It’s one thing to overcome adversity. That’s a job requirement routinely asked of all lawyers. But it’s something else entirely to be motivated by it.
“As an IP attorney, I frequently have access to the most technologically advanced products and services,” says IP specialist Theresa Conduah. “People are sometimes surprised to find out that growing up, I didn’t always have access to running water.”
Born in Ghana in West Africa, Conduah faced adversity merely by her place of birth. Growing up in primarily rural environments, Conduah’s family would eventually make their way to New York, but her passion for innovation and rising to every occasion was already burning inside her.
The IP lawyer’s latest challenge brought her to the burgeoning cannabis industry as VP of IP at dosist. “Someone already said it best, but I love the expression,” Conduah relates. “The current state of the cannabis industry is a lot like trying to fly a plane while building it at the same time. You have to build on what you know in the ‘normal IP world,’ but at the same time, this isn’t it. It’s kind of like the Wild West.”
Meeting Adversity Head-On
Prior to dosist, Conduah operated in a number of more traditional roles. Her initial firm work found her longing to be more than just a last-minute panicked call as outside counsel.
“It felt so much more natural for me to be part of a larger decision-making process,” Conduah explains. “I wanted to be part of the business team as opposed to the anxiety and fear that comes attached with the idea of ‘legal being called in.’” Conduah wanted to be part of the conversation from day one, not called in two years down the line to put out fires.
Unfortunately, Conduah’s early firm years would also include her greatest personal challenge. Not one, but both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer at the same time. Firm Alston Bird was supportive of the lawyer moving to North Carolina to attend to her family. Her mother’s treatment was unsuccessful, but her father managed to come out on the other side of his treatment journey.
Conduah’s mother, a holistic health and wellness nurse practitioner in Ghana, still passed on a strong legacy. Half of Conduah’s family are frontline healthcare workers. It’s a fitting tribute to a mother who sought more opportunities for her family.
Part of a Bigger Solution
It was also time for Conduah to answer her own professional call to be part of a team and go in-house. Conduah came to United Airlines to begin working for a single client for the first time. The lawyer was the first ever IP attorney at the airline and established the license and intellectual property program. In a move maybe just as important to her, Conduah widely expanded United’s pro bono program. She thus allowed attorneys to take on larger and more meaningful cases, including the countless number of undocumented workers facing expulsion from the United States.
“That was one of the things I truly loved about United,” Conduah says. “It was their support and commitment to community service—something I’m obviously passionate about, having emigrated to the United States myself.” The pro bono program would go on to receive the American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Publico Award.
Building a Different Plane
After departing from United and spending three years as managing counsel at Toyota, Conduah decided to try her hand at a much riskier proposition: the cannabis industry. “I like to say that my personality is comfortable feeling uncomfortable,” Conduah says, laughing. “What keeps me excited and motivated is trying to solve a puzzle when you’re not sure if all the pieces are even there. You may have to find a new way to solve it because this industry just doesn’t have those cookie-cutter solutions yet.”
With the burgeoning cannabis industry, it seems as though rules are being created as the industry rolls along. State and local regulations are often at odds with those at the federal level. “There are so few rules and guidelines that apply to this space, so it’s exciting to be here at this time, but it’s also scary as you go about your day-to-day,” Conduah says. It requires constant collaboration among the in-house legal team, as IP and compliance issues may fall squarely on opposite sides of the spectrum and need to be more uniformly addressed.
Even at her most challenging moments, Conduah, a yoga practitioner, stays centered with a message from her teacher that pops in her mind almost daily. “I remember she said, ‘Don’t panic and use your core,’” Conduah recalls. “You can take that literally, but I really do just try to stay calm and use the skill sets I’ve developed to move through whatever challenge I’m facing. Nothing in the technological world is ever clear-cut, so I just stay centered and move forward.”
Editor’s Note: As of November 2020, Conduah is a partner in the intellectual property practice group in the Orange County office of Haynes and Boone.