasons, privileges, supports, etc., some people more than others. I think any woman who has worked in Biglaw, well, frankly any person who has worked in Biglaw, has observed that Biglaw firms tend to be places where there are some of those structural inequities.
Essentially, Biglaw is often structured in such a way that women experience things that, like you said, in patent prosecution or litigation, you may experience certain things more but often we see these kinds of negative experiences falling disproportionately on women across departments.
Ashley Chi: I want to also add that I want to be very clear, for many, at least all the individuals I've encountered, it's very well intentioned. We're not talking about a group of people who just don't like women, don't want to promote women, or don't believe in women, it's often well intentioned. But I think structurally and systematically, law firms developed from a time right and a place where most households had one income and you had a second spouse who took care of everything else, whether it's the kids, the household, or the family, and so the norm and the expectations grew out of that kind of environment.
I was reading a great article recently. I've certainly experienced it myself. It's this idea that we want to elevate and push women to lean in into leadership positions, yet the moment many of us have kids and decide to return to work, culturally and as a society, we want to pretend that all of our lives have gone right back to normal as if you never had a child. But we all know that that's not reality. It's not reality for dads and it's certainly not reality for moms. I think that's the challenge that, in my opinion, many firms have held very firm on what their culture is and wanted to keep those expectations very steady even in the light of changing cultural norms in society.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. To be clear, it's not like, “Oh, we should have lower standards for our work product or something,” this is not what we're talking about, we're talking about an overall systemic flexibility. The thing that I think is particularly important is because many of these issues are systemic like this lack of flexibility when you're talking about parents of young kids or whatever, because of that, everyone suffers because all humans have needs and families, even if you don't have kids, and other things they want to do with their lives.
The way that I think of it is when we just expect everyone to be a widget, and all of the widgets are supposed to work exactly the same way, that's not how human beings work. It's not going to end well and you're going to end up in a situation where, in particular, people who either are unwilling or unable to conform to whatever your expectation is for the widgets in your company, those people are going to either be forced out or choose to leave because there are only so many options, you only create so many options in those environments.
Ashley Chi: Yeah, 100%. This is another soapbox, I think. You probably heard me say this insistency around everyone being the same and being the identical widget having the same skill sets and doing the same kinds of things and developing all the same skill sets. It doesn't harm just this gender disparity in terms of men and women, it harms everybody because every human, man or woman, has different sets of strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. When we don't value and see those differences and use them to the benefit of an organization, or whether it's a case, a deal, or whatever work product that you're talking about, you're not optimizing the best work product and the best client relationships that you could have.
It also leads to dissatisfaction among the employees. Because the studies have been pretty clear that one of the best employee retention strategies is providing employees with some autonomy about their personal growth within a company. That's how and why people stay. Whereas I think many law firms still have this rigid idea that we want this type of person who's done this type of work to come in and do exactly this type of work because that's easiest for us, the law firm, and maybe most efficient for the client.
That's fair, but I think we're not considering the human element of maybe that person who otherwise could be a fantastic worker, employee, and contributor who actually wants to do a little bit more of this maybe 20% of his or her time doing this other thing or developing business even when they're associate. There are different strengths in everybody and we all succeed the best when we lean into our strengths, not when we are pushed to perfect our weaknesses on a macro basis.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think one of the problems that you see is that the incentive structure for a Biglaw firm to make changes isn't really there often. Because if your entire model is a decent proportion of people, the majority get unhappy and leave in the first 5 to 10-ish years. I think a big part of the problem is that the true core of a large law firm, I don't know that there is a lot of concern for overall employee well-being. Even if there's a lot of discussion about it and lip service, and even genuine concern on the part of individual people, I'm just saying as a system, it's essentially built on people getting unhappy with the job and leaving.
Ashley Chi: Right. I agree. That's why I have real hopes and optimism that the market pressures maybe will force people just from a pure loss of profits and loss of revenue standpoint to maybe step a little bit outside of the norm in terms of solutions. But systemic change is hard. Anyone you talk to who's a diversity professional, just as an example, it's a lot of little steps or it's break the whole thing and start all over. I'll be very curious to see what law firms look like in 10 years, 20 years, and 30 years, and how our current great recession over the pandemic has impacted the profession as a whole.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, 100%. You cannot have meaningful systemic change in anything, certainly not in a large law firm, without there being costs associated with it. Honestly, in a lot of cases, literal costs, but also individual costs and these sorts of things. It's just a question of, “Does the moral will exist to actually do it?”
