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Rhymes with Awe: Showing Up Abroad

I had the opportunity recently to interview Kathy Lynch, a lawyer with her own law practice in North Carolina. In her practice, Kathy specializes in intellectual property law, but before starting out on her own she worked for eight years as in-house counsel in Ireland for Elan, a multinational pharmaceutical company.

There were several aspects of the interview I enjoyed. Most importantly, I enjoyed hearing about her practice in intellectual property law, which is an area that I find highly engaging. Additionally, I appreciated how forthcoming she was to explain why she was hesitant to take her career abroad— also something I think about quite often.  

Kathy had several important messages to share, but the one that rang most true—and the one that I easily forget—is potentially best captured by the old Woody Allen quip: sometimes 80% of success is just showing up.

I take this to mean that you have to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. If you opt in and give it your best, the obstacles that may seem daunting at the beginning lessen as you move forward. Sometimes opportunities you think you don’t want turn out to be the best moves. I find this is particularly true when making the decision to take your career abroad.

For me, I always have to remind myself that getting on the plane and showing up in another country unlike my own is a big step unto itself, and that the plunge will reap dividends, professionally and personally, despite (and to a degree because of) the challenges.

How did you become interested in the legal profession? In practicing law?

At the time, I was working as an engineer after graduating college with a mechanical engineering degree. While I was an engineer, I found that I enjoyed the presentations and the reports that came along with the job and I was actually better at that part of the job than the engineering part.

I thought getting an MBA or attending law school so I took the GMAT and the LSAT and applied to both programs. Soon after I decided that law school was the better fit for me. Someone also said to me that with my engineering degree I should look into intellectual property law.

Tell me about your time in Ireland. How did this opportunity come about for you?

I was working in Atlanta for a boutique IP firm and had decided to not pursue a partnership track. These were the days when the “good old boys” reigned and I was looking to go in house. I was interviewing for different positions and one position was at a pharmaceutical company based in Ireland. Moving abroad didn’t excite me at the time, so I turned down that job and went in-house at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

A few years later, I was recruited by Elan and I accepted because the position allowed me to work locally in Atlanta. Six months into my job, however, my boss said, “we really, really want you to move to Ireland.” The idea was that I could spend just a couple of years working at the corporate headquarters to get a better sense of the business. I agreed to move there on the condition that it would really be no more than two years.

Six months after moving to Ireland, I met my husband. Two years turned into eight. As I got more involved with my job, I had opportunities to travel throughout Europe and the Middle East. Eight years didn’t seem like a long time at all.

In what ways did you feel like you were accomplishing your career goals while you were in Ireland?

Professionally, being asked by the president of my division to come and be the IP counsel in the corporate office was a boost to my confidence and an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up. By coming to the corporate headquarters when the company’s IP lawyers were normally located in the US, I had the opportunity to be involved with the company in unique ways.

For example, I worked closely with our Irish legal group and they were involved with mergers, acquisitions, and licensing, so, because I was there, I was designated as the lead attorney dealing with legal issues in the US. I was sent throughout Europe to collaborate with other companies as well. Being physically there allows you to be the go-to person.

Do you feel like your international experience helps you with your practice now? 

Yes, right now I have a client who is considering a licensing agreement in Singapore. So, in dealing with other attorneys and laws, I feel prepared and able to advise my clients.

It can be difficult to try and master two legal systems – the US and another country. Did you ever feel challenged or burdened by this?

No, because I never wanted to be a solicitor in another country. My expertise is that I have worked as an American attorney overseas. I was able to advise my company on US law and to look at things from a US legal perspective.

What was the best part of this experience for you?

The best part of not working at a firm is not keeping up with billable hours! For me, the most rewarding part of being in-house counsel is providing a broad scope of input. You feel like you are working with a team of professionals where you’re advising and raising issues that may not have otherwise been examined had you not a part of that team. In a law firm, you sometimes work with blinders on while thinking that may or may not impact specific tasks you’ve been asked to do. In-house, you’re exposed to many issues.

What advice would you give to women who seek a similar career path?

I would suggest looking at larger companies or multinational companies that have offices overseas. Today, legal recruiters often have opportunities for people looking overseas.

What advice would you give to women hoping to enter the legal field in general?

Believe in yourself, set your goals, don’t try and change who you are, support other women, and keep moving forward. The legal profession for women has improved in my estimation, however it has not improved enough. There are not enough partners and general counsels who are women. We need to press that agenda.

Kathy Lynch is an attorney based in Cary, North Carolina. She also maintains a blog dedicated to developments in intellectual property. 

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