Erin Wong is a diplomat. A negotiator. A business advisor. A seasoned attorney and team leader. As an intellectual property (IP) and patent counsel director at Juniper Networks, a California-based technology company known for its efficient, streamlined solutions to complex networking problems, Wong makes it her top priority to find solutions that work for everyone—the business included.
Modern Counsel recently caught up with Wong to chat about her perspectives on being an in-house counsel at a fast-growing company like Juniper.
I’d love to hear more about your path to Juniper. How did you first get into IP and patent law?
I actually studied biology in undergrad, but I took some prelaw classes as well to round out my education and found out that I had more of an affinity for the law than for science. After college, I decided to work at a law firm to see if it was something I was interested in as a career. I worked at that firm all throughout law school, first as a paralegal and then as a patent agent. I became an associate when I graduated.
I always wanted to work in-house, though, to be closer to the business, the business strategy, and the big-picture decisions. So when an opportunity came up to work at Juniper, I took it. I started as a patent attorney but have since branched out into other areas, like trademarks, copyrights, and standards. I also get to work with a lot of different teams, like the engineering team, the marketing team, and the corporate development team. Being here has really expanded my perspective.
How does that perspective help you in your work within the IP team?
Every team and every person here has a different perspective and different priorities. But I’ve learned to really appreciate different perspectives within the business because no matter what, everyone has the same goal: for Juniper to be successful.
My vision is for the IP team to be a trusted advisor to the business, to sit at the table and have an open, honest conversation with the business teams and develop credibility with them. In the legal department, we speak a lot about being a competitive advantage for the company. That means building close relationships so that people feel comfortable asking us any question, big or small. We don’t want to just be there when a team gets into hot water. We want to really be at the table for every step in the process so that we’re already part of the conversation when decisions are made.
I understand that your team has recently developed a novel patent strategy. Can you tell me more about that strategy and how it helps serve as a competitive advantage for Juniper?
Giving the best possible support to our business teams means reevaluating our strategies as we grow in size and expand into different technologies. And as Juniper grew, we realized that each technology area encompassed by the company was at a different growth stage in terms of patent portfolio and strategy. We couldn’t apply the same strategy to every one of those areas; it became much more important to treat each area as its own start-up or business and provide each area with its own individual strategy.
In doing that, we’re ensuring that Juniper is capturing the most valuable innovations, efficiently prioritizing and allocating resources for those innovations, and enabling the company’s agility within the market space.
What a wonderful concept. Can you tell me a bit more about what it means to you to enable and facilitate these kinds of ideas?
The in-house counsel role is often stereotyped: we’re seen as the team that says no or the team that blocks creative projects rather than enabling them. If we want to be trusted advisors and partners to the business, we have to debunk that stereotype and be an enabler of ideas. This means understanding the business goals and helping the business meet those goals.
It’s about finding a healthy balance between legal risk and business gain. It requires having an open dialogue so that I say yes when possible, but I can also be confident expressing when there is a risk, and then work as a team with the business to find a solution. You can gain respect when you are honest but can also help find creative workarounds to meet business goals.
What advice would you give to an up-and-coming executive working in this space?
If something seems scary, say yes. Not everyone gets offered stretch assignments—so instead of worrying about whether I have enough experience, I view it as someone’s belief in my abilities and my grit. And typically, if you’re given such assignments, you will get support from a team and advice when you need it. Say yes.
Shumaker & Sieffert, P.A.:
“Erin has that rare combination of a sharp, experienced legal mind and a talent for developing practical, business-minded solutions. It is a pleasure to work with Erin as she applies these skills to protect the IP of one of the world’s most innovative networking companies.”
–Kent Sieffert, Founder