Is there anything else that you specifically would like to speak to around the IP patent, patent prosecution, that sort of environment that you think listeners who maybe are in those sorts of environments should be thinking about? Or even if they're thinking about wanting to make a move, are there any specific considerations that they should be keeping in mind?
Ashley Chi: Yeah. I think for patent prosecution attorneys specifically, there's a couple of items. One, I think it's probably not a surprise for anybody in patent prosecution, there are very few Biglaw firms that have a patent prosecution practice. There's probably a handful that I can think of off the top of my head [inaudible] 100. Part of the reason for that is conflicts related, but part of the reason is conflicts with patent litigation work, which is more profitable, but also a part of the rationale is that it is not as lucrative financially.
How a lot of patent prosecution work is built is typically on a flat fee and it's very challenging in a Biglaw against system where all the associates are billed at certain rates and paid the same amount by a lockstep model, it's very difficult to justify a whole entire group being not profitable potentially compared to a lot of the other practice groups within that firm.
But I think at the same time, patent prosecution is a skill that can be easily grown within the Biglaw firm and then taken to start your own company. You build relationships and then you can create your own environment and your own law firms that have more flexibility in order to support work life or support billable rates, support compensation in the same way. I think people with 5 to 10 years of experience, particularly with prosecution, because that work can be done on an individual or a couple of attorney bases for individual clients, there's potentially a lot of opportunities.
If the attorneys really like the patent prosecution work and doesn't like the culture or the structure of the firms in which that they're in, I think that's a unique area that you can hang your own shingle and be potentially very successful. In terms of patent prosecution work and in terms of, I know that a lot of your listeners often think about exit strategies out of a Biglaw practice, patent prosecution certainly is one of those areas where there is an easier path into in-house.
Because most companies nowadays, especially even brick and mortar companies, are, in a sense, tech companies you just can't avoid not doing business and not having technology involvement. A lot of companies all have not insignificant IP portfolios and a lot of the patent prosecution work, over the last 10, 20 years, has been increasingly being brought in house because it's just more cost effective that way, so there certainly is a path.
For the patent litigation folks, similar to my path, and I've talked to paths of countless peers of mine and patent attorneys, litigation attorneys for seniors to me, a lot of people have made the pivot from a law firm life to in-house, going in-house as managing outside counsel for patent pros work and then growing and expanding their skill sets in an in-house environment moving on to do advertising work, marketing work, or more transactional and contracts driven work. That fluidity and flexibility I think is more possible in-house.
I think those are my two main points specifically to patent prosecution. I'm happy to talk a little bit about my path out of law practice altogether and it was actually a really emotional situation when, in the beginning of this year, I officially submitted my bar application to be an inactive member for the first time in 10 years. If that would be helpful, I'd love to talk a little bit about that.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes, definitely. Let's talk about that because that is a conversation I've had with several people recently. I also have my bar membership as inactive but I was just interviewing some for the podcast who still keep their license active and we had a bit of a conversation about that, so yes, share away.
Ashley Chi: Yeah, sure. I was at a law firm, I spent a really short stint in-house, and then eventually took a totally different path. I have been really enjoying my work in legal recruiting. Shockingly, if you told me 10 years ago that I would become a recruiter or a salesperson, I would have knocked you over ahead and thought you were totally insane. But how I got here was really taking stock of my strengths and things I love doing versus things I didn't love doing and owning that. Rather than having a lot of negative self-talk talking about not liking the things that I was expected to do and pushing down my desire to do things I love doing, I think that was a big turning point for me.
Really owning that for me as an extrovert and a really strong extrovert spending most of my time within law firms, doing individual closed door in my office research writing and drafting, which I was very competent at, was just an energy drainer for me for my personality. I think what I was yearning for and seeking out more of was collaboration and human interaction. I took that vision.
Once I gave myself permission to own that and go after what the type of skill sets and the type of things I wanted to do more of, that's when I think this block of what am I going to do with my career really opened up for me. To go in-house was a pathway to that and really leaning out and going into recruiting was a really jumping off the deep end and really embracing the humanness and the collaboration that I was really wanting in my professional life.
