Jeff Tang jokingly refers to himself as the black sheep of what he calls his “traditional Asian family.”
The Potomac, Maryland-native’s parents were “super-focused” on education, he says. He and his older sisters were sent to different private schools—they attended an all-girls school while he went to an all-boys school. One sister became a doctor and chief medical officer of a hospital system, and the other is a lawyer and an appellate court judge in Maryland. Their brother’s path seemed clear, as far as his parents were concerned: engineer.
Although engineering was not his first choice, Tang grew up to appreciate it later on in life. After all, going through engineering coursework paled in comparison to what his parents went through. “They came to this country in the 1970s with very little,” Tang says, adding he was inspired by their work ethic. “They are self-made. They owned businesses, among them one of the most famous and best-reviewed Chinese restaurants in the DC area, and invested in real estate. Their sacrifices taught me and my sisters the value of working tirelessly until the job is done.”
His parents’ entrepreneurial spirit fostered an interest in start-up culture, which culminated in his current role as senior counsel of intellectual property at Circle, a global financial technology company that will celebrates its tenth anniversary in October 2023.
Tang leads and sets the strategy on all aspects of intellectual property litigation. “I like helping the business solve problems,” he says. “IP is a backstage pass to everything because there is always an IP element involved in any business. What I like best about my job is educating management on what IP is and how they can use it to their advantage.”
Tang has had an unconventional career path, even though “one step leads to the other,” he says. He came to IP from mechanical engineering. “I always wanted to work with cars,” he says. “As an undergrad at the University of Maryland, I was in a competition where you build a race car from scratch and compete against other universities. That piqued my interest in technology. During college, Tang completed an internship at the US Patent and Trademark Office, which led to a full-time position.
Upon college graduation, Tang worked at a patent examining car doors, windows, and engines until he went to law school to become a patent attorney. “Through an internship with IBM, I learned more about different technologies, such as artificial intelligence, and it kept compounding after that,” he reflects.
Tang credits IBM with teaching him all about IP. He supported the flagship research department in Yorktown Heights, where he was exposed to a myriad of different issues and technologies. “It’s the top place you can learn intellectual property from,” he adds. “Any issue I’ve seen in subsequent companies for whom I worked I dealt with first at IBM.”
He leveraged this experience to lead IP and negotiate data licenses at global broker ICAP. Eventually, he landed BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, where he negotiated a wide range of strategic agreements and helped create the IP program. However, working for large publicly traded companies ultimately didn’t appeal to Tang, who is now thriving in a fast-paced, start-up environment.
“Being at a start-up that focuses on technology is really exciting to me. I have a front-row seat to building something,” he says. “You have ownership and autonomy to steer the direction of where you want to put the program. There are no bureaucracy layers; I prefer the agility and speed at which start-up culture moves.”
Tang currently sets IP strategy covering everything from patents, trademarks, and copyrights to trade secrets and open-source software. He also works with his team to manage license agreements and defend against IP infringement. This work helps ensure Circle’s freedom to operate in Web3’s nascent and ever-evolving field.
This technology is part of what drew Tang to Circle. “It’s a new field, a new technology and that comes with new legal issues,” he says. “The way we look at copyright and how we want to protect our innovations have changed over the past year. We’re helping write precedent in this space.”
Buying into Circle’s corporate mission is how Tang stays motivated and engaged. “There are a lot of crypto companies out there, but they are not as principled,” he states. “Circle is very transparent in trying to do things the right way.”
He also admires Circle’s shared belief in work-life balance. He recalls a former mentor telling him that there are three things in life: health, family and career. “If you don’t have the first two, everything falls apart,” Tang reflects. “The career takes a back seat to the rest of your life. Circle’s culture is very inclusive in that sense and very accommodating.”
Tang has been married for a decade and has an eight-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. Since moving to California to join Circle, his family has enjoyed the nice weather and the outdoor activities the area has to offer.
An overarching theme to his career, he says, is gratitude; gratitude for parents and gratitude for his wife, who supported his decision to spend the pandemic attending Cornell University to earn his MBA. “To be a successful intellectual property attorney is the intersection of three things: technology, law, and business,” he explains. “I have the law and technology background, but the MBA gave me the fundamental understanding of business and my client’s perspectives. It’s helped me give more effective advice to senior leaders.”
His advice for younger colleagues? “Doing well and working hard is table stakes. You also have to do the work to put special sauce on your résumé,” Tang says. “Certifications, being published—anything that makes you stand out from the field.”
“Patterson + Sheridan LLP represents Circle Internet Financial in intellectual property matters and works closely with Jeff. In his short time at Circle, Jeff has made significant improvements to their IP practice.”
—Bruce Patterson, Partner