I think the main piece that I say now—and I provide this advice to a lot of folks I network with and mentor with—is as lawyers, I think many of us want to have the whole solution mapped out the next five years of my life, the next 10 years of my life, the next 30 years of my life mapped out. Nobody is willing or interested, or dares to take baby steps towards something or anything until that whole solution is mapped out. I tried to do this for years. I spent probably three, four, five years within the law firm, while I was working and billing time, figuring out, building this ideal state solution.
It's not possible because you don't know where your life is going to take you. I think owning that and recognizing that is this big hurdle but the big step you have to get comfortable with. Because the second you take a couple of steps in the right direction, two things can happen: you're going to learn you love it, you're going to take two more steps forward, and you're going to have supporters. When you're excited about something, you draw people to you and you build yourself an opportunity to grow further. Or you hate it and you put that knowledge in your pocket and try a different two steps elsewhere. That's I think a lot of how career pivoters figure out something that they're really happy with. That's my biggest realization and advice I have for anybody who is looking to make a pivot either within law or outside of law practice.
I got into legal recruiting because I wanted to work with a lot of different and experienced attorneys because I have been thinking, and I continue to think, that I would love to do career coaching work at some point in my life or as part of my career. In making that little step in a somewhat established path that will give me an opportunity to explore something I was interested in, just by doing that has unlocked and opened up more curiosities and more areas of interest.
My recruiting company was acquired by Korn Ferry, which is one of the largest human capital consulting and executive recruiting firms in the world. They have a huge practice of culture change, transformation, and consulting. Getting into recruiting and talking to other lawyers has really opened up my interest in law firm culture change and putting myself in a position to potentially, in the future, grow that area of interest of mine. But if you asked me three years ago or two years ago when I was thinking about this, or five years ago when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next after law firm practice, none of this I could have possibly imagined.
Sarah Cottrell: You can't see me but I'm violently nodding in agreement with everything that you're saying because it's so true.
Ashley Chi: It’s so scary though. I want to acknowledge that it’s terrifying.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, people are listening to you and they're like, “What?”
Ashley Chi: You went to law school, you're capable, you passed the bar, you're more than capable. Trust yourself. I think that's the piece that comes down, trust yourself and know that your interests matter, and how you grow successful careers is when it aligns with who you want to be and who you are. That's the big piece. I was so busy in my entire time in law firm practice, and I think I talked about this in one of my recent blogs. I was trying to pretend to be somebody else and doing the right things according to what somebody else was saying and I never felt like me. How do you succeed if you don't feel like yourself? That's hard.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think it's just so important for people to know that you can't make decisions with information you don't have.
Ashley Chi: Oh my god. I'm violently feeling sick but also you're 100% right. That's what I'm advocating. I'm violently feeling sick even as a former lawyer.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. You really need to consider, “What do I know now and what can I do based on that information?” recognizing that you don't have now the information that you will have five steps down the road. It is so hard for lawyers but I think it's such good advice. Literally, these are conversations I have with my clients weekly because it is a huge part of the process of getting from “I don't know what I want to do. It's just not this” to actually being able to take action towards something that will be a better fit. I love all of it. Ashley, is there anything else that you would like to share before we wrap up?
Ashley Chi: Nope, but I am here and I'm pretty active on LinkedIn, always looking to connect and help work with lawyers, help lawyers, and help figure out what they're doing. You can find me on LinkedIn as Ashley Chi. I'm usually pretty active there.
Sarah Cottrell: Awesome. Thank you so much, Ashley, for having this conversation with me and sharing your story. I really appreciate it.
Ashley Chi: Absolutely. Thanks for having me on your podcast. I enjoyed it so much.
Sarah Cottrell: Have you watched my free masterclass, The Simple 5-Step Framework To Identify An Alternative Career (That You Actually Like!)? In this master class, you'll learn the proven framework that I use with all of my clients to help them identify an alternative career. You can watch the masterclass right now, just go to formerlawyer.com/masterclass, sign up, and get the link to watch. Once you've watched, message me or email me and let me know what your biggest takeaway was from the class. I would love to know.